In a recent post, I shared insights from the book of Jeremiah about how to Transform Cities. Cities are amazing hubs of cultural influence. Today I’d like to address the issue of capturing a dream for your city.
There’s perhaps no greater example of capturing a dream for a city than that of Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s story is captured more than 130 years after Jerusalem is destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to a Artaxerxes, the king over the Persian Empire. From Nehemiah’s life, we learn four important lessons about capturing and pursuing a dream for a city.
1. Discover the Needs of the City
Nehemiah began by asking his brother Hanani two things. First, he wanted to know how the thousands of Jews who returned to Jerusalem were doing. Second, he wanted to know about the condition of the city. This is what Hanani and his men said to Nehemiah.
They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3)
For a city’s walls and gates to be destroyed meant that the city was open to ridicule and attack. The need was clear, but Nehemiah didn’t stop there.
2. Feel the Weight of the Need
Verse four records Nehemiah’s response to the need: “When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.” The reason Nehemiah was so broken over his city was because he, along with all of the Jews, truly loved Jerusalem. Psalm 84:5 says, “What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord, who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”
When you love something or someone, you are broken when it is broken. It’s not the needs of the city that birth a dream in your heart, but rather the needs of the city that break you. You may be broken when you see:
- The needs of the homeless or the poor
- The needs of children in at risk situations
- The needs of the terminally ill
- The needs of immigrants
- The needs of young girls trapped in the sex trade
- The needs of fatherless boys and girls
- The needs of the hungry
Some people are broken by the need of, but others are broken by the need for. Perhaps you’re broken by:
- The need for beauty and art
- The need for inspiring film
- The need for impactful education
- The need for creative music
- The need for sexual wholeness
- The need for thriving marriages
The Gospel means “good news.” What would good news look like for the children in your city, the poor in your city, the abused, abandoned, and broken in your city? What would good news look like for business leaders, educators, artists, and families in your city. Catherine Roar had to answer the “good news” question when she came face-to-face with prisoners in a Texas State prison.
Catherine was a successful investor on Wall Street when a friend invited her to tour a prison in Texas. As she entered this new domain, she saw unlimited possibilities in the men behind bars. “Good news” for these men would be for someone to show them how to leverage their entrepreneurial skills for creating businesses rather than dealing drugs.
Not short on initiative or entrepreneurship, Catherine launched a business plan competition in the prison. To her surprise, 55 men enrolled. She recruited 15 business leaders to mentor these prisoners and the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) was born. Nine months later the first group of students graduated. Since 2004, the results of PEP have been staggering:
- 800 inmates have graduated the program
- The average graduate of PEP finds a job within 20 days of leaving prison. Every graduate, 100%, finds a job within 90 days.
- Less than 7% of PEP graduates return to prison, saving the state of Texas $40,000 per graduate and generating an average of $7,000 per graduate in taxes.
- Over 120 businesses have been started by PEP graduates
- Over 680 executives have volunteered with the program
What did Catherine do? She didn’t just see a need. She felt the weight of the need and it mobilized her to take action. The question isn’t, “What needs does your city have, but what needs in your city break your heart?” God wants to put a dream in your heart to meet those needs.
3. Pray for the City and Your Response
Nehemiah was broken over two needs in Jerusalem: The need for spiritual renewal and the need for its walls and gates to be rebuilt. Because of his brokenness, he prayed a prayer of repentance.
Then I said, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. “Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ “The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.” (Nehemiah 1:5-11b)
Here’s what’s interesting. Nehemiah didn’t just weep, fast, and pray for a few minutes and then go on his way. The weight of Jerusalem’s need, and Nehemiah’s posture toward prayer, lasted for four months. The prayer we read in the first chapter of Nehemiah is probably a summary of Nehemiah’s prayers over a four month period of time.
The more Nehemiah prayed, the heavier his heart became. Hearing the news of Jerusalem wasn’t just a single moment of sadness. Nehemiah’s heart was growing more and more consumed with a dream to see something done about it.
4. Leverage Your Influence, in the Face of Fear, to Meet the Need
After extensive prayer, Nehemiah came to a defining moment where he prayed for favor with the king. Nehemiah 1:11b,c says, “‘… Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.’ In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.”
Being a cupbearer was a unique position. Cupbearers chose the king’s wine and tasted it to ensure it wasn’t poisoned. It’s a great gig, unless, of course, you actually drank poisoned wine. Furthermore, because cupbearers were in close proximity to the king, some commentators believe they were expected to provide counsel and conversation, granting them a certain level of influence with the king.
Here’s an important side note: God gave influence to you so that he could fulfill his purpose through you. Influence is something you steward. It does not belong to you. It has been entrusted to you for a purpose that’s bigger than you. So what does Nehemiah do with his influence?
Early the following spring, in the month of Nisan, during the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was serving the king his wine. I had never before appeared sad in his presence. 2 So the king asked me, “Why are you looking so sad? You don’t look sick to me. You must be deeply troubled.” Then I was terrified… (Nehemiah 2:1-2)
Why would Nehemiah be terrified? For two reasons:
- First, because cupbearers were expected to be cheerful in the king’s company. They weren’t allowed to bring personal matters of trouble to work with them. Doing so could be interpreted as disrespect or worse, evidence of a conspiracy against the king.
- Second, because at one point King Artaxerxes (Ezra 4) had actually commanded the rebuilding of Jerusalem to stop. Can you imagine what Nehemiah was thinking (and what King Artaxerxes was thinking) when Nehemiah seeks permission to return to his city to rebuild the walls? And he didn’t stop there…he ask for King Artaxerxes’ help.
Yet despite his overwhelming fear, Nehemiah spoke boldly:
…“Long live the king! How can I not be sad? For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” The king asked, “Well, how can I help you?” With a prayer to the God of heaven, I replied, “If it please the king, and if you are pleased with me, your servant, send me to Judah to rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.” The king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked, “How long will you be gone? When will you return?” After I told him how long I would be gone, the king agreed to my request. (Nehemiah 2:3-6)
From Nehemiah’s interaction we glean an important truth: The day comes when every dream has to get out of bed, look fear in the face, and get dressed for battle. That day came when Nehemiah spoke courageously, yet respectfully, to the king. He crossed the threshold from dreaming to doing. And when during those four months when Nehemiah was praying, he also came up with a plan. Dreams are imagined in prayer but implemented through planning. We know Nehemiah planned because of the request he made of the king:
I also said to the king, “If it please the king, let me have letters addressed to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, instructing them to let me travel safely through their territories on my way to Judah. 8 And please give me a letter addressed to Asaph, the manager of the king’s forest, instructing him to give me timber. I will need it to make beams for the gates of the Temple fortress, for the city walls, and for a house for myself.” And the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me. (Nehemiah 2:7-8)
How could a cupbearer find such favor for his dream and his plans? Because they weren’t his dreams or his plans. Verse 8 says: “And the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me.” If you want a plan to be blessed by God, then find the plan God is already blessing and be a part of it. God does not give us God-sized dreams so they can be fulfilled with man-sized methods. You can only fulfill a dream from God with God.
How do you capture a dream for your city? You discover its needs, feel the weight of the needs, and about your response to those needs. Then you scoop up all the courage you can muster and leverage your influence to act.
Question: What dream does God want to deposit in your heart for your city?