A LIZARD NAMED MELINDA and other thoughts on neighborliness

A LIZARD NAMED MELINDA and other thoughts on neighborliness

If you are heartsick at all the hatred and strife going on in our country right now, I have an encouraging story for you.

My wife and I recently returned from a beach vacation. It will come as no surprise to those who understand ministry life that I do my best not to look pastoral on these trips. I wear shorts, sandals, and sunglasses everywhere, along with a big hat. I don’t shave. I keep to myself and do things that recharge my emotional batteries. And except for sending a few photos to my immediate family, I also disconnect from email, news, and social media.

Even so, it was hard to miss the headlines about police brutality, racial strife, and riots. Tybee Island, Georgia, where we stayed, is just outside Savannah. We couldn’t help but wonder how that old southern town would be affected. Would there be sullen looks and incivility between the races?  But when we stopped at a visitor center staffed entirely by African Americans, we were greeted with smiles and great courtesy.

The same was true on the beach, where the racial mix is relatively even. Every African American individual or family we encountered, in fact, everyone black or white, seemed to make it a point to make eye contact, smile, and engage in polite conversation.

Then one morning, I got up at 5:30 and walked out to the beach to enjoy the sunrise and take some pictures. I found my spot and just stood there facing east, letting my inner thoughts bob like a kite in a capful of wind.

Several people were out by then, jogging, strolling, and some just standing like me, waiting to meet the sun. Then along came a smallish barefoot man maybe thirty-five years old, round John Lennon glasses, long black hair in a double segmented ponytail down his back, scruffy beard, grey shorts, loose-fitting beige short-sleeve shirt. He walked with a quick, nervous gait, a slender stick like a cane in his right hand, and made a beeline toward me up the sand berm. As I kept my eye on his cane, I thought, six o’clock in the morning, and I’m about to be hit up by a homeless guy.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but are you a pastor?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “What did you say?”

“Are you a pastor?”

Only two beings could have told him that. I wonder which one it was, I thought. 

“Yes.”

“Well, so am I. Latter-Day Saints, you know, but it’s all the same. Are you the pastor of…” He named some church nearby that I missed.

“No.”

It was about that time that I noticed the ten-inch lizard—perched would be the wrong word, more like molded—onto his left shoulder. I guess I hadn’t seen it before because it was facing backward and blended perfectly with his shirt, tail hanging down another eight inches or so across his chest, utterly still.

“What’s your name?” I asked, thinking, this guy is right out of Lewis’s The Great Divorce. I wonder if it talks to him?

“Louis.”

“And who’s your friend?”

“That’s Melinda.”

“Oh.” I considered taking his picture but felt it would be impolite.

“Well,” he said, “don’t let the (garbled in the wind) get to you. It’s the new millennium, you know!” And off he went into the morning gloom, Melinda staring over his shoulder, never having moved a muscle.

I’ve been reflecting on that encounter ever since. It occurred to me that everyone we met on that trip, black, white, Asian, Latino, and even a guy with a lizard on his shoulder who I thought was going to ask me for money, acted with an extra measure of courtesy and civility toward one another. It was refreshing.

So, when the world is full of hatred and strife, and you feel helpless about it, remember, we cannot solve the world’s problems. But we can love the neighbor that is right in front of us—even the ones with pet lizards on their shoulders.

RECOMMENDING THE SEA

RECOMMENDING THE SEA

Turmoil. Grief. Anxiety. Are you acquainted with any of these? Of course, you are, especially during this pandemic. How do you soothe them? Where do you find solace? Allow me to recommend the sea.

Few things soothe my soul like the sea. Visiting the shore is an opportunity to engage with God through the majesty of his creation on a level that is difficult to achieve in a neighborhood crowded with houses. The sea’s voice is unmatched by any other except possibly the sky – but that is an article for another day.

Standing on the shore, facing out to sea feet planted inches from the breaking waves with the world of men behind and nothing but sun, sky, and water before, the disrupted parts of your soul begin to settle.

I think I know why. See if you agree.

The sea is expansive. It speaks of the omnipresence of God, massive, immense, all-encompassing, filling the field of view until it disappears over the horizon. The largest ships look like tiny toys across the distant waves.

The sea tells us nothing is too big for God. Nothing happens that is outside of his perception. Nothing happens in our life that is beyond his field of view.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast. [1]

The sea is constant, ever-moving yet never moved. It speaks of the unchanging God. The shore is never silent. Even on dead calm days, the quiet lapping of water on sand or rock is present. It is unchallengeable, indisputable, unchanging. On stormy days it reminds us of our storm-tossed lives. But even then, it does not change. The waves gather and curl and crash into each other and finally spill themselves onto the sand to instantly disappear, their fury spent, their conflict gone. So too our lives but the sea, the life upon which all others depend, lives on.

God is constant. God does not change. Our lives toss about, curling and crashing into one another, spending our energies in furious conflict. And then they are gone, the fury spent, the battle finished. But God remains.

The sea is mighty, often challenged, but never conquered. You can feel it, standing there at the top of the tide. Your visceral senses tell you, “this thing can go where it wants and take you along with it.” When sun and sea, pressure, and temperature meet in perfect hurricane pitch, nothing can stand in its way. Only God is more powerful. He marks the boundaries of the sea. It travels not one inch further than his will. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. (Ps 33:7 NIV)

The sea is majestic. It speaks of the omnipotent God. Nothing he has called us to do is beyond his power to help. Without his permission, nothing can reach past the boundaries he places around our lives.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty. (Ps. 93:3-4 NIV)

Turmoil, grief, anxiety, make a longer list if you want. I recommend the sea. Nothing is too big for God. Nothing changes God. Nothing is too powerful for God.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 139:7–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Rx For Anxiety

Rx For Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either, especially now in coronavirus times. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John described the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, was in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There was a price on his head. He washed their feet, shared the bread and the cup, and, most notably, predicts his betrayal. All were aghast. All were frightened. They were well aware of the threat they were under, the risks they were running by being in Jerusalem. Their anxiety was intense.

Into this fractious moment, Jesus spoke some of his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). Then he repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to choose fear or faith.

The physiological fact is that we can worry ourselves sick.

Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, nor-epinephrine and, others get off-kilter, it can be tough to return them to an even keel. In some cases, medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us, medicine is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place, the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose to worry, and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God, and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it is possible. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.

First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry (can you say coronavirus?) to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s idolatry. Only confession and repentance can defeat it. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in the act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more challenging to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries, and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about what to do with our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

THIS IS OUR TIME

THIS IS OUR TIME

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, hobbit hero Frodo Baggins carries a ring of great power and evil, a ring that he and he alone can destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. Depressed by the burden he carries and the evil times, he confides to his wizard friend, Gandalf:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Tolkien was a veteran of WWI that killed 20 million and wounded 21 million, as well as the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 50 million worldwide, as well as the Great Depression, and the polio epidemic that paralyzed tens of thousands. He knew a thing or two about bad times and wove what he knew about how to endure them into his stories.

The Lord of the Rings is full of perseverance and faith against all the odds.

In August of 1940, 25-30 divisions of crack Wehrmacht infantry (over 300,000 soldiers) stood poised along the coast of France. They were waiting for Reich Marshal Herman Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe to wipe the Royal Air Force from the sky and open the English Channel for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, to launch. The Germans had a three-to-one advantage in warplanes when the Battle of Britain began that July and had subdued all Western Europe in less than a year. Everyone expected them to win. Everyone that is, except Winston Churchill and the millions of British who believed him when he said, “We shall never surrender!” Londoner’s sheltered in basements, bunkers, and the subway, as the Blitz rained bombs on their city. Nazi planes indiscriminately wrecked churches, hospitals, and businesses destroyed 60% of London’s homes, wounded 87,000, and killed 32,000 people. Victims overwhelmed the hospitals, and no one knew who would “get it” next.

But by the end of October, Hitler was withdrawing his invasion force from the French coast, and canceling Operation Sea Lion.

The story of Great Britain’s ultimate victory overflows with perseverance and faith.

I take great courage from these stories of our collective past because the ultimate source of their strength was the same hope we share in a good God. He loves us no less than our ancestors and, if we ask him, will give us the strength and bravery to “keep calm and carry on,” as Londoners’ did during the Blitz, and as all God’s people are called to do in a crisis.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.

Every generation faces tests. The Corona virus is our time to meet the fury of a fallen planet with faith and perseverance.

So, look out for your loved ones. Ignore the fear mongers. Follow the instructions of our healthcare professionals. Trust God. “Keep calm and carry on.”  And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a great time to watch The Lord of the Rings

OF PANDEMICS AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD

OF PANDEMICS AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD

We are not the first to deal with a global pandemic and if God wills, we will not be the last. The only real question is: will we face it with faith in God and sacrificial love for our fellow man, or pull a Y2K kind of American Christian panic and hunker down in fear of the world outside?

Down the centuries, Christians were known to put aside personal safety in service to others during epidemics and other kinds of disasters. Are we ready to do the same today? If so, it will look a little different than it did in the past. Today it means putting aside our preference to meet together for worship, prayer, and preaching, and practicing social distancing.

Wikipedia reports that the 1918 influenza pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920; also known as the Spanish flu) … infected 500 million people around the world,[2] or about 27% of the world population of between 1.8 and 1.9 billion. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million[3] to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.[4][5]

The Black Plague or Bubonic Plague of Medieval times was worse. Wikipedia reports that it was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.[1][2][3] …The plague created a number of religious, social and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.

The plague was still a threat 200 years later during the Reformation, which gave Martin Luther and John Calvin, two of the greatest theological minds in history, the opportunity to comment. Both advised prudence in the face of such disasters.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564): ““For he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care; He has provided means and helps to preserve it, he has also made us able to foresee dangers; that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our debt is: Thus if the Lord had committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them…Thus “folly & prudence are instruments of the divine dispensation.” Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Ch. 17.

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess.

Churches in Washington D.C., responding to the 1918 flu pandemic, closed from October 5 through the 31st. The most Christian thing to do in the current crisis is follow their example.

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

In 2003, my daughters had a funny lesson on the inevitability of change. Their uncle Mike had given them a whole box of VHS tapes containing 144 episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation. The videos dated back into the 1980’s so watching them was like being in a time machine for commercials. But what really tickled the funny bone was seeing an ad for a brand new 1989 Chevy truck on Tuesday night, and then standing at the bus stop Wednesday morning, watching that same truck with 14 years and 175,000 miles on it go by. “It’s a heap!” They cried. Talk about a lesson on change!

Change is inevitable. It’s how we meet it that matters. The one luxury we cannot afford is to assume it will not touch us and refuse to prepare for it.

The nature of the human animal is to be dominant and territorial. We like to set ourselves up in a good situation and stay there. We work hard at creating stability and predictability so that we can enjoy life with the least amount of hassle. We are control oriented. Unexpected change reveals our lack of control and makes us feel naked in the cosmos.

The Bible is full of examples of God’s people meeting unexpected change. Consider Moses’ successor, Joshua, and the changes he witnessed: Slavery in Egypt, miraculous escape across the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments, the wandering in the wilderness.

For 40 years Joshua witnessed change, but that paled in comparison to what he was about to do. He was about to lead the people of God into the Promised Land itself. He was facing the walls of Jericho and he was doing it without Moses.

God had two commands for Joshua as he took up the challenge of this change, commands that still apply today.

Be strong and courageous.

In the decade leading up to 9/11 the notion was spreading that the days of strong, forthright leadership operating from the courage of conviction were passé. The world – it was assumed – was becoming a kinder, gentler place and there was just no need for confrontation when therapy or diplomacy could do the job. This was just as true in the church as it was in geo-politics.

The Bible is much more realistic than that. It teaches us that evil and danger, deceit and treachery will be in the world until Christ returns. The only way to meet those things is with strength and courage.

Those manage change well who have the courage of their convictions. But what convictions?

Stick to fundamental principles.

Strength and courage are dangerous if they aren’t harnessed to core principles that honor God and respect people. But strength and courage in the service of those principles enable us to adjust our approach to meet the need at hand.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., founder and CEO of IBM from 1956 to 1971 wrote, “I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions. Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And, finally, I believe [the organization] must be willing to change everything about itself except those.”[1]

Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.

Fear is the biggest hindrance to change. Change forces us to think, to adjust, to adapt. We prefer cruise control. When contemporary music first began to make its way in to worship many congregations rejected it. But that indicated more faith in the method than in the message. When new translations of the Bible began to compete with the KJV many churches rejected them. But that indicated more faith in the translation than the message.

As Chuck Swindoll wrote, “Extraordinary times will require of us extraordinary wisdom, vision, boldness, flexibility, dedication, willingness to adapt, and a renewed commitment to biblical principles that never change.”[2]

When the changes come—and come they will—go back to core principles and with strength, courage and wisdom apply them.

When change comes ask yourself: Am I operating with courage on core principles?

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.[3]

[1] Citation: Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs (1963); Bill White, Paramount, CA

[2] Swindoll, Chuck; Come Before Winter pg. 26.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jos 1:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

TOUGH SOULS Part 2: Rapid Change

TOUGH SOULS Part 2: Rapid Change

The world is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. Just take a look at some recent statistics.

Population – It took until 1850 for world population to reach 1 billion. By 1930 it was at 2 billion. By 1960 it was 3 billion. Today it is somewhere close to 7.7 billion.

Books – There were almost no books until 1500 and Gutenberg’s press came along. By 1900 there were 35,000. This year, over 2.1 million titles will be published.

Top Speed – Until 1800 the top speed for a human being was around 20 mph. Trains reached 100 mph in the nineteenth century. Now we routinely travel at 400 mph. Supersonic jets are three times faster.

Automation – the first fully automated cars were developed in the 1980’s by Mercedes Benz and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration). In 2018, Waymo began the first fully automated commercial taxi service in the U.S.

Pick any field and a few minutes on the internet will yield data on the hyper pace of change in every one, medicine, robotics, chemistry, physics, you name it.

Change is picking up speed and for some folks that’s unsettling.

It’s much easier to adapt to change over time. But sudden change rocks us. And it doesn’t matter who you are. Unexpected change comes upon everyone. The good news is that scripture gives us timeless principles for the toughness necessary to master winds of change.

The first principle is to expect it. Expect the unexpected. Hear what Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said about change.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11NIV).

The Pros and the CEO’s, the prima donna’s and the Politicians, each one, not to mention the rest of us will experience change. Change is inevitable. We can expect it, prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.

The good news is that Christians need not fear unexpected change. As the people of God, we belong to the One who knows the end from the beginning. He isn’t caught off guard by change. As people of God’s Book, we have a road map for navigating happenstance.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at these principles in depth but for now a summary might be helpful to you:

  • Change is inevitable. We can prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.
  • Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.
  • Those manage change best who trust that God is still at work in unwanted change.
  • Those manage change best who meet it with a positive attitude.

 

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

DEALING WITH ANTAGONISTS

One day a farmer, who was a Quaker, was having trouble with his mule. He was trying to plow his field, and the mule was being unusually stubborn. He wouldn’t move. So, the Quaker decided to talk to him ‘reasonably’. “Thou knowest that I am a Quaker. Thou knowest that I canst not curse thee. Thou knowest that I canst not whip thee. What thou dost not know is that I can sell thee to my neighbor down the road. He is no Quaker, and he can beat the living daylights out of thee.”[1]

All of us can identify with that Quaker. We face opposition. There are things we would like to say or do. Then there are things that we can do and still call ourselves Christians.

Nehemiah chapters four thru six are a study in how to deal with opposition. The first six verses of chapter four teach us three things about handling that antagonism.

Antagonism often manifests as ridicule. All of us are vulnerable to it because all of us have glaring weaknesses. Shine the light on them and we get discouraged. Nehemiah’s enemies pointed to five: their competence, their faith, their hope, their resources, and their potential.

All of us feel incompetent at some time or other. Never more than when we’re about to try something new. And we fear the name “fanatic” because it isolates us from our peers. Every task feels bigger when our hope is undermined. We’re easily intimidated when our resources are thin. And our confidence is shaky when we the risks of failure are high.

What to do when we face that kind of antagonism?

Let me give you an encouraging thought here. When someone is ridiculing your work it probably means that they are afraid you might succeed. The best thing that you can do then is…succeed!

Notice Nehemiah’s threefold reaction.

He Does Not Respond in Kind

We can waste a lot of energy trying to right every wrong that is spoken of us. Or we can take the same energy and invest it in doing good work and let the work speak for itself. Keep reminding yourself that people ridicule you because they are afraid of your success.

He Prays

And what a prayer! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.”[2] But what a problem for Christians! Aren’t we supposed to pray for our enemies, offer blessings instead of curses? Yes. But we live with two realities that Nehemiah did not have: The death of Christ and the life to come.[3] We know that we too are sinners, capable of injustice and slander. And we know for certain, because Jesus promise was validated by his resurrection, that all injustices will be made right by God in the end. So it is not wrong to pray for justice as long as we leave its execution to God.

The final thing Nehemiah did is the most powerful thing anyone can do in the face of ridicule.

He Got on With It

On September 18,1939 the British radio public began hearing a steady stream of ridicule from Lord Haw Haw. He was actually William Joyce, an American born Irishman who as a senior member of the British Union of Fascists, had escaped to Germany before he could be jailed. Every evening Joyce, broadcasting from Hamburg with the voice of an upper-class Englishman, ridiculed Great Britain’s losses to Germany, her lack of preparation, her hopeless situation before Germany’s superior military might. Many British subjects fell under his spell. But most did not. Most believed and followed Churchill.

Lord Haw Haw kept right on broadcasting until April 30, 1945, when British soldiers overran Hamburg.

The British did what Nehemiah and the Israelites did. They ignored the ridicule, went to work, and finished the job.

You know what happened to the Nazis. And William Joyce? They hanged him for treason on January 3, 1946.[4]

What to do in the face of ridicule?

  1. Do not return evil for evil
  2. Pray, allowing God to sort through your emotions and guide your convictions.
  3. Ignore their words and do your work – perseverance pays dividends in the end.

[1] Boice, James Montgomery; Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 50

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ne 4:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] Brown, Raymond; The Message of Nehemiah; The Bible Speaks Today Commentary pg. 74.

[4] Wikipedia.org

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com