Why my church turning 50 reminded me of Nehemiah.

This weekend my church here in Sapporo had it’s 50 year anniversary.

We had a pretty epic time celebrating.

Two days. Many, many meals. A lot of worship. Some awesome times of prayer. Performances by the church handbell team, hula team, choir, kids, dance team, international team etc etc etc… You name it, we might well have performed it.

It was busy. It was joyful. It was family.

I sang. Laughed. Cried. Prayed. Rejoiced in my church’s history. Got excited for my church’s vision.

And the story that came to mind as I have been thinking about my church’s history and future over these last few days, is that of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah.

As in, the guy in the Bible who rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days.

I love, love, LOVE, this story, and I’m going to paraphrase it big style, but we’re in the time period after the exile. The Israelite people are living in a foreign land, subject to the rule of foreign men, and they are there because of their own sin as a nation.

Idolatry and injustice.

Forsaking Yahweh for other gods, and forsaking the justice of their own people.
Not loving the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind, and not loving their neighbour.
They have seen their country and their nation destroyed, desecrated and murdered. There is very little hope. Things seem pretty dark and pretty bleak. The walls of Jerusalem being broken down seems pretty metaphorical to the state of hopelessness in the nation.

And Nehemiah feels it. Deep inside. Deep in his heart.

Our story begins with his prayer. His grief. His repentence. His pleading with God to make a way where there seems to be none. And his grief is such that the foreign King (Nehemiah’s boss) notices. It is apparent in every fibre of his being. Not a sadness without purpose or a type of self-pity, but a longing for the redemption of God and the restoration of the people. And God moves the King’s heart to allow Nehemiah to return to his own land. To rebuild the walls. The gracious hand of God provides for his needs, and Nehemiah begins to explore the vision that God has put on his heart.

The desire to rebuild. To restore.

And the rest of the book is this incredible story of a man faithful in the small things, that lead to the big things.
Against total opposition.
Against the half-heartedness of the people.
Against threat.
Against injust practices.
Against the apparent unlikeliness in all human terms.
Against all odds.

Nehemiah leads the people to rebuild the walls. All the walls are rebuilt. Every single one. Restored. Repaired. Granted success by the God of heaven.

Nehemiah doesn’t do all the work himself, but he motivates those around him to take their place. He reestablishes justice by providing for the poor. He stands strong against intimidation. He sees the exiles return. He sees a national return to Yahweh, free from idolatrous practices. He leads a great precedent of worship to God.

And I’ve been thinking about the vision that God gives. About the vision that has inspired my church these last decades.

And about how I’d like it to be all easy, and ‘perfect’, and fall into my lap. I’ve love for it to have the approval of everyone around me, and to never be difficult. I’d adore a situation in which there was no need to fight for anything and where everything would happen in my super-quick timing.

But then I’ve been thinking about the vision that God gives. And I’ve been thinking about Nehemiah.
Because the hand of the Lord was ON him.
We are told that in the first two chapters.

But yet… The journey was not easy, and didn’t seem perfect, and it definitely didn’t fall into his lap. It didn’t have the approval of everyone around him. At times, it had the approval of no one. It was difficult. There was the need to fight and to keep on fighting. It took time. God’s perfect time. It’s been the same for my church I think. This journey of God’s movement and beauty and grace, but yet at times hard, and at times needing the perseverance of those clinging to the message God had given.

Knowing the end of the story is a beautiful thing.
We have no doubt that Nehemiah has heard from God and that the walls will be rebuilt… Because… well, we skip to chapter 12 and see the celebratory worship service.

But I wonder how Nehemiah felt when he arrived in Jerusalem and found things in person to be so much greater a task than he had anticipated? I wonder if Nehemiah doubted he had heard from God when people were threatening to kill him for his vision? I wonder whether Nehemiah felt a bit out on a limb when the rest of the returning exiles were exploiting the poor and no one had his back? I wonder…

Because I would love to get a God-perspective on my life sometimes. You know? I know He’s given me a vision, I know the hand of God is upon me… But then the opposition comes and I wonder. Or the pain kicks in and I doubt. Or things start to get more difficult than I had prepared for and I want to run back to the comfort of the Persian palace.

And when I think about my church, I’m glad it’s the testimony of people who fought to keep their vision alive. Despite obstacles. Despite opposition. They fought to love God and love people. And they are still passionate about doing so.

There’s a Biblical fiction book by Tessa Afshar about this time period of the return from exile. It involves a fictional quote from Nehemiah, which I thought was pretty apt, and so I’m going to finish with this:

Nehemiah rolled up a parchment and tapped its end against his palm. “Because I believe I was called to this. What do you think destiny is? A smooth path that never jostles you? No. When you walk in your destiny, you will crash and fall more times than you can count. But the secret is to hold on to God’s vision for your life—and for the lives of those He puts under your charge. No matter how many times you fall, crash, and fail, you get up. You get up and face your obstacles.”

Walking in your calling isn’t always easy. Nor is it often smooth. Nor is it free from obstacles. And I’m learning that it involves trying and falling and failing and having to repent and let God pick you up and restore your vision.

But we run this race with others. And we run towards this vision with family. And that? That is a beautiful thing.

Let the ruined walls come to life.

And because I was singing over the last few days I didn’t have much opportunity to take pictures! So here’s me enjoying a tea date with my best friend and housemate before she headed off on a trip to Australia last week.

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