One step forward, two steps back...

“Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from surrounding nations” (Nehemiah 5:17).

My husband I recently headed out with our kids and another family to paddle to an island we love. Our friends had never been, and they enjoy the great outdoors as much as we do. As we drove our paddle boards out to the boat launch, the wind started whipping up. As we got out of the truck and approached the water, the waves seemed mighty choppy. I began to get concerned that it might be too rough for us to head out. 

Paddling out to Zeke’s Island was easy enough. The wind was at our back, pushing us along. Returning was quite a different story. Every time I rowed on one side of the paddle board against the waves, I’d make a little progress, just to be pushed right back when I switched the oar to paddle on the other side. Several times I had to pause paddling for just a moment to adjust my ankle leash or life jacket. At those times, I was pushed so far back that it seemed all my progress was wiped out. 

Nehemiah must have felt like this. He got help from the king, provisions, good favor from leaders, participation from workers. One step forward. However, at every good turn, obstacles come that seem to erase his progress. In chapter 5, he’s now faced with “a great outcry (vs. 1),” complaints and charges of injustice being hailed by some of his people against others of his people. It’s all enough to make him “very angry” (vs. 6). Two steps back.

How does Nehemiah handle the setbacks? A few of my observations:

Nehemiah hears the charges, "ponders them," and allows himself to experience emotion alongside those airing the complaints (vs. 6-7). He feels "very angry" at the injustices his people are experiencing. He follows up by addressing the wrongdoing. He "accuses the nobles and officials" and calls people to turn from cheating and to correct their misdeeds (vs. 9-11). He also asks the priests to promise they will abide by equitable and just practices moving forward (vs. 12-13).

These are all noteworthy steps to take in the face of injustice, steps we should follow today in the midst of the protests and public outcry we are experiencing as a nation. Yet they are not my point. 

My point is tucked away at the end of the chapter. “Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from surrounding nations” (vs. 17). Despite the hardships, perhaps because of them, Nehemiah offers hospitality and generosity. He is bringing people to the table, diverse people, outsiders from other places. He is feeding folks — not just a regular meal — but ox and sheep, poultry, and a variety of wines. "Every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds" is part of the feast, in fact. 

You see, Nehemiah doesn't hunker down, tighten up the straps and take care of his own in the face of obstacles. Instead, he reaches out and uses his own resources to bless others. He knows people need play and fun to balance out all the hard and difficult. People gain strength as they gather. So, Nehemiah embraces challenging circumstances as an opportunity to share a meal, and -- heck, maybe even to host a party -- every night! As he offers food and fellowship to others, they are refreshed, and the cause moves forward.

As I was forced back in the wind and waves, the presence of my family and friends, ahead of me and behind, their laughter and cheers -- that is what kept me moving forward. 

God, it often feels like I'm fighting an uphill battle, and I keep losing the gains I've made. Please keep me looking to you in these times. Help me to seek out and create times of fun and fellowship to gain strength for the road ahead. Help me use the resources you've given me to bring others along in fun and refreshment as well. Thank you.

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