LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

Sonlight, the college vocal group I traveled with from 1981-83, was lost in New York City after dark. The passenger van was vibrating so badly that it felt like it might come apart. We stopped, and I crawled underneath to check the driveshaft, but without a flashlight, I could not see anything. I got back in the van, and one of the other guys figured out we were in Harlem and needed to make a few more turns to reach the expressway and head north to our hotel. We rounded a corner and saw a man lying in the street, suffering from a gunshot. No police cars yet. “We gotta get out of here!” we said. One more turn and we were on the expressway. Less than a mile later, the driveshaft let go with a loud BANG, and we were stranded.

That event sticks in my mind not only because of the location and time but mostly for the way our leader, First Baptist Church of Atlanta Worship Ministry Director, John V. Glover, handled the situation. Without losing his cool, he loaded all 12 kids into the equipment van and gave directions to the hotel. Then he began whistling as he stuck out his thumb. He’s whistling! I thought. He is not shouting, or cussing, or blaming anyone. He’s whistling. The fact that he did not seem worried helped the rest of us not to. Then a big two-tone Cadillac coupe pulled over, and a huge guy with a gray beard offered him a ride. I thought, “That’s it. The Mafia’s got Johnny, and we are never going to get out of here.”

My friend, Johnny, produced and directed the Atlanta Passion Play that ran for 35 years and played to over one million patrons. He has led choral groups for 60 years, produced and conducted more musicals than I can count, and mentored hundreds of young men and women into life and ministry. Via Facebook, his family helped us celebrate his 80th birthday this week with memories and gratitude for all he meant to us. He did it with legendary energy and positivity, but the leadership principles he taught us will be most valuable to you. Former FBCA Orchestra Director John Gage summed them up.

– It is more important to develop your spiritual life than it is to build your vocational/ministry life.

– Excellence is always critical and worth the time and effort.

– Collaboration is better than trying to do it all yourself.

– Trust those you hire, but help them develop as well, and they will become a valuable asset to your ministry.

– Give guidance but get out of the way and let your employees take responsibility for their areas of expertise.

– Pray first.

– Be creative but not at the expense of comprehension.

– Love your staff and let them know you love them by investing time in them.

– Family is more important than work.

– Always allow your boss to make the final decision after stating your case.

Johnny’s impact on me is immeasurable. I learned to trust God in impossible situations when he showed up the next day after spending all night in a truck stop getting our van fixed.  I courted my wife of 36 years backstage in the Civic Center during the Passion Play, and three years later, he performed the ceremony. I received the confirmation of my call to ministry in response to a challenge he gave Sonlight on the way home from a Jamaica trip. I memorized Romans 6 on that same trip because he challenged us to do it, and I still teach young men facing temptation to do it today. I learned to speak to churches on those Sonlight trips and what to do when the accompaniment tape breaks. And I participated as he took a few professional musicians and hundreds of average singers and molded us into a powerful community of praise. The list could go on, but most of all, Johnny became one of three key men God put in my life as mentors in those days to replace the father I lost when I was fifteen. I will never stop being grateful for him. So, Happy Birthday, Johnny! And here’s to another 80!

WE ARE CAESAR: Christians and Politics in 2020

WE ARE CAESAR: Christians and Politics in 2020

A national election looms, and the contrasts between the candidates and their platforms could not be more distinct. How should we choose? Do the life and teaching of Jesus give us any guidelines?

Yes! Jesus faced a hotly contested political issue. His epic reply was: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.” (See Matthew 22:15-22). The story behind the quote is rife with political tensions that make ours seem mild.

The Story

Judea became a Roman Province in 6 AD after the failed tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus. After the census, the Romans levied a head tax on top of the property tax customs tax. Judas of Galilee led a revolt over it. The debate that raged at the time was whether a good Jew should pay the fee.

We can paraphrase the question to Jesus like this: “Can we pay taxes to Caesar and still give allegiance to God? Are we traitors to God for supporting this pagan leader’s rule over His land?”

The question was a trap. If Jesus rejected the head tax, he was liable to Caesar’s court. If he supported the tax, the Zealots—a violent political movement—would turn on him.

Every resident of Palestine knew someone, a brother, a father, a cousin, a neighbor, whom the Romans had victimized. They were sold into slavery, forced off their land, or executed for speaking out against oppression.

Moreover, the Messiah, like the judges of old, was expected to depose tyrants and enforce justice. Would Jesus measure up?

Jesus turned the tables and set a trap of his own. “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” He said.

They paid it with a Tiberian denarius, propaganda disguised as currency. One side had a profile of the emperor and a superscription that read: TI CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS AUGUSTUS (Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus). The other side had a picture of a woman seated on a throne holding an inverted spear in her right hand and a palm branch in the left. The superscription read “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” (High Priest). The Jews saw it as a portable idol promoting a pagan religion and hated it. So it was funny to watch the questioner dig around to find one, and then realize with embarrassment that all the Jews in the courtyard were frowning at the fact that he would have it on his person.

When he handed it over, Jesus nailed them with three piercing facts. The meaning of his reply runs something like this.

“Hypocrites!” He said. “Since you don’t seem to have any problem doing business with Caesar’s coins, you had better pay his taxes. Second, as much as you pretend to be offended by Caesar’s claims on deity, you have no qualms about bringing this pagan symbol into God’s holy temple. And third, by holding his coin, you already pay tribute to him, let Caesar have his idols.”

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, namely the thing that bears his image and name. But give to God also what bears his image and name – yourself.”God made us in his image. God saved us and called us his own. We owe him our entire being. Jesus is saying, “Caesar owns your money. God owns you. Don’t confuse the two.”

The Principle

The principle is this: Get your allegiances right, and your obligations will come clear. Render to the government what you owe to the government, and to God what you owe to God.

How does this story guide us today? To answer that question, we have to recognize the differences between our government and theirs. Our political systems are completely different. Thus our obligations are different.

Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a conquered country occupied by hostile troops and governed by foreigners. They had no vote or representation in government; they faced imprisonment, slavery, or death for protesting, and had no power short of open rebellion.

Thankfully, our system of government is different. We have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to vote, and freedom to sue the government for justice. We also have the freedom to live and do business publicly as our religious conscious requires. We have not only the right but also the obligation to participate in government at every level. ‘We, the people’, are Caesar. But just as it was in those days, so it is today, Caesar isn’t Lord. God is. ‘We the people’ – in the form of the legislature, the courts or the executive branch – might make a law or ruling that runs contrary to the will of God. Because Christians have the option, we also must promote government for the common good and oppose or change those laws and rulings that are opposed to the common good. That is our obligation to Caesar.

Applying the Principle

To apply the principle, we need to think about both sides of the political equation: our allegiances and our obligations.

The Christian’s first allegiance is to the gospel. Our primary mission is the proclamation of the gospel, which alone can change the heart of a nation. Thus, we need to be wary about aligning ourselves with a particular individual or party.

Our allegiance to God, who commanded us to ‘love your neighbor’ motivates us to work for the good of all our neighbors, not just the advancement of our religion. Therefore, Christians must be impartial advocates of truth, no matter the political consequences.

What are God’s values concerning the political issues of the day, and what is our obligation as participants in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Abortion – God is the creator of life. Children in the womb are the most defenseless. Isa 1:17 says: Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (NIV) Christians should vote for the people who will do the best job of defending the unborn.[1]

Marriage – God established the moral order for the world he created. If we abide by it, things go well. If we abandon it, we can expect trouble. Christians should vote for people who will honor God by maintaining the traditional definition of marriage.

Religious Freedom & Freedom of Speech – Jesus commanded: “Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Religious freedom and freedom of speech are the two most important founding principles of America. Religious freedom is broader than the so-called freedom of worship. And freedom of speech is central to our ability to function as a civil society. Christians should vote for officials who will protect religious freedom and freedom of expression.

Economics

Jesus was clear about our obligations to the poor. But scripture also teaches, “He that will not work, should not eat,” and that all men should be responsible for providing for their families. No fair-minded person could look at the multitude of social services offered in this country and conclude that our government isn’t caring for the poor. Yet welfare fraud totaled $99.1 billion in fiscal year 2019. Christians should vote for officials who will do a better job of managing that system and reign in the abuses.

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” As we consider our civic responsibilities, let’s get our allegiances right, and our obligations will become clear.

[1] Biden’s VP Choice Expected, World News 8/11/2020.

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?” the sweaty, African American man said as he handed back the glass Mom had given him.

“Whut,”? I asked.

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?”

“Momma, I cain’t unnerstan this man. Whuts he wont?”

“He wants more water, honey. It’s awfully hot outside. Here, give me the glass.” She refilled it and handed it back to the man who walked into our backyard every week, dumped our garbage cans into his large metal one, slung it on his shoulder, and hauled it back to the county truck at our curb.

I was about eight years old, and the only black men I met were the ones that collected the trash or trimmed the hedge across the street from my grandma’s house. I had no idea of the life these men led or of the events swirling through our country in 1968. But the Civil Rights movement was about to make itself known in powerfully negative terms in my small southern world. By the time I reached eighth grade in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, racial gang fights were regular events. And dodging them was an art form for this pudgy 13-year-old.

I did not understand the roots of the anger in my black classmates. All I knew was I felt like I was paying for something I hadn’t done and over which I had no control, and I was angry. Little did I know that they felt the same way. And as a people, they’d had enough of it.

About the same time that I was waking up to racism, future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was coming to terms with his anger about the injustice. In the new documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, we learn how this coastal Georgia, Gullah-Geechee speaking boy, grew up from poverty to become one of the youngest men ever appointed to the bench. And how the once-radical leftist became a bastion of conservative jurisprudence.

Schooled by his grandfather’s fierce work-ethic—“Old man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him,”—and Irish Catholic nuns sympathetic to racial oppression, Thomas was bound for the priesthood. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a white seminary classmate’s comment, “I hope he’s dead,” unleashed a fury in Thomas that drove him from the ministry and into the arms of campus Marxist revolutionaries in Boston. “I’m angry with my grandfather. I’m angry with the Church. If it’s a warm day, I’m angry. If it’s a cold day, I’m angry. I’m just angry. I’m angry. I’m sort of flying, lashing out at every single thing. Nothing is right.”

But a night of violence with campus radicals shook him to his core and drove him back to the Church where he asked God, “If you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again. Anger and hate,” he says, “are just other forms of slavery. Other people are controlling you.”

He would need that resolve when leftist ideologues tried to torpedo his nomination with bogus sexual assault charges during confirmation hearings. “We know exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed,” he says in the film. Thomas’s humanity, faith, and courage are reminiscent of Jacky Robinson’s in the movie 42 as he withstands without rancor the vicious assault on his character that he termed “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Watching his story unfold helped me better understand mine and strengthened me for the cultural battles we face today.

Black history month has come and gone, and the film is no longer playing in theaters. But it will be air on PBS in May, and no doubt be available soon on DVD and streaming services. In these culturally confusing, racially tense times, it goes down like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.

PREPARING TO LEAD

He was a man of great talent and vision who had served the Church well for many years. Then he became a best-selling author. Encouraged by his success, he decided that he knew how to solve the problems of Africa. He moved his entire family there with a grand vision. Three years later, he was back in the States, retired from active ministry, his dream dead in the African desert. He had failed to plan for the realities ahead, counting instead on his passion, vision, and skill for success.

I was an admirer. Having learned a great deal from his books and conferences, I was surprised he would make that kind of mistake. The reason I was surprised was Dr. John Harbaugh.

Dr. Harbaugh was one of the best professors at the Georgia State University College of Business Administration in the 1980’s. Every class he offered that fit my schedule, I took. He’d spent 30 years in executive management for Fortune 500 firms and knew his stuff. The greatest lesson I learned from him was: Leaders don’t presume they prepare.

About twenty-five years later, in a study through the Old Testament, I learned that Nehemiah knew this long before Dr. Harbaugh.[1] Nehemiah had one shot at his presentation to King Artaxerxes to authorize his mission to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem. He had to get he would need, convince Artaxerxes that this wasn’t some half-cocked idea, in one brief conversation.

The Small Business Administration states that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years and, 66% during the first 10. Most new businesses don’t make it. The reason? Incomplete preparation, unclear goals, unrealistic objectives.

Nehemiah had a clear goal, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He presented a complete plan, specific objectives to meet that goal. He gave the king the time frame, listed the authorizations he would need, and secured the logistical support all in one brief meeting.

In the late 1940s, Billy Graham saw a need for something that would unify, equip, and represent evangelicals in the intellectual arena. He began praying and listening to pastors, professors, business leaders, and mentors. Then one night, in 1953, he woke with an idea racing through his mind. “Trying not to disturb Ruth, I slipped out of bed and into my study to write. A couple of hours later, the concept of a new magazine was complete. I thought its name should be Christianity Today. I worked out descriptions of the various departments, editorial policies, even an estimated budget. I wrote everything I could think of, both about the magazine’s organization and about its purpose.”[2] Christianity Today is now the most widely read and respected religious magazine in the world. Billy reviewed the first copy in 1956. From dream to plan to reality took six years.

There is such a thing as planning too much and depending on plans rather than God. But for the most part, failing to plan is planning to fail. Leaders don’t presume they prepare. They do their homework, cover all the bases possible, then move out in faith.

[1] See Nehemiah 2:1-9

[2] Harold Myra and Bruce Shelley; The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham; pg. 209-210.

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

In the last eleven months I’ve traveled over forty thousand miles to meet three of the most remarkable men of faith you’ve never heard of. These men, with the unfailing support of their wives and co-workers, lead some of the largest church planting networks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For their security and the safety of the people in their ministries they will remain anonymous, but I can assure you they are quite real.

Luke wrote of Barnabas, “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”[1] These men fit that description, indeed go beyond it. They are small “a” apostolic leaders. While they do not speak with the authority of Paul or Peter, they are men whose gifting, vision, faith, and energy enable them, like the late Billy Graham or Bill Bright, to bring others together to accomplish amazing expansion of the church in difficult parts of the world.

As I recovered from my last bout of jet-lag, my mind began cataloging the common threads woven into each man’s persona, seven signs of great faith. Perhaps they will encourage you as much as they have encouraged me.

First, they are full of cheerful positivity and optimism. All three men had powerful encounters with Christ at an early age, one as young as six. Now in their sixties, they have experienced enough loss to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Yet they remain confident that God has yet more amazing things to do in their ministries.

Second, they are willing to sacrifice personal comfort. All three are successful professionals who could have had trouble-free, upper middle-class lives. But they chose to take on ministries that grew exponentially and now consume most of their waking hours as well as put them at great personal risk with their governments.

Third, all have experienced deep personal brokenness of one kind or another yet continue to trust and walk with God. One, whose childhood friend and fellow minister was murdered by an Islamic regime, experienced a break in his relationship with God. “It was as if my prayers were turning to ice blocks and falling on my head.” When he asked why the Lord replied, “You must forgive the murderers.”

“I shouted and screamed at God for what seemed like hours,” he said. Finally, he said, “I can’t Lord. I can’t! I don’t have it in me to forgive them. I want you to judge them!”

“I know you can’t. Ask me and I will help you,” said the Lord.

“It was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” he said. “But the moment I spoke the word I was set free.”

Fourth, all of them are relentless in “seeking first the kingdom,” in their spheres of influence. They are bold, headstrong men, impatient with limits and excuses. But they are also humble and sensitive to the Spirit, willing to receive counsel from others as dedicated as themselves.

Fifth, they are innovators in their professions and carry that spirit into their ministries. If something isn’t working, they aren’t afraid to cut it and start something that will. If an opportunity appears on the horizon, they have the vision and courage to risk big resources to pursue it.

Sixth, they deeply love their countries and want nothing more than to see them set free from spiritual darkness. And they are deeply loved by the people they lead in return.

Finally, they are all men of deep and continuing prayer. But I bet you knew that.

As we travel through the rest of 2019 together, let’s imitate their faith and see what God will do.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ac 11:24). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

TAKING CHARGE: 3 Keys to Leadership Success

TAKING CHARGE:  3 Keys to Leadership Success

Former Air Force officer Perry Smith Received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and served as Commandant of the National War College in Washington D. C. The War College is the professional school for our nations’ military and civilian leaders. Dr. Smith developed its leadership program and wrote an excellent book: Taking Charge. His chapter on stepping into the CEO role lists 15 steps to do it well. He encourages his readers to make the transition from ‘new boss to leader fully in charge’ in three months.

Nehemiah, one of the most effective leaders of his or any era, did it in three days. Here, as recorded in Nehemiah 2:9-20, are three of his secrets for taking charge in a crisis.

1ST EFFECTIVE LEADERS START FRESH

Start fresh physically

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” said Vince Lombardi, and he was right. Everything looks bigger, every problem magnified, every opportunity minimized, and creative energy is low when we are fatigued. It pulverizes courage and elevates anxiety.

Nehemiah had been on the road from Susa to Jerusalem for approximately eight months, camping out at night, moving out at dawn, making maybe ten miles per day. He was exhausted upon arrival. He had the good sense to rest for three days. Then he went to work.

No one is inspired by an exhausted leader. Whatever we’re trying to do in life – raise a family, teach a class, lead a business or a church – we need to take our humanity seriously and give our bodies, minds, and spirits the right kind of rest.

Start fresh organizationally

Effective change agents seek all the information they can get but they don’t take reports at face value. They go and see for themselves. Nehemiah did it after hours, when few were watching.

He was also selective when sharing his plans. Proverbs teaches, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” And “… A babbling fool will be thrown down.”[1] Babbling fools don’t inspire confidence. Sometimes God gives us visions of change. But there’s such a thing as forcing the vision. We need to learn to wait for God’s timing to share it.

2nd EFFECTIVE LEADERS DON’T PRESUME, THEY PREPARE

Nehemiah took care with preparations in three problem areas: Strategic, Technical, and Morale. It’s refreshing to see faith like this coupled with hard-headed realism. Almost every problem we face as leaders will have the same three elements: Technical, Morale, and Strategic.

The Technical Problem

Jerusalem was built on two parallel hills with a valley in between. The hills were very steep on the west side and originally had terraces built in. When the walls were knocked down the terraces were destroyed, and the big blocks tumbled all over. Nehemiah had to figure out how to get them back in place.

One of the reasons Nehemiah didn’t ‘force the vision’ was that he needed to solve this puzzle. He believed he could solve it. But he needed time. And just as important, the people he was going to lead needed to know that he had analyzed it. He prepared himself to preclude this argument: “Are you crazy? Have you seen the size of those blocks?”

“Yes, I have, and here’s how we’re going to get them back up the hill…”  Solving technical problems before tearing into a project inspires confidence. If we’re going to be effective leaders, we need to know what we’re talking about.

The Morale Problem

These were deeply discouraged people. Thirteen years had passed since the last attempt to rebuild the walls had been squashed by the opposition. What if they cause trouble again? The Hebrews were suffering from psychological inertia.

What is the morale of the people you want to lead? What will help boost it? First, we must find the source of discouragement. Part of it is the engineering problem. But Nehemiah has a plan for that. What’s left was the political opposition.

Nehemiah, with the king’s authority, took them on: “This is God’s business, he has called us to it, and we break ground tomorrow. You have no past claim on this place, no present right to it and no future in it. So, scram!” Can’t you hear Jerusalem cheering in the background? Nowadays we would say “They got served!”

“If you want to turn morale around, get the authority, go to the source of the discouragement, and speak with authority when you get there. The people will love you for it.”

The Strategic Problem

The Apostle Peter wrote: “Be of sober {spirit,} be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[2]

No matter how often scripture says things like that, and it does so repeatedly, we forget. Opposition to good works in the world – God’s works in the world –is a given. Outmaneuvering the opposition is not. It’s strategic, a matter of gathering intelligence, resources, and allies and controlling the flow of information and timing your moves without giving your game away before the first whistle.

Jerusalem in 445 BC was not a safe place for a man like Nehemiah. Plots and intrigues abounded. His enemies had spies. One of the secrets of his success was that he prepared well and in secrecy. He started so fast and moved so quickly that the wall was half-way done before the opposition could catch up.

We think that God does not operate this way. It all seems too organized, too calculating, too business like. But God isn’t opposed to planning and strategy. He opposes people who put all their hopes in their own plans and strength. But he blesses leaders who plan well and commit their ways to him.[3]

3rd EFFECTIVE LEADERS SPEAK THE VISION

Nehemiah knew what all good leaders eventually learn. The most powerful motivations come from within. And they can only be tapped by a direct challenge.

The Jews weren’t only worrying about the financial risks or the political instability that came from having no walls. It was the spiritual disgrace of God’s city. Nehemiah said, “We are in great trouble and disgrace. Let’s fix it! This is a spiritual matter, a matter of the honor of our God.”

A speech like that leaves no doubt about the issue. There is no straddling the fence. It’s a challenge wrapped in a vision and anchored in hope. That’s what Nehemiah did. That’s what all leaders do when they want to build confidence. They make a direct call to the faith and hope of every man and woman. They speak the vision crystal clear and call for commitment. It is a beautiful thing.

Arnold Toynbee, the great English historian, said, “Apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”[4]

Effective leaders, leaders that build confidence, start fresh, survey the need, and speak the vision.

[1] (Pro. 15:2 & 10:8 NIV)

[2] (1 Pet 5:8 NAS)

[3] Proverbs 16:3; Proverbs 21:5; John 7:1-6.

[4] James M. Boice, An Expositional Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 35

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS

Long ago in our seminary days, my wife and I moved into Park Place Suites, a brand new three-story 162 bed extended stay hotel in the middle of an older but stable part of Memphis, Tennessee. My boss, a developer from Atlanta, built the hotel with a grand plan. He would provide housing, transportation and meals for students of the Defense Contract Audit Institute, located across the street; employ us to live on site and run it on the cheap like a Mom & Pop operation; and make pots of money.

The plan had four fatal flaws. I knew nothing about running a hotel and neither did the developer. Park Place, like so many start-up businesses, was under-capitalized. We needed $80,000 per month to operate and were cash strapped from the first day. We had no contract with the government, no guarantee that their students would use our gleaming new facility. And most deadly, we had no links to a national reservation system, no marketing plan. A website with links to all the travel services would have helped. But the web didn’t exist yet.

I knew what to do. I wanted to go to Holiday Inn’s six-week manager training school (Memphis was HI’s backyard). I wanted a contract with the government. Most importantly, I wanted to buy into Best Western’s reservation network. I wasn’t sure we could get the government contract. But a mere $18,000 would have put me through school and put us in the Best Western system.

But I couldn’t convince my boss. The stress put me in the hospital. I’m sure there are worse things than being cussed out by contractors you can’t pay and bouncing a $40,000 mortgage check but it ranks right up there on the ugly scale for me. I quit to finish seminary. The bank took the hotel back a couple years later.

Everyone experiences stress. It comes when we don’t have the wisdom, authority, cash or other resources to deal with a problem. Nehemiah was a genius at it. This week and next we’ll examine some of his secrets to success under stress.

The first is communication. Read the first two chapters of Nehemiah and you find that he was careful about communication. That is, he was intentional about timing, tact, and truth.

Timing is everything, especially when communicating with authority. Good timing depends on discernment, paying attention to the moods and moments of someone else’s life. It means understanding when the pressures are getting to your superior and when they aren’t. There’s a great line in Pirates of the Caribbean 1: “Wait for the opportune moment.” Prayerful people, like Nehemiah, usually discern those opportunities.

Tact, speaking well when the moment arrives, is also critical. Nehemiah’s “May the king live forever,” is courtly courtesy. Courtesy is the oil that lubricates the fine machinery of civilization. Tact depends on it. But courtesy is no longer a virtue in America. Incivility is the tone of the day.  Nehemiah never stooped to that with his authorities or his subordinates. He never lost his cool and therefore did not lose his head.

Finally, when the right moment presents itself, tell the whole truth. Know what you want to do. Know how you’re going to say it. Then say it. Go for clarity. Nehemiah was very clear. “Let him send me to the city…so that I can rebuild it.”

He did not say, “Let me survey the damage and report back.” Or “Let me go visit my uncle and cheer him up.” He presented the whole vision in one bold sentence. But first he prayed.

There is a time for long prayers and a time for short ones. When you see God bringing your long prayers to fruition, don’t get cocky. Pray a short prayer and then move boldly in faith.

Everyone deals with stress. Handling it successfully requires timing, tact, and truth. We’ll learn more about stress-management from Nehemiah next week.  I hope you’ll login then.

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

Pivotal moments often arrive when we least expect them. An email in the inbox, a phone call in the evening and life reaches a cross-road. A new path emerges. Will we take it? Nothing will ever be the same if we do. And nothing will ever be the same if we don’t. We want to know, need to know, is it the right one? Is God in this? How can we tell? How do we know it’s him?

A man named Nathanael had a day like that. His story is in John 1:43 – 51, a text that always intrigues. Why did Nathanael react so profoundly to Jesus’ simple statement in verse 47-48? Why, when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree …” did Nathanael make a pivotal declaration that would change his life forever?

“You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).

Most commentators focus on verse 51, linking it to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, and of course they are right. But that still doesn’t answer the question. Verse 51 came after verse 49. So, what happened? How did Nathanael know it was Him?

The first clue is in verse 48.

“How do you know me?” he asked. This, in response to Jesus’ comment, “Behold! An Israelite in whom is no guile!” tells us that when Jesus made that observation, he pinged something deep in the man. He revealed that he knew something about Nathanael that only God could know because Nathanael had only discussed it with God.

The fig tree is the clincher. Up until that point Nathanael could speculate that Jesus was a perceptive observer of human nature. But the fig tree in Jewish life is a literal place with a figurative meaning. A man sitting quietly under his fig tree is a man sitting in a peaceful place meditating and sharing his innermost thoughts with his creator. We might compare it to our favorite chair or place of prayer when we think quiet thoughts with God.

Imagine the topic of Nathanael’s meditation that day. What could it have been to draw such a powerful response? Something along these lines perhaps: “God I will not hide my thoughts. Nothing is hidden from you anyway. You know my going out and my coming in. I will tell you what I think and ask you my questions. Teach me your way.”

Imagine then that Nathanael goes on to speak to God about his struggles. It could be some sin or temptation. It could be unbelief or concerns about his people. It could be issues with his wife or his family or his work. We don’t need to know the specifics to identify with his struggle. We only need to know that he was being transparent with God in that moment under his fig tree. He was telling God what he really thought, even though it might not have been something he would want to say out loud at church. “God, I’m telling you the real deal here. I’m not holding anything back, not pretending to be holy. I’m just telling you the truth about what’s happening in my soul.”

I bet you’ve had discussions like that with God. I know I have. Then you open the Bible and it speaks to you in a way it never has before, or a song comes on the Christian radio station, or a man or woman of God delivers a word that pings your soul and you know without doubt that God saw you under your own fig tree. You know without doubt that your pivotal moment has come. You will confess that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” or you will not. Either way, you know it was Him and you know life will never be the same.

When that moment comes, don’t be afraid. Take the turn. Follow him. He knows you better than you know yourself and he will take you to places you never dreamed you could go.

ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

When Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley began talking to Billy Graham about writing a book on his leadership secrets the first thing he referred to was “The Team”. Think back on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and it’s always referred to that way. To his dying day, Billy gave credit to God and the team that committed to work with him saying: “It seems to me that the Lord took several inexperienced young men and used them in ways they had never dreamed.”

Myra and Shelley’s book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, chronicles twenty-one leadership principles that emerged from his life and ministry. None is more important than teamwork. Cliff Barrows, Billy’s chief platform partner for over sixty years, said that Billy showed, “he is a friend of the team. He always spoke of the team and team activities as ‘ours,’ not as ‘me and mine.’ ”

Given Billy’s familiarity with Scripture it is no surprise. Jesus sent his men out in pairs. The Apostle Paul never traveled without a team. We see it in the Old Testament as well, especially in Nehemiah.

Nehemiah chapter three is a detailed account of the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem and the names of the workers that rebuilt each section. Most likely this account formed part of a report to King Artaxerxes as all such nationally sponsored projects would have required. Many preachers and commentators overlook Nehemiah three. Chuck Swindoll in his book on Nehemiah, “Hand Me Another Brick,” skips it entirely. Others write it off as, “a meaningless list of names and assignments.”

But the truth is Nehemiah’s third chapter is a message on the triumph of teamwork.

The work can be traced on a map of Jerusalem by the naming of the gates in the text. It begins with the Sheep Gate (vs.1) and goes counter clockwise to the Fish Gate (vs. 3), then the Jeshanah Gate (vs. 6), the Valley Gate (vs.13) and so on back to the Sheep Gate.

Nehemiah is giving credit to his “team”. In fact, go down the list of workers and you will find a man named Nehemiah, but it isn’t the governor. He leaves himself out of the list which is unusual for ancient leaders. Instead, each man, each family, each craft or guild or district (goldsmiths, bakers, merchants, guards, temple workers, etc.) had a place on the wall-building team. Everyone had a part to play.

As governor Nehemiah didn’t have to do it that way. He could have taxed the whole territory and paid professionals to build the wall or pressed one group of skilled people into slavery to do it. But he knew the whole community, working with the right motivation under the direction of skilled supervisors, could do it much better and quicker and without the rancor created by doing it the other way.

The old saying is true, leaders can accomplish remarkable things if they don’t care who gets the credit. Are you part of a team yet?

AVOIDING WANNABE PHARISEES: Four Ways to Protect Your Freedom

“Exclusiveness and exclusion always result from making a false idol of purity. Pharisaism, in fact, is the result of a perverted passion for theological purity just as ethnic cleansing is for racial purity.”

Os Guinness

Our separation from God makes us want to belong to something exclusive, something important, something that will give us a sense of belonging and significance. Examples abound. Until his 2017 retirement, NASCAR fans were either part of Junior Nation, or they weren’t. Duke basketball fans are willing to endure the scorn of all NCAA fandom to identify with Coach K’s success. Harley Davidson is so popular that, not only do they earn hundreds of millions on non-motorcycle merchandise, people tattoo the company logo on their bodies.

Our desire to belong is matched only by our penchant to exclude. Every clique—from the silly to the deadly serious—has those who are in and those who are out. Airlines have first class, business class, and the unwashed masses class. Colleges have fraternities, sororities, and nobodies. The media-elite have the Trumpsters, the Nazis had the Jews and the Shia Muslims have the Sunni. Clearly, we love to exclude one another as much as we long to belong.

Sadly, the church is not immune. No matter how often Scripture tells us to accept, love, and serve one another, we find reasons to belittle, berate, and exclude each other. And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Moses had confrontations with Korah and his band[1], Jesus had the Pharisees, and Paul the “spiritually superior” Corinthians as well as various Judaizers—legalists who wanted Gentile believers to obey Jewish customs—to deal with.

To this day and to our shame the evangelical world has various versions of wannabe Pharisees: people who insist on imposing their convictions about non-essentials on those who are walking in the freedom purchased for them by the Cross of Christ. Few things are more damaging to a Church, diverting its energies away from its mission or derailing its spirit in worship than such division.

Why do Christians find so many things over which to break fellowship? And how do we nurture unity in the face of it? How do we deal with wannabe Pharisees and avoid becoming one ourselves? I offer four principles.

First, keep a clear conscience before God. Wannabe Pharisees want to impose their conscience on your life, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the Spirit within or the clear instructions of Scripture. Make sure you aren’t engaging in something that opposes Christ. As Paul warned the Corinthians not to “participate with demons,”[2] ask yourself, “Am I uncritically adopting and aligning myself with a worldview and values that are opposed to Christ?” If not, you are free.

Second, ask, “is it beneficial to me and everyone else?” Wannabe Pharisees find fault with all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly “Christian.” Insisting that everything we buy, eat, listen to, or read must be labeled “Christian” or it isn’t spiritual enough is not only transparently shallow it’s also completely subjective. It puts the freedom Christ died to give us into the hands of unqualified spiritual umpires.

Third, disengage with wannabe Pharisees as soon as possible. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will end up in the ditch and told his men to “leave them alone.”[3] Paul told Titus to avoid foolish controversies and “have nothing to do” with divisive people after a second warning. Wannabe Pharisees don’t know when to quit, mistaking our kindness for consent to continue badgering us with their priorities. Withdraw from the conversation and let there be no mistake.

Finally, ask, “does exercising my freedom open doors to evangelism or close them?”[4] Jesus said the Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens and put them on men’s shoulders,” but refuse to lift a finger to help. He warned them that they, “… shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” by their hypocrisy. Wannabe Pharisees are more concerned with controlling others than helping them know peace with God and freedom in Christ. Never let someone rob you of the joy of sharing the life of Jesus with someone else.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” [5]

[1] Numbers 16

[2] 1 Cor. 10:20-11:1

[3] Matt. 15:18.

[4] 1 Cor. 9:19-23

[5] Ga 5:1