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.

Work Together

Have you ever found yourself saying to a colleague, or partner, “Never mind, I will do it myself”?

Many of us have learned the hard way that delegation doesn’t always work. And working as a team isn’t always an easy alternative either. Many of us know, first hand, the “too many chefs in the kitchen” principle. Sometimes it’s just easier to “fly solo”.

I am well acquainted with the temptation to work alone (and often give into to it), but this temptation must be resisted. The kind of work that God has ordained for His people is designed to be completed by a group.

The apostle Paul declares that we “are the body of Christ, and each one of (us) is a part of it” (1Cor. 12:27). Some of us are the “eyes”, some the “ears”, some the “hands”, some the “feet” (1Cor. 12:14-26). Individually, none of us are the body. We are parts. Only together can we be “the body of Christ”.

I must resist every inclination to be “a lone ranger”. A do-it-yourself attitude may work with your home renovation, but it will not work with the church’s transformation of a community. Accordingly, we can do far more together than we can do on our own. God’s designed it this way.

Nearly, 2,500 years ago, Nehemiah came to a point where he had to enlist others in order to succeed with his vision to rebuild Jerusalem. He had done so much on his own. He prayed. He planned. He acquired all the necessary documents and permissions to travel and begin rebuilding. But, eventually, Nehemiah had to present his vision to others because what was required was beyond him.

In Nehemiah 2:17ff, we read about that presentation. The response of the people is so immediate and so positive that we risk missing the profundity of the response. It’s not as if Nehemiah was presenting to a bunch of people with nothing better to do. This was an agricultural society—if you weren’t working, you weren’t eating.

These folks were up to their eyeballs with things to do. Signing on to Nehemiah’s vision would require putting some very important things on hold. Furthermore, many of these people were no longer even living in Jerusalem. Signing on would mean significant time away from home.

In short, working together would require sacrifice. And yet, there is no sign of hesitation. The immediate response is “‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work” (Neh. 2:18).

There is a sense in which the things we are called to today are beyond us, just as rebuilding Jerusalem was beyond Nehemiah’s individual abilities. To maximize our growth in Christ-likeness, to most effectively spread the Gospel, to facilitate kingdom advancement and community transformation, we need one another.

We were never meant to do this Christianity thing on our own. The faith given to us it not reducible to a “Jesus and me” equation. We are called to be a part within a body. We are called to play a particular position on a team.

Nehemiah understood this and succeeded. Jerusalem was rebuilt on the back of a team whose members were committed to God and to one another.

My hope and prayer is that today’s Church will mirror that wisdom and resolve. Accordingly, I urge you: Go find your position. Do your part. Work together.

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“Implementing A Vision Together”, based on Nehemiah 2:11-20, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, October 9, 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.

A Pastor’s Guide To Twitter

Twitter AwardsWhen I signed up for Twitter a few years back I had pretty low expectations. I never imagined that this social network tool could be meaningfully used to convey biblical truth to those seeking to learn and be edified. I began using Twitter in order to send information (“tweet”), but now find that my primary use of Twitter is to receive information/inspiration (by “following” others).

I realize that Twitter has developed a helpful “Who To Follow” mechanism, but just in case you want a little extra help in choosing who to “follow”, I have developed my own “Twitter Awards” commending particular “Tweeters” for your edification (and for my own amusement). The awards below are not the result of any objective assessment, but rather are rooted in my profound bias.

The list of people I “follow”, between my two Twitter accounts (bryn31 and Nassau_Kirk), is quite small. Accordingly, I would love to hear your recommendations, which could possibly lead to a sequel awards presentation in 2012.

Category: Best Reformed Tweeter
Winner: Ligonier (5,914 tweets / 17, 988 followers)
Runner-up: DesiringGod (4,232 tweets / 64,939 followers)
Ligonier Ministries, founded by R.C. Sproul, has a great balance of edifying quotes, ministry updates, resource recommends and helpful retweets. Desiring God Ministries is equally adept at using Twitter, but I give Ligonier the edge for their more intentional promotion of Reformed Theology.

Category: Best Tweeting Preacher
Winner: RickWarren (4,190 tweets / 434,734 followers)
Runner-up: JohnPiper (2,831 tweets / 212,415 followers)
Keep in mind that the award is not “Best Preacher Tweeting”, but “Best Tweeting Preacher”. My two favourite preachers, Alistair Begg and Francis Chan, are not Tweeters. Warren uses Twitter in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes he’ll tweet about items/people he is praying for. On other occasions you’ll see him encouraging other pastors. Warren won’t be winning my “Most Retweetable Preacher” award, but there are times when he will offer up a 140 character gem.

Category: Most Retweetable (Quotable) Preacher
Winner: DailyKeller (530 tweets / 47,833 followers)
Runner-up: MaxLucado (2,822 tweets / 286,490 followers)
Max Lucado has a much larger tweet database and a more extensive following, but I give Tim Keller the edge based on the percentage of his tweets which I retweet. Virtually everything Keller tweets is gold. If we could convince Keller to become a “tweetaholic” the Christian community would be even better served.
Keller tweet: “The heart of the gospel is the cross, and the cross is all about giving up power, pouring out resources, and serving.”
Lucado tweet: “You have not been sprinkled with forgiveness. You have not been spattered with grace. You are submerged in mercy. Let it change you!”

Category: Tweetaholic Preacher
Winner: EdStetzer (14,739 tweets)
Runner-ups: cnieuwhof (8,986 tweets) & PerryNoble (8,626 tweets)
We’ve known for thousands of years that preachers like to talk, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that preachers also like to tweet. I do not mean for this award to be a slight—I follow these guys for a reason–they’re smart, gifted, godly pastors. Ed Stetzer was the keynote speaker at my denomination’s General Assembly in June 2011. Carey Nieuwhof is a friend and colleague from the years we served together in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. But, like I said, we preachers like to talk. These guys are tweet machines!

Category: Up-and-coming Tweeter
Winner: ihelpyouthrive
I told you I was biased! This is my wife’s professional Twitter account. She is an accredited Marriage & Family Therapist (AAMFT) and I happen to think she is a perfect combination of clever and funny. 27 tweets isn’t much, but to use a sports term, she’s a tweeting “prospect”.

Category: Best Toronto Blue Jays Tweeter
Winner: jparencibia9 (2,054 tweets / 49,224 followers)
I can’t be serious all the time! I also follow the athletes from my favourite sports teams. J.P. Arencibia is a young, power-hitting, catcher, who is also a Twitter stand-out.

Category: Best Toronto Maple Leafs Tweeter
Winner: armdog (1,338 tweets / 60,416 followers)
Colby Armstrong is tough as nails on the ice, but on Twitter we see a sophisticated sense of humour.

Category: Best Comic Tweeter
Winner: JimGaffigan (1,871 tweets / 747,404)
Admittedly, Gaffigan does use some edgy religious content in his jokes (mostly to do with bacon)—but to be fair, he also admits to using edgy ketchup jokes.
Gaffigan tweet: “I like swimming with a sun shirt. People always look at me like I fell in the pool.”

Hope you enjoyed these recommends. Like I said, would love to hear your recommends—besides friends, I tend to “follow” Christian pastors/authors, professional athletes, and people who make me laugh.

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.