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

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.

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

John is a grizzled grey, mid-fifties motorcyclist who thinks most people have their heads in the sand about disaster preparedness. “My friends laugh at me, think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I’m like, ‘Dude, you buy life insurance, right? You buy health insurance. Why wouldn’t you buy a little disaster insurance by setting a few things aside and being prepared?’”

John has a “bug-out ranch” a few miles outside town fully equipped with food, water, fuel, and guns.

I met John in Austin, Texas, on assignment for a journalism course last January. We were doing post-hurricane Harvey “man on the street” interviews to see how prepared people were for disaster. The answer was, and I include my fellow motorcyclist in this, not very well.

That’s part of the reason C. R. Wiley’s Man of the House: a handbook for building a shelter that will last in a world that is falling apart, caught my eye. Guys like John—also known as “preppers”—are realists about the potential disasters we face but are mostly thinking about themselves.

Wiley is not a prepper in the strict sense. He isn’t writing about how to stock your bug-out bunker with enough food and ammo to survive a sudden catastrophe but a long slow one. And not just for yourself, but for your children and grandchildren. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the world as we know it is like a drunk that just won’t hit bottom. When things get bad, it sobers up a little and promises to change its ways—then when things get a little better it’s back to binge-drinking again. But there will come a day when we find the old boy comatose and gone for good. If we work at preparing for that day, we may find that we are more relieved than saddened by the end.”[1]

Man of the House picks up where the turn-of-the-century Christian men’s movement dropped the ball. Finally, someone has left “the elementary teachings about the Christ,” and gone on to maturity. Wiley assumes a basic understanding of the gospel and spiritual life and moves on to the practical matters of living out the faith in an increasingly unstable world. He unearths the ancient idea of the household, not as a place to eat dinner, watch a sitcom, and go to bed—a place from which we depart every day to work in the “real world”—but as it once was: a spiritual, social, economic, and political shelter that creates a world for generations of those who come under its roof.

Having given that endorsement I hasten to add that I disagreed with some of his ideas and found others not quite wrong, just over-torqued. Still, he is at least asking the right questions and offering thoughtful answers, a rarity in Christian men’s books.

Most guys don’t like to read, but this one is written to men for men. Wiley is a preacher, but unlike many of my kind he doesn’t waste words just because it comes easy (See? Those last five were superfluous. I can do this all day!). He uses what I call “man-speak.” Reading his book is like sitting around the table with Lewis and Clarke, planning their trip or a group of engineers and thinkers, planning to build a city. Serious men gathered for an interesting, challenging job, with enough humor thrown in to keep everybody’s egos in check. At twelve chapters and 135 pages it is also short. Each chapter takes about 15-20 minutes to read.

If you’re a young man trying to figure out how to navigate your family through this unstable world you would benefit from this book.

[1] From the Introduction.

BILLY GRAHAM ON LEADERSHIP

BILLY GRAHAM ON LEADERSHIP

In the film Blackhawk Down, a vehicle filled with wounded Americans comes to a halt in the middle of a hailstorm of Somali bullets. The commanding officer orders a soldier to take the wheel. The soldier protests, “I can’t, I’m shot!”

The officer is unimpressed. “We’re all shot. Get in and drive!”

Leaders keep going, even when combat rages around us and wounds pile up within us. Those halted by trials, who give in to self-pity and retreat into apathy, vanish like sand castles with the evening tide. Those who persevere become light houses on the shores of history. Martin Luther, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Chuck Colson, and of course Billy Graham, who died last week, the list of leaders who suffered huge defeats and kept going is long and no doubt one of your heroes is on it.

Harold Myra former CEO, and Marshall Shelley, former Vice President of Christianity Today International (which Graham founded), knew Billy well and worked closely with him. Their book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, records many of his trials and how Graham responded.

“I’m no different from you,” said Billy, “I would like to live a life free of problems, free of pain, and free of severe personal discipline. However, I’d had extreme pressures in my life to the point where I’ve wanted to run away from reality … I felt like going to the Cove (the retreat center he founded in North Carolina) and lying down in the cemetery to see how I fit.”

The apostle Paul also knew the wounds of leadership.

“I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:26-28 NIV).

Earlier in that letter Paul revealed his attitude toward suffering: “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9 NIV).

“Mountain tops are for views and inspiration,” wrote Billy, “but fruit is grown in the valleys.”

Leadership, of large organizations or small families, is exercised at a price. Plans run awry, friends fail us, the world wounds us and still the job must get done. As Churchill wrote, “Success is never final, and failure is rarely fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”

That was Billy Graham. Right after the comment about getting measured for his grave he said, “God has called me to my responsibilities, and I must be faithful.”

The truth is that at some level we’re all called and we’re all shot. Lead anyway and live for the commendation that all people of God long for: “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”[1]

[1] Matthew 25:21.

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

“Look at yourself! You went to law school. You never took the bar.  You went to business college. I can’t get you near the office. You studied languages you don’t speak, instruments you don’t play. You have a series of girlfriends you never see more than twice. Do you not see a pattern here? You’re a grown man, David. Finish something!”

Linus Larrabee to his playboy brother in a scene from our favorite rom com, Sabrina. David had proposed to the latest love of his life but was having second thoughts: “I’m not ready to make this kind of commitment!”

“She’s a millionaire, David, and a doctor. She won’t be a burden!” said Linus.

No doubt, no doubt at all, we are witnessing a generation of David Larrabee’s when it comes to marriage. Fewer and fewer young men have the courage to “pop the question” and make good on lifetime commitment.

But commit-a-phobia happens in spiritual life too. Maybe the rise of the seeker movement, where everything in the church is tailored to the consumerist whims of the latest generation, has contributed or maybe it’s just a symptom. But you know it’s real when pastors say, “I’m haunted when I look into the eyes of my congregation and realize they are only two weeks away from leaving for another church.”[1]

Psalm 119 reminds us of the power and potential, the risks and rewards of commitment to God’s word and God’s way. The psalm is unique in scripture, a 176 verse Hebrew alphabetic acrostic masterpiece of devotion to the “word of God and the God of the Word”[2] that interweaves precepts with prayers, and praise with petition.

Six verses stand out against the backdrop of recent events that speak to the rewards and risks of commitment to God’s way. I’ll come to the events in a moment.

First, the commitment:

I have chosen the way of truth;

I have set my heart on your laws.

I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord;

do not let me be put to shame.[3]

Commitment is embracing with our entire being the risks and rewards of a definite path, the snot and vomit of Olympic training for the promise of the podium. It invites the order that the thing committed to imposes on life, the discipline of saying “yes” to things that align with it, and “no” to those that don’t.

Next, the risks:

Though rulers sit together and slander me,

your servant will meditate on your decrees. [4]

The arrogant mock me without restraint,

but I do not turn from your law. [5]

Remember the catty remarks emanating from media elite about Vice President Mike Pence’s faith? First, it was his commitment never to meet a woman, other than his wife, for dinner alone. The scorn at his godly stand melted away in the smutty heat of Weinstein, Lauer, and #MeToo. Next it was The View Co-host Joy Behar’s contempt at Pence’s confidence that—like followers of Christ for two millennia—he hears from God.

Indeed, the arrogant mock without restraint. That’s the risk of commitment to God.

Finally, the reward:

I run in the path of your commands,

for you have set my heart free. [6]

I will walk about in freedom,

for I have sought out your precepts.[7]

Edmund Burke said,

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites … It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”[8]

David Larrabee lives in all of us, but the more we indulge our commit-a-phobia the heavier we forge our chains. Commit to God’s word and God’s way and fly free.

[1] Os Guinness, The Call, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2008. P. 71.

[2] NIV Study Bible notes.

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:30–31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:51). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:32). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:45). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] The Works of Edmund Burke, quoted by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkel in Practical Guide to Culture, David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO. p. 139.

WAITING ON GOD AND PIZZA

I’ll never forget my boss’s reply to a demanding department head who wanted his project moved to top priority for our maintenance crew: “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me!”

I gasped and laughed out loud.  I did not think anyone, much less the head of a lowly maintenance department, could talk that way to one of the senior ministers in Atlanta’s largest megachurch and get away with it.

But he did.

I wonder if God wouldn’t say something similar to us when, in our hurry to achieve the next thing on our agenda, we run smack dab into the reality that our lack of patience does not constitute a crisis for him.

Ps. 27:14 Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord![1]

True, sometimes we use the excuse of waiting on God to cover a lack of planning or initiative. As Denzel Washington said, “Dreams without goals remain dreams, just dreams, and ultimately fuel disappointment.” But waiting on God is a pattern that runs throughout scripture.

Noah spent more than a year inside the Ark, sending out first a raven and then a dove to see if the ground was dry. Yet still he waited, even when the dove did not return, until God said, “Come out of the ark …”

Abraham waited till he and Sarah were past their normal childbearing years before God fulfilled his promise of an heir.

Joseph waited years in slavery to Potiphar the Egyptian, then two more years in prison before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and elevated to Prime Minister of the kingdom.

I doubt that Moses had this message in mind when he recorded those stories in Genesis, but for those of us in the smartphone generation, where information is instantaneously at our fingertips, it’s important to understand that life does not move on our timetable and God is never in a hurry.

The list is long and full of success for people who learned to wait on the Lord. Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah come to mind. But waiting on him is not the same as doing nothing. It is more like waiting on the pizza delivery man by putting the plates on the table, the ice in the glasses, and the salad in the bowls and getting the dressing out of the fridge. It is a time of watchful expectancy instead of indolent passivity; patient trust and preparation instead of fussy anxiety and inconsequential busyness.

When the trust is total, the heart is quiet, and the preparation is complete, the task is entered into with confidence and the results, usually, are satisfying. Either way we are living with respect for the One who is truly in charge.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ps 27:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

JESUS’S UN-AMERICAN DREAM

Michael Jordan, principal owner and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets and one of the greatest professional basketball players ever, retired from the court in 2003 as one of the game’s wealthiest contestants.

The owner of the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf, for whom Jordan played most of his career, remarked at the time, “He’s living the American Dream. The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you do want to do.”

I do this. So do you. We like to set up our lives so that we don’t have to get involved with the world’s problems if we don’t want to. We can’t do it on the scale of a wealthy person like Jordan. But we do it in other ways. And when we do we leave Jesus’s decidedly Un-American dream for us out of the equation.

What is Jesus’s Un-American dream?

You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and place it under a bushel, but on the lamp stand; and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 15:13-14).

All of us are aware of the increasing darkness of western culture. We see corruption, rampant immorality, the porn epidemic, the growth of the so-called euthanasia movement, the redefinition not only of marriage but of what it means to be male and female even in kindergarten, and the increasing assaults on religious freedom.

We see it and far too many of us react in fear and withdrawal, happy to cast blame on “them,” “the culture,” or “the world,” but unable to see the Lord’s Un-American calling on ourselves.

The late Anglican cleric John R.W. Stott made a pertinent observation about this.

“If the house is dark at night, there is no sense in blaming the house. That’s what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is, “Where is the light?”

“If meat goes bad, there is no sense in blaming the meat. That is what happens when the bacteria are allowed to breed unchecked. The question to ask is, “Where is the salt?”

“If society becomes corrupt like a dark night or stinking fish, there’s no sense in blaming society. That’s what happens when fallen human society is left to itself and human evil is unrestrained and unchecked. The question to ask is “Where is the church?”

God leaves his people – us – here for a reason. He could have said, “Come out, be separate, start a holy commune, create your own economy, your own schools, your own record companies, your own TV shows. Isolate yourselves in suspicious fear of all that is in the world.  Hide out in the holy ghetto until I come and get you!”

But that isn’t what he said. He said, “Stay there! Stay in the world! Keep it from rotting. Guide it toward that which is good!”

We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. That’s Jesus’s Un-American dream for us.