Nehemiah – God’s Change Agent (Ch. 3)

Projects are sometimes complicated and slow.  However, the organization of a group can prove to be a useful companion in accomplishing tasks.  Chapter three shares in a detailed log how the people were divided into groups (primarily by families) and the particular area that they rebuilt and repaired.  It is the first of four lists of names found in the book (3, 7, 10, and 11-12).  Skipping over these lists is tempting.  However, in our approach toward leadership and change, we find two critical lessons from this chapter: appreciation and strategic change.

Appreciation

I usually consider it dangerous to recognizing people during a church service as either guest or for appreciation because often someone is left out unintentionally.  Still, people like to feel appreciated.  The reward for faithfulness is great for strengthening people’s loyalty, the direction they are going, and for their personal encouragement.  This can take place with sending a letter, an uplifting word, public recognition, a gift or something else befitting the work and person receiving the appreciation.  For these people, Nehemiah is giving them an enduring legacy in God’s Word.

Strategic Change

We have already talked about burden, vision, and mission but we now change direction toward putting things to work.  For leaders to create movement from the present reality toward the future vision, the intentional creation of a strategic plan for change is needed.  And, there are plenty of good, solid theories about how change takes place.  However, when it comes to Churches, they have a unique and spiritual design.  This happens because of the focus of the church is on worshipping God and making disciples.  The goals of the church are different than that of other non-profit or profit organizations.

How should Churches proceed?  Well, the first step forward has been created in the previous two chapters.  Prayer, carrying a burden, speaking with other leaders and creating a shared vision, understanding the resources available, and the size of the task have all been important pieces of change.  First, let’s look at Scripture and its encouragement to planning as a wise endeavor if we seek to keep God first.

  • “Grant thee according to thine own heart, and fulfill all thy counsel.” (Psalm 20:4)
  • “Good understanding giveth favor: but the way of transgressors is hard.” (Proverbs 13:15)
  • “The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way: but the folly of fools is deceit.” (Proverbs 14:8)
  • “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going.” (Proverbs 14:15)
  • “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)
  • “The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness, but of every one that is hasty only to want.” (Proverbs 21:5)
  • “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28)
  • “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:15-18)
  • “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” (James 4:14-15)

So, what is a strategic plan?  Basically, it is a tool for keeping an organization focused on whatever is considers to be its vision and mission.  For churches, this is making disciples. Helping individuals and families follow Jesus is our great commission.  It is easy to become distracted, and the main thing is no longer the main thing.  It helps a group become aligned in their particular gift sets, personalities, and the resources accessible to them.  It is the road map between the present reality of the organization to the preferred future.

Developing a Strategy

What does the strategic plan include?  Well, that will be different depending on the congregation.  It’s not that the goals are different (each church should be trying to fulfill the great commission) and it is certainly not that God is different anywhere else.  He is always the same.  What is different is the people, who have each been created with their own gifting.  The resources available to that group is also different.  However, each congregation has equal access to the Holy Spirit, and none should be paralyzed by the thought of the impossible.

The strategy begins with an understanding of where the organization is currently.  SWOT is a useful tool to analyze with, and surveys can help leaders gauge where the organization stands.  Some of my personal favorite surveys have focused on church health.  Church health surveys, in my opinion, are more geared toward the dynamics of ministry rather than church growth perspectives.  The ABC’s of church growth (Attendance, buildings, and cash flow) have their place in helping a church understand what it available to it but can mislead leaders and volunteers to lose their way.  A church health focus helps a church stay centered on impacting lives for eternity.

From this point, leaders can then create the actions steps as they feel the Spirit leading.  With the end in mind, the leaders will typically plan for where they envision and desire for the organization to be in ten years.  At this point, return to thinking about one year out.  What action steps will you need to be taking in one year to aim towards the ten-year goal?  You can either go year by year or even look at every couple of months.  However, I will look at just another year for example.  You can put new goals for that year, but there is another perspective that needs to thought of in each subsequent year.  That is the progression of the previous year’s actions.  If your organization keeps practicing the previous benchmarks behaviors, what will be the results?  It is important to keep evaluating and realigning along the way.  We will see this in the next chapter of Nehemiah.

 

Nehemiah – God’s Change Agent (Mission & Vision)

One thing that I notice about leaders of organizations is that there is a significant amount of confusion between vision and mission.  Especially when it comes to the small church.  These guiding principles are essential for keeping the members aligned to God’s will for a congregation’s ministry and areas of focus.  The short way of understanding the distinctiveness of vision is a robust, long-term view of what an organization wants to take place in the future.  The same approach to mission is a shorter and narrower perspective of what the organization is presently doing to achieve the larger vision.

In light of Nehemiah, we can see a clear vision and mission resting upon him.  What follows is a demonstration of what vision and mission would look like in light of Nehemiah’s behavior and actions.  These are my musings of what was happening in Nehemiah’s mind.  Possibly, or maybe not.  The present reality of Jerusalem was dire, and the Jewish population was devastated.  Nehemiah was given four facts about his people and Jerusalem (Neh. 1:3).  The people were in great affliction, meaning oppressed by poverty and other people groups.  They were also in great reproach.  To be under reproach is to be disapproved by others, to receive derogatory remarks, and to be mistreated because of a perceived low status.  The city gates were continually burned like trash heaps, and the protective walls were broken down.

So, what was Nehemiah’s long-term vision?  No doubt, when he looked forward in time, Nehemiah saw from a far distance, a city built on a hill that could not be hidden.  Merchants and travelers walking with excitement toward Jerusalem.  He didn’t see smoke rising from a destroyed city, but perhaps he could see smoke rising from a restored temple as sacrifices were offered.  As he walks closer to Jerusalem in the vision, he can see the walls standing firm and providing protection to all the inhabitants inside.  The gates were bustling with life when open and formidable obstacles invaders could not pass through when closed.  As he walks through the city as he pictured it in the future, businesses are thriving.  Families are healthy and happy.  The order is maintained.  The people are devout in their faith.  The leadership is strong.  The buzz in the kingdom is that Jerusalem and God’s people are respected among the other nations.

Sounds like a beautiful vision, but there needs to be a bridge built between the present reality and the preferred future.  This is where the mission comes in for Nehemiah.  If the vision is where he envisions Jerusalem to end up, the mission is what is happening in the present that positions them toward achieving the vision.   It’s simple but it is more than a few words, or it becomes a motto.  Nehemiah 2:17 finishes with a great mission statement, “Let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.”  It is succinct and clear.  We don’t have any questions about where their focus, resources, and energy are going.  The people react to this clear mission with excitement by creating a good short motto, “Let us rise up and build” (2:18).

I pray and hope that this little journey through mission and vision help you to understand the benefits for your organization.  We see the results that Nehemiah achieved as a faithful steward of God’s vision and the resources God put in his hands.  Perhaps this will be a tool for you to move forward where you serve.

How to pray the week before camp 2017 and take action.

In the week before the Christian Baptist Camp Meeting, preparations are still being made, sermons are still developing, songs are being practiced, volunteers recruited, tasks assigned, numbers crunched, and reports written.  It is effortless to come into camp and think that everything picks up and continues from where we ended the previous year.  In reality, life happens the other 51 weeks of the year.  Bills need to be paid, pipes burst, and leaders and volunteers have shuffled around because of life changes just to name a few.  There is a lot of work going on during the year in the association, and it does seem to culminate in a time of celebration, reflection, and aligning during camp.  However, while some leaders and volunteers are working around the clock, we need more help.  One of the most critical areas is prayer.  Here is a list of prayer and action items for each day of this final week leading up to camp and council.

Day 1: Pray for the leadership of the association, ministers, and local church delegates to come into a sense of celebration of spiritual victories over the past year and seeking of God’s will as a deliberative body during general council.  Take action by learning who is on the general board, ministers, and the delegates to general council and prayer for them or send a note of encouragement.

Day 2: Pray for the worship leaders and singers to in the worship services to be led by the Holy Spirit as they lead the congregation in praise and thanksgiving before God Almighty.  Take action by participating in the choir or congregational singing.  Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, make a joyful noise.

Day 3: Pray for the preachers to be anointed by the Holy Spirit as they study and prepare their sermons and in delivery.  Pray that the hearers are stirred to greater faith and conviction of sin.  Take action by writing down notes from the sermon, sharing on social media quotes or scripture from the sermon.  Also, speak to the preachers and let them know that you are praying for God to use them and encourage their spirit.

Day 4: Pray for the financial support of the camp meeting and association.  It is a big week but only one out of the entire year.  Pray that God would use the churches, members, and you as partners in ministry and are actually invested in a bright future.  Take action by putting aside your offering designated for the camp and be ready to give at the first opportunity.  Take further action by giving over and above.  Be a cheerful giver.

Day 5: Pray for the youth that will be attending camp periodically during the week and the youth that will be staying the full duration.  Pray that God would help settle a call to holiness and ministry in their life.  Take action by speaking words of kindness and encouragement to them.  

Day 6: Pray for conversions and revival among the attendees.  Pray that the services will be attended and the distractions would be minimized.  Take action by inviting as many possible.  Take further action by bringing as many as possible.

Day 7: Pray that camp ignites a fire among the people in the local churches to make an impact in their local worship community and the greater community where they are located.  Take action by taking notes, pictures, and other memories to remember what transpired during the camp meeting.  Take further action by observing spiritual disciplines, ministering through your local church, and leading your family closer to God.

Nehemiah – God’s Change Agent (Ch. 2)

By the time the second chapter opens, Nehemiah carried his burden for Jerusalem and his people very close to his heart for almost four months.  He had been able to keep straight faced until this period while at work.  We are told that before this time that Nehemiah, “had not been beforetime sad in his presence” (Neh. 2:1), speaking about King Artaxerxes.  Yet, his countenance betrayed Nehemiah, and the king questioned what was wrong since he was not sick.  Nehemiah was afraid because his job requirement was to be happy in the king’s presence.  He shared quickly about the plight of Jerusalem and the king further questioned if there was a request from Nehemiah.

Burdened in Prayer

We do not know any of the plans or preparation Nehemiah had made up to this point.  All we see is Nehemiah’s prayer in chapter 1 for God’s grace to keep coming upon Israel and for Nehemiah to have mercy in the sight of the King each day.  However, Nehemiah’s burden overtook his ability to smile, and the king noticed and reacted with the mercy Nehemiah prayed about.  At the king’s question about a request, Nehemiah did not roll out his power points, his agenda, or his vision.  At least not the vision at first.

Nehemiah first prayed (2:4).  We can imagine this was a prayer raised in his heart since he was before the king and did not want to appear unprepared.  However, even short, unspoken prayers can be heard and answered by our great God.  Romans 8:26 reads, “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  Jesus shared a parable about a publican’s humble prayer justified him when only saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13-14).  We serve a prayer answering God.

Philippians 4:6 says, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”  We would be much better off if we brought everything before the Lord in prayer.  In prayer, we not only receive help with material resources, although that can happen, we also receive help with guidance and peace from our Lord.  As Psalm 37:5 also says, “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.”  By prayer, God stokes the fires of passion emitted by our burden.  By prayer, God directs our feet into the path we should go.  By prayer, God enables us by His sufficient grace to approach and apprehend the issues we face.  By prayer, God revives us when we are weak and tired.  By prayer, God receives praise for the good hand He places upon our shoulder.

Consulting and Resourcing

After the prayer, Nehemiah makes a simple statement to King Artaxerxes, “If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my father’s sepulchres, that I may build it” (Neh. 2:5).  At this point, Nehemiah’s vision was simple but clear: to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the walls.  However, the King needed more information, at least one piece that scripture points out.  How long would this project take (2:6).

We learn two things about the change process from this simple question.  Nehemiah was pleased with the question apparently because he knew the king was not mad or against the project.  In fact, he took it as a green light to go ahead and proceed.  We shouldn’t be afraid when people ask essential or tough questions about our vision.  Sometimes, finding the answer to those questions help to clarify for them, and us, the vision and the what is needed to accomplish successful change.  It promotes a team culture and builds a shared vision.

Secondly, we learn that time is a valuable commodity.  Vision ultimately outlives the visionary as others pick it up and keep moving it forward.  However, the projects and changes needed to take place require a time frame.  Volunteers are recruited easier when they know they won’t be enlisted forever.  Also, we are kept on task knowing that there are deadlines.  Procrastination is a killer force to change.

Once Nehemiah set a time, which we don’t know, but we do know he took 52 days to complete the walls (6:15), he was aware that resources were needed to accomplish his task.  After the king had accepted the time frame, Nehemiah went on to seek protection and supplies.  He wanted further proof of King Artaxerxes blessing to rebuild the walls by letters and the procurement of goods.  We live in a world that works with materials, economies, and legalities.  We must be aware of these issues in our planning and preparations, or we will be blindsided and discouraged by these barriers.

Trouble on the Horizon

Chapter two hints toward and then will fully unveil the greatest obstacle Nehemiah would face, other people (vs. 7, 9-10, 19-20).  Three men, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, were governors of the neighboring regions.  Even more, they were from people groups that Israel fought against when they first possessed the land.  They would use increasing levels of persecution against Nehemiah: mocking, physical harm, deception, and power plays in wielding influence.

Their attempts to stop the work of rebuilding were futile.  Namely, as alluded to in the Scripture, Nehemiah and Artaxerxes was open to the possibility of resistance (vs. 7, 9-10). However, being aware and prepared, though very important, is only part of the change agents success in dealing with trouble, whether people or other issues.  First, you have to keep faith in God.  We serve a big God and “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)?  Secondly, we keep coming to that God-given burden.  Having a passion for an issue or project will help us keep mustering strength when going against the grain.

Clarifying the Vision

The last thing we note from chapter two is that Nehemiah only knew about the destruction of Jerusalem.  He did not see the actual devastation until he arrives in verses 11-18.  We are then told that Nehemiah did a late night inspection of the walls when no one else was looking.  Once he came back, he was more committed than ever and rallied the people with greater clarity.  What happened?  He saw reality.  His presumptions were confirmed, but the actual size of the work was no doubt changed.  He wanted to see the whole city restored.  He told the King that the gates were broken down, but now he fully saw that the protective exterior walls have been entirely destroyed.  For anything to move forward, he now knew that the walls needed to be the central focus.

We can have a vision of what we would like to happen or what we feel God prefers.  However, if we do not see the actual reality around us, we will underestimate the size of the work ahead of us.  It’s like a taking a leap.  We see where we want to land but if we do not look at where we are, we won’t know how much exertion is needed to make the jump.  We not only need a vision of the future but we need to clarify our vision with the present.  Assessing the current state of our churches or organization is vital if we are to cultivate a lasting change.

Nehemiah – God’s Change Agent (Ch. 1)

After being in captivity for 70 years in Babylon, in 536 B.C., the first group of Jews returned to Israel under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the kingly descendant. In 458 B.C., Ezra the priest led the second group, and in 444 B.C. a third group was led by Nehemiah.  Zerubbabel led the rebuilding of the temple, Ezra restored proper worship and understanding of the law, and Nehemiah rebuilt the walls.  Work on the temple and Ezra’s attempt to restore Israel’s religion was hindered until Nehemiah came and led the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Before the walls were rebuilt, the city was defenseless to raiders and those who would sabotage the work and heart of the people.

Who was Nehemiah?

We are told in the book named after Nehemiah that he was the “king’s cupbearer” (1:11:).  The Persian King Artaxerxes trusted Nehemiah with his life since Nehemiah was to taste test everything before the king to make sure it was not poisoned.  We also know that Nehemiah had a happy soul because he was never sad before the presence of the king (2:1).  God had placed Nehemiah in a strategic place for the purpose of securing resources and the kings blessing to rebuild the walls the Jerusalem.

A Burden for Lasting Change.

What does Nehemiah have to do with change and why do leaders continually look to this book for inspiration?  Especially as it concerns our local churches and service before God.  I believe it is because Nehemiah demonstrates to us the foundation of producing real and lasting change.  Now, most consultants and other leaders will start with a vision and may quote some verse about not having a vision.  However, Nehemiah was not in Jerusalem, and he was not aware of anything needing help in Jerusalem.  He was unconcerned at first until he had a burden.

The book begins with Nehemiah receiving a message about the deplorable state of Jerusalem.  The walls were still broken down and were the laughing stock of the surrounding nations.   At this news, he broke down and mourned for some time (1:4).  It is not at this point that Nehemiah started to develop a vision.  No, instead he sought after God’s help.  Once we lose sight of God, we begin to be reckless. We cast off certain restraints from activities we know are wrong. We set prayer aside as well and cease having God’s vision in the little things of life. We naturally begin to act on our own initiative.  If we are eating only out of our own hand and doing things solely on our own accord without expecting God to come in, we are on a downward path.

The information that the messenger revealed was a dark contrast to Nehemiah’s knowledge of Jerusalem.  This presented a conflict in his soul that something more needed to be done.  He now had a burden and was cultivating it before God in prayer.  It would even affect his demeanor before the king (2:1-4).

What we learn in the episode of Nehemiah’s account is that burden must be present for change to occur.  It is a burden to make a difference that will help a person move forward with their work even when facing extreme difficulties.  A burden will stay when helpers are not found.  A burden will still be present when resources are low.  Yes, that can produce some pains, but it strengthen’s passion and a desire to follow-through with commitments.

Do you have a burden for a needed change in your church?  Or, in your life?  Seek God to imprint on your heart a strong desire to do something that in turn will point others to Christ and empower the believer to greater devotion before God.

 

 

 

A glorious and difficult task.

Our present society places before us the question, “why do we need ministers and preaching?”  This leads to frustration among many but what really puts pressure on ministers is the very impossible task of preaching.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”  Karl Barth put out three points that characterize this difficulty that lies before the minister in a chapter called the “Task of the Ministry.”  He said, “‘As ministers, we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison.”

First, we ought to speak of God

Often in sermons, there is a failure to point people toward God.  We apply sound biblical principles to everyday life, but we fail to make much of Jesus.  We have taken the aim to help people live better rather than helping them die before God.  What they need is God, and our preaching should contribute to pointing them to Him.

Second, we are human, however, and so cannot speak of God

We are finite creatures talking about the infinite Creator.  He is beyond us in every capacity, even imagination.  To talk about God is beyond our ability and cognition.  We would continually fail to correctly display God by our words.  Barth was famous for simply saying, “God is God.”  In that way, he described God but in reality, did not try to limit God by any human definition.

Third, we ought, therefore, recognize both that we should speak of God and yet cannot, and by that very recognition give God the glory

As God is infinitely above us and the task of preaching is given to us, we should use our voice and opportunity to praise God.  To praise and give thanks is to give God glory.  To proclaim to others the self-revelation of God through the Holy Scriptures and draw them to Him is to bring God glory.  Returning to the first statement, we ought to speak of God.  Make much of Jesus in our preaching.

Seven Signs in John: 3 – The Man of Bethesda

Thirty-eight years is a long time to deal with one disease.  But that’s exactly what this individual had been doing.  He and countless others would gather themselves together beside the pool of Bethesda waiting for a miracle.  At this place, an angel would supposedly trouble the waters, causing a ripple.  We do not know who the angel is or whether they are a heavenly or demonic spirit. But, apparently, the first person into the water would be healed.

John 5:1-14

After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. 10 The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. 11 He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. 12 Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? 13 And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place. 14 Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.

What we see is that the man’s attempt to be made whole shows the man’s limits.  He can’t be healed unless someone helps us.  The same goes for us with our sin.  We are unable to be set free from sin unless someone else does so on our behalf.  That’s exactly what Jesus did for this person and us.

Healing without seeking.

Seemingly, for this miracle, Jesus targeted this man.  The man beside the water was laying there hoping for a miracle but was not actively seeking.  That’s when this man finds grace in the eyes of Jesus.  The Lord asks him, “Do you want to be made whole?  The man doesn’t say yes. Rather, he complains about how no one helps him into the water, and every year someone else beats him to the miraculous healing.  He did not even know that Jesus standing in front of him, could heal him in a word.

This man received grace when he wasn’t looking for it.  Jesus tells the man to get up, pick up his bed, and walk.  And, you know what?  It happened, immediately!  The man is still complaining when it seems like Jesus interrupted him and delivers the miracle he had been needing.  The man was not seeking his healing but received it anyway.  We may not have been looking for a Savior, but Jesus became ours when we weren’t looking.  As Paul wrote, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).

Meeting the miracle worker.

Jesus had slipped off in the crowd, who had no doubt taken notice of this man’s healing.  Later, Jesus finds this man and warns him that something worse than what he had experienced the previous 38 years would happen if he were to continue sinning.  Is Jesus concerned with your disability or disease?  Yes, he is, but he is without a doubt, more concerned with your holiness before God.  God just doesn’t perform random miracles of healing. When he does a miracle it is an act of grace to encourage our faith in God and our fight with sin.

 Miracles do happen, but not for just any reason.  They are for God’s glory and our holiness.  We must praise God whether he brings us healing or allows us to suffer.  He sees the end from the beginning, and he knows what He is doing. He is in control of our condition and guides us through it to places where we can praise Him loudest.  God also brings miracles to us not to make us feel good but so that we may also have greater victory over sin.  Why? It is because there is something far worse than our present conditions.