God’s Plan and Good Planning

Have you ever wished for the ability to change another person’s mind? Think of the implications if we possessed such a power. When applying for a new job, you could compel the employer to hire you on the spot. The mistreated child in the playground could tame the bully. The devoted baseball fan could force the manager to make a substitution for the struggling pitcher. The churchgoer could cause the the minister to select their favourite hymns to sing each Sunday.

Ah, but such a power will never rest with us.

And yet, the ability to compel behaviour is not beyond the God of this Universe. King Solomon writes in Proverbs 21, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

The testimony of Scripture is that God possesses the ability to affect the way we think and act. Accordingly, we need to make some qualifications when we use the phrase “free will”.

There is no doubt that we possess a will. By our own volition we move about and do all sorts of things. We make real choices many times a day, every day of our lives. But to say that this will of ours is “free” of any overriding force does not line up with what the Bible says.

The Lord God of this Universe has the ability to trump our will and to even change our will. This is part of what it means for God to be all-powerful.

I’m not suggesting that we are robots operating according to a predefined program. Nor do I mean to suggest that we are like puppets who are being animated by a kind of cosmic puppet-master. I simply want us to be reminded that our will does not always carry the day (and this is a good thing!). We need to remember that “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

In light of this, what do you do when trouble arises? What do you do when the land of your ancestors is in ruins? What do you do when the people you love are in great distress? What do you do when you are powerless to change your predicament?

You pray.

You petition the great Heart-Changer to take up your cause.

This is precisely what Nehemiah does when confronted by the devastation in Jerusalem. Nehemiah prays, “When I serve the king his wine today, make him pleased with me and have him do what I ask” (Neh. 1:11).

If we track with Nehemiah we see that he is convinced of God’s power to change King Artaxerxes’ heart, but Nehemiah also understands the need to participate in the plan of God.

In other words, God’s plan does not preclude good planning.

Many Christians make the mistake of emphasizing one of these aspects over the other. Some Christians are so convinced of God’s sovereignty over all things, that they mistakenly retreat to a position of total inactivity. By contrast, there are others who immerse themselves in planning and strategizing without giving much thought to how God might enter into the equation.

Nehemiah avoids both of these extremes. He understands that God has a plan, and that prayer helps us to get in step with that plan. Nehemiah also understands the value of good planning. Nehemiah waits 4 months before approaching the king and asking for a leave of absence and a series of letters to facilitate his travel and acquisition of resources.

We read on and see that the king gave Nehemiah more than what he asked for. Nehemiah got the leave of absence. He got the letters for safe travel. He got requisitions for lumber, and he also got a small army given to him!

Why was the king so gracious? Why did the king change his policy and help Nehemiah to such a degree?

Yes, indeed, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes.

Nehemiah recognized this and so he writes for our edification, “God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked” (Neh. 2:8).

I don’t know your particular predicament, but God does. You may feel that you are powerless to change your predicament, but you belong to a God who is all-powerful.

Pray to the great Heart-Changer and seek to connect to His plan. And as you wait for His answer, I encourage you to engage in good planning.

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“God’s Plan and Good Planning”, based on Nehemiah 2:1-10, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 2, 2011.

Casting A Vision In Difficult Times

planning aheadThe Bible is filled with accounts that could come under the heading of “Mission Impossible”, and the story of Nehemiah is one of them. News of Jerusalem’s destruction reaches Nehemiah, living 800 miles away while serving as cupbearer to the King of Persia.

Hearing the news of Jerusalem in ruins made Nehemiah weep. He stopped eating. He was devastated (Neh. 1:4). But rather than give up all hope for his homeland, Nehemiah turned to God in prayer.

Nehemiah would eventually come up with a comprehensive plan to rebuild Jerusalem, but before pursuing his vision with his people, Nehemiah pursues his vision with his God.

For any Christian who desires to reach a particular destination, for every pastor who longs to see the renewal of a local congregation, the example of Nehemiah is worth mirroring.

The “odds” were stacked against Nehemiah. You can hear his critics:

“Nehemiah, how do you plan to get to Jerusalem–it’s 800+ miles away?”
“Won’t you lose your job as cupbearer to the King?”
“Who is going to help you?”
“Don’t you realize how dangerous the region has become?”
“Nehemiah, don’t you realize that this task is too big for you?”

I think Nehemiah was acutely aware of the obstacles in front of him…and that’s why he prayed.

It was said of Hudson Taylor that the sun never rose for 40 years in China without God finding him on his knees in prayer for the great land.

Reconstruction is hard work—especially when there are those who oppose it.

Nehemiah’s example shows us what is possible when God supports our plan and powers our efforts. Nehemiah is a delightful example of how to pursue a vision in the face of contrary circumstances.

My current context for ministry is Nassau, Bahamas and, while I can’t make a clean comparison between ancient Jerusalem and modern day Nassau, I definitely see a parallel.

Renewal is possible—prosperity is possible, when God is involved. And God’s people have a role to play in that—and that role begins with prayer.

As I said to my congregation recently: “If Nehemiah can do it, we can do it.”

I don’t know your particular circumstances, but if God is for you, who can be against you? If your vision is really God’s vision, you will succeed. Be constant in prayer as you go after your destination. If Nehemiah can do it, you can do it.

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“Casting A Vision In Perilous Times”, based on Nehemiah 1, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 25, 2011.

More Than Words

more than wordsIn my previous post, “Compelled To Talk About Jesus“, I make the case for why followers of Jesus should be motivated to promote the Gospel. Within this post I would like us to consider what the Bible says about how the Gospel should be conveyed.

Most of us, I suspect, when thinking about the promotion of the Christian Gospel, think first about verbal proclamation. Because the Gospel is inherently a message, it logically follows that one of the primary means for advancing the message will be for people to talk to other people about Jesus.

Indeed, verbal proclamation is one of the primary ways we are called to share the Gospel. One of the most compelling calls comes from 1Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

The Greek phrase literally means to “give an apology”—from which we get the term, “apologetics”. No, we’re not being asked to apologize for our faith in Jesus—the phrase in the original language suggests making a reasoned defense in the face of a challenge by another.

I realize that, as I say this, it is quite likely that the prospect of verbally defending your faith terrifies you.

You may be relieved to hear then that the Bible describes other ways in which we can promote the Gospel. My intention is not to diminish the importance of verbal proclamation when I point out that there is more than one way to engage in the work of evangelism.

The first “language of mission” I would like us to look at is the language of prayer.

Prayer is something, presumably, that every Christian already does. And prayer is a meaningful entry point for us into the work of mission. In fact, Jesus commands our participation in this regard. Jesus says to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Mt. 9:37, 38).

Here, Jesus instructs us to pray for more evangelists/missionaries. Pray that God would cause followers of Jesus who are not currently engaged in mission to get onside. Along a similar vein, the apostle Paul calls for us to pray for those who are already actively engaged in verbally proclaiming the Gospel.

Paul implores us, “Be sure to pray that God will make a way for us to spread his message and explain the mystery about Christ, even though I am in jail for doing this. Please pray that I will make the message as clear as possible” (Col. 4:3-4).

Paul specifically asks for prayer believing that prayer is vital to, both, his delivery of the message, and to the effectiveness of the message.

The next language of mission I would like us to consider is the language of giving money.

Jesus has instructed us to go into “all the nations” to baptize and to make disciples (Mt. 28:19). For the great majority of us, however, this is simply not possible. What we might resolve to do instead, however, is to send money to support those missionaries who are able to go and to do the work of proclamation on our behalf.

This is precisely what the ancient church at Philippi did. Paul opens his letter to them by stating, “I always pray for you with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:4, 5). In what capacity did the Philippians serve as partners to Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel? We learn in chapter 4 that it was through financial support. This tells me that we should not diminish the important role of cheque-writing when it comes to advancing the Gospel.

And thirdly, there is the language of good deeds.

This mission language is in the spirit of Francis of Assisi, who was reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times—if necessary, use words.” The idea here is that how we act, how we behave, bears powerful witness to Christ. Jesus says as much in His Sermon on the Mount, challenging us: “Let your light shine, so that others will see your good works and will praise your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

There should be no dichotomy between speaking about Jesus to others and living for Jesus—both, the “talk” and the “walk” are required. The message is what needs to be believed in, but the exemplary lifestyle of the one speaking is what legitimizes the message for the hearer.

In the words the Scottish missionary and Olympic athlete, Eric Liddell, “We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ.”

Having reflected on these few texts, I hope that you are encouraged in regard to your obligation to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Your witness need not begin with verbal proclamation. There are other meaningful ways to be engaged in the work of mission.

Through your prayers, through your financial gifts, and through your good deeds, you can meaningfully engage in mission.

And yet, it must also be said that without verbal witness the work of evangelism is incomplete. At the end of the day, after all the prayers, after all the good deeds, and all the financed ministries, it is still necessary for people to tell people the message of Jesus Christ.

What I am trying to say, however, is that you need not start there. Begin with prayer. Look for opportunities to support others already engaged in the work. Build a foundation for dialogue with your kindness and loving deeds.

We need to speak the message–yes–but, let’s also remember that we need more than words.

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“The Languages Of Mission”, based on a variety of biblical texts, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, August 7, 2011.

“It’s Not You, It’s Me”

I’m breaking up with Facebook. And Twitter. And Television. And Bejeweled. And maybe Angry Birds.

Those who know me well, know that I am a bit of a techie nerd. I own 2 laptops, an iPad, and an iPhone. I build websites, I frequent all of the major social networks, and I love playing video games. None of these things, on their own, in moderation, are bad. I am very much pro-technology.

However…I was rereading parts of Tim Keller’s book, “King’s Cross”, yesterday and was massively convicted by the following quote: “After you’ve repented of your sins you’ll have to repent of how you have used the good things in your life to fill the place where God should be.”

I would never consciously try and put something in the place of God–that’s idolatry–but my attention is sufficiently arrested as I consider the time I would win back if I ceased certain online activities.

After being convicted by Keller’s comment, I then came across a quote from Billy Graham that sealed the deal for me. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, recently asked his “granddad” for some advice and then posted Graham’s answer on Twitter (ironic, I know): “If I could go back, I would’ve studied and prayed more.”

I’m thinking through Billy Graham’s answer trying to imagine what he put in the place of study and prayer. I’m guessing things like preaching and evangelizing. I then consider where I might find more time for study and prayer and the answer is markedly different: Break from, or massively curb time spent, engaging online social networks and playing video games.

So, for the month of August I’m giving up Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Bejeweled, & Television.

I must admit, I am sometimes cynical when I hear about other people “giving up things”. I have a sensitive nose for legalism and I don’t want to trade in my silly indulgences for self-righteous austerity. But if I don’t fill this newly created pocket of time with things that bring me and my family closer to God, then this exercise will have been in vain.

Accordingly, my aim will be to read more, write more, pray more, spend more time with my family in the evening hours and go to bed earlier. As much as I desperately need this lifestyle adjustment, I suspect that my family might benefit from these changes that I am seeking to implement. There were days when my young daughter would follow me onto our front porch with her Bible–to do what her papa was doing. Now, more often then not, she reaches first for her iPod Touch. I suspect she has learned that from me also.

One of my favourite passages within the Psalms reads: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25, 26).

I long to be able to echo that sentiment by the way I spend my time.

“Technology, I’m sorry. I think we need to take a break for a while. Honestly, it’s not you, it’s me.”

An Exemplary Response To Suffering

Nehemiah - PraysNehemiah was cupbearer to the King of Persia, living 800 miles from Jerusalem, when he received the grim report that the most precious icons and monuments of his homeland had been destroyed. Undoubtedly, friends and family of Nehemiah were casualties of the attack that destroyed Jerusalem.

It is difficult to measure precisely what Nehemiah lost when the city of his homeland was destroyed, but we can safely conclude that the loss was profound, and his pain, acute.

Nehemiah handles this tragic news in a manner that is both balanced and inspiring. For this reason, I commend the example of Nehemiah to all who suffer today. Whether we face the challenge of a personal illness, the anguish of a strained or severed personal relationship, or whether we feel the burden of a loved one’s pain, Nehemiah’s example can help our response to suffering.

Looking to the book that bears his name, from 1:1 to 2:8, Nehemiah models a three-pronged response to suffering:

1) Grief

2) Prayer

3) Action

We read about Nehemiah’s initial response to the tragic news in 1:4, “I sat down and wept and mourned for days.

Nehemiah is not in denial about his pain. Friends are dead. Things that were important to him have been completely destroyed. Nehemiah hurts badly. I think it is normal, natural, and even helpful, that before doing anything else Nehemiah grieves.

Nehemiah did not unduly linger in his grief, but rather, he eventually transitions into a time of prayer and fasting (1:4-1:11). Chapter 2 begins, three months after receiving the report, and Nehemiah is still praying. But now, he’s back on duty, serving wine to the king who notices Nehemiah’s somber disposition and asks if he can be of any help.

What follows is inspiring: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king” (2:4).

Picture it: Nehemiah is standing before the King of the Persian Empire with cup in hand; he has already admitted to the reader in 2:2 that he “was very much afraid“, and yet he pauses to pray. It was probably not a long prayer; the king probably did not even notice the pause, but it was long enough for Nehemiah to call upon the God of the Universe for help.

Nehemiah demonstrates for us that God was often on his mind, and that no time was the wrong time; no time was too short a time, to pray to the Lord for help.

Nehemiah initially spent much of his time grieving, and then he spent a great deal of time praying, but his response to his suffering did not end here. Nehemiah was poised and prepared for action.

He asks the king for a leave of absence in order to return to Jerusalem and personally oversee the rebuilding of the city. The remainder of the book describes Nehemiah’s leadership in the reconstruction of Jerusalem. The improbable rebuild is successful. Suffering gives way to celebration.

We want that, don’t we?

We don’t want to linger in a season of suffering any longer than we need to. Nehemiah shows us the way–He shows us a balanced way. We grieve. We pray. And then we go out and do something about our situation. Having prayed, we act in anticipation of God acting on our behalf.

Are you presently suffering in some way? Are you facing a daunting challenge? I urge you then, let Nehemiah show the way–let Nehemiah serve as your exemplary response to suffering.

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“Nehemiah: Passion For Change”, based on Nehemiah 1:1-2:8, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 19, 2011.