The Blessing Of Bad Traffic

[I will probably regret writing this post the next time I am running late because of bad traffic.]

Traffic jams are a daily problem in Nassau. I assumed that all my years living in traffic heavy Toronto would prepare me for the traffic challenges of this 22 by 6 mile island. I was wrong.

My GPS tells me that the drive from my home to my church office should take me 7 minutes. Rarely, do I get there in less than 20. On occasion, this short drive has taken me more than 60 minutes.

At this moment, I’m sitting at my desk, at the church, in downtown Nassau. There is no use trying to go anywhere. I’m stuck here—and that’s the blessing. Terrible traffic is enabling me to do some extra things today–like write this blog post (I haven’t written a post in more than 5 weeks). I’ve had more time to read my Bible. I’ve had more time to pray. You might say that I’m experiencing a forced retreat, but I’d prefer to think that I am rolling with providence.

There is no use in me belly-aching about conditions beyond my control. I know the cliche is that “When life serves you lemons, make lemonade”, but the Christian recognizes that “life” doesn’t have the ability to serve you anything. We serve a God who is sovereign over all things. Nothing takes God by surprise. Jesus reminds us,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)

There is so much in that little text. God is not too busy with “big” things that He cannot care for the little things. He cares about the smallest detail of your life. In short, you matter to God. On this basis, Jesus tells us to not be afraid and to not worry about trying or uncertain circumstances (Matthew 6:25-34).

I do realize that traffic congestion is a tiny issue in the greater scheme of things, but I rejoice that God’s purposes remain even in the tiny things.

I don’t always use my time wisely. And I don’t always have a positive view about the traffic here in Nassau. But today, I thank God for an opportunity to catch up on some things that matter immensely. I am grateful for the fact that, out of a negative thing (insane traffic), can come a positive thing (an opportunity for more intentional communion with God).

You might not live in a place with traffic problems, but perhaps you know what it is like to have your plans interrupted by adverse or unexpected circumstances. “Life” did not serve you “lemons”. God has entered in. How will you respond?

Jesus tells us not to be afraid and to not worry.

That’s a lot easier to do when we position ourselves in close proximity to Jesus Christ. But perhaps that is God’s intention with the adversity or interruption that you’ve encountered.

Eventually, the traffic will ease up and you’ll be on the move again. Until then, let me encourage you to use this time to draw close to God. That’s what He wants, and that’s what we need.

Coping with Critics

Chuck Swindoll, in his fine commentary on Nehemiah, asserts that “you haven’t really led until you have become familiar with the stinging barbs of the critic. For the leader, opposition is inevitable.”

You probably know this to be true from experience. Most every leader will eventually be criticized—whether you are the Prime Minister of a nation, a business owner, a store manager, or a leader within a local church. Resistance to leadership is commonplace.

Accordingly, a good leader will be someone who possesses skill in problem-solving.

Nehemiah was such a leader. As Nehemiah led the people of Israel in the reconstruction of Jerusalem, he had to cope with persistent opposition. In Nehemiah, chapter 4, we read about Sanballat and Tobiah openly mocking those engaged in reconstruction. Moreover, Sanballat and Tobiah made a point of recruiting other critics and together they conspired to frustrate and interrupt the work of Nehemiah and his fellow countrymen.

I want to offer you something to consider. Nehemiah was someone who was experiencing God’s abundant blessing and ongoing favour. And yet, Nehemiah still has to deal with fierce opposition. Just as God cleared a path for Nehemiah to travel to Jerusalem, He could have also made smooth the path for Jerusalem’s reconstruction.

What we see here is that God’s favour upon Nehemiah does not preclude Nehemiah from having to face serious adversity.

This leads me to conclude that, while facing opposition is highly unpleasant, there must be something positive in it.

Could it be that God allows us to face opposition, purposing us to draw closer to Him?

As we read on, I am inspired by Nehemiah’s instinct to pray and to keep working. Nehemiah’s approach to leadership is a delightful balance between being highly spiritual and immensely practical.

The temptation, when we are criticized, is to give up the work. For the leader, this is not a viable option. Nehemiah shows us a better way. Nehemiah continues to move the mission forward through earnest prayer and resolute effort.

The balance between these two approaches will be the key to our success.

Prayer without pragmatics is presumption. Prayer without a security plan is going to get someone hurt.

On the other hand, pragmatics without prayer flows from pride. To attempt to engage our critics without Divine assistance is to court disaster.

If God has called us to a significant work, history teaches us that we will eventually face opposition. But this opposition has been designed by God to shape our character and to further His purposes (Rom. 8:28). For this reason, we do not run from adversity, but rather, we greet it with earnest prayer and a steady determination to stay with the work.

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“Implementing A Vision Amid Opposition”, based on Nehemiah 4:1-9, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 16, 2011.

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.

God, Hurricane Irene, & Anxiety

Hurricane Irene approaches The BahamasI used to watch CNN’s coverage of hurricanes with great curiosity.

As I sit here writing this post, my curiosity remains—but from a much different vantage point. As a resident of The Bahamas, I’m about to experience, first-hand, the impact of a hurricane.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel. Panic? Terror? Anxiety? Calm?

At the moment, the weather outside is perfect (I can hear the sound of someone cutting their lawn). I plan to run some errands later today, and possibly even tomorrow. But Thursday…I’m told we should stay put—and I plan to!

We’ve procured all of our necessary supplies–ample food, water, gas for our vehicles, and batteries for our lanterns. The hurricane shutters are up and later today our propane tanks will be secured. We’re ready…even if we don’t know for sure what we are up against.

As I’ve interacted with people over the last few days, I’ve noticed two dominant themes have surfaced: God and anxiety.

Many people are praying—praying that the hurricane changes course, praying that the hurricane weakens, praying that the damage will be minimal.

I’ve also noticed an upswing in some people’s anxiety. Part of me gets this. We’re up against something we can’t control. And while experts can accurately predict a general trajectory for the hurricane, they cannot predict what the specific impact/damage will be for each family in the hurricane’s path. It’s conceivable (likely?) that some in Nassau will have no or little damage to property, while others experience substantial devastation. We just don’t know exactly how this is going to play out…and that makes some people very nervous.

I think I’m a little bit nervous. I think I’m a bit nervous, because this is a new experience for me.

I think the reason why I am only a little bit nervous has to do with my faith in God. Now, by that I don’t mean to suggest that nothing bad will happen. I don’t mean to suggest that my faith, or the collective faith of Bahamians guarantees our safety and the preservation of our property.

When I suggest that my faith in God helps to allay anxiety, I mean to say that I firmly believe that God has everything under control. My conviction is that He is sovereign. God has measured this out. His design will, no doubt, include much mercy. And, in suffering or in destruction, He has designs to teach and to correct as our loving Heavenly Father.

The passage I turned to this morning for this reminder was Job chapters 38 through 41. I encourage you to read these chapters. God answers Job’s objections to his current predicament and suffering. It is a rebuke to be sure, but I find comfort in the rebuke:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? (38:4)…Have you ever commanded the morning, or shown the dawn its place? (38:12)…Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm? (38:25)…Do you send lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? (38:35)”

God is clearly in control.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean we will be spared hardship (Job wasn’t spared hardship!). What it does mean, however, is that whatever happens, there is great purpose behind it.

We’ve done all that we can. Every preparation has been made.

The words of Paul encourage me: “Be anxious for nothing [not even hurricanes!], but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present our requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6,7).

Our hope is in a God who is both sovereign and good.