A More Centered Life

This week, I am taking a break from the normal blog to write something different. When I did my Doctor of Ministry degree, I began with an interest in Spiritual Formation. However, just as I began my studies, I moved to Advent Presbyterian Church, where administrative and leadership skills were needed. Therefore, I entered a program known as, “The Beeson Leadership Program” at Asbury Theological Seminary and did a more generalized doctorate  on leadership. As a part of this program, our group was exposed to some of the finest and most successful pastors in America. I have never regretted being a part of the Beeson program.

Over the next several years, I was able to study some of the most successful pastors in America and in our local area. When it came time to write a dissertation, however, I returned to my earlier interest and wrote on the Spirituality of Christian Leadership. I used to joke that one could summarize my dissertation with the advice, “Just be like Jesus.” Actually, I think that this is pretty good advice for pastors and other leaders. Leadership is not necessarily about success (thought that helps!). it is about doing the right things for those one leads.

A couple of years after I completed my work, a denominational group with which our church was associated entered a period of crisis. I was a leader of one of the groups. One day,, after a bitter meeting, I went to a hidden bookshelf in my office to look for a book. I did not find that book. Instead, a copy of the Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom, fell at my feet. I began to read the book and found it helpful. I was reminded of the similarity between Christian and Taoist ethics. The Tao warned me that who I was and  who I was becoming was much more important than whatever success we had in the dispute at hand.

Centered Living imageI liked the Tao so much that, in my quiet time each morning, I began to paraphrase the book for Orthodox, Trinitarian Christians. It took a long time, but eventually I completed what I published under the title, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love.

This work was a  labor of love. I wrote another book on wisdom after Centered Living/Centered Leading, a book on wisdom literature called Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers. Although I like and am proud of Path of Life, I continue to use Centered Living/Centered Leading in my daily quiet times, and especially during times of crisis, confusion, and conflict. It never ceases to caution, warn, and calm me in the midst of doubt, pressure, and indecision.

The underlying idea of the book is quite simple: We do not have the luxury as Christians of being one person at home, another at work, another in the church, etc. This leads to the fractured personality of the post-modern person. God wants us to be whole, to have integrity, to be wise, loving, and filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ. In our hearts, we long for spiritual, mental, and moral wholeness. Therefore, we need to embody the wisdom and love of God both in our private and public lives. Put simply, we need to become more like Jesus.

This has implications for leaders: We cannot be one person when we are off-duty and another person when we are leading others without ending up spiritually wounded and sick.  Centered Living/Centered Living can help a reader acquire spiritual wholeness and health. It has helped me in that quest. (The search for spirtual wholeness is never quite over on earth. We have to just keep making progress.) One fundamental principle I find in the Tao and in the Christian tradition is the importance of meditation and prayer before making difficult decisions, especially when under pressure. It is a struggle for most people to take them to meditate and pray, but it is worth the effort.

coverThis year in my spare time I have been preparing a new edition of Centered Living/Centered Leading. I have tried to clarify a few things and eliminate some irritating typographical errors I am ashamed to find. It is my hope that Centered Living/Centered Leading can help others besides me. The other day I got an email  from a London cab driver who had managed to get a copy of the book and loved it. I cannot tell you how much that email meant to me!

It takes a little work to get into a more mystical, proverbial style of writing. It took me some time in the beginning as well. Nevertheless,  the time and effort are worth it. I hope some of the readers of this blog will take time to enjoy the quest for wholeness and wisdom through Centered Living/Centered Leading as well. Many of my friends wish that I had written a more didactic, teaching, Western-mind oriented book. Unfortunately, true wisdom cannot be learned with the mind alone. It is a matter of the heart. This is one reason for the mystic and sometimes indirect way in which wisdom literature works. One has to find the truth for oneself in one’s own heart under the leadership of the Spirit of God. A book can only act as a way of stimulating a relationship with God and deep spiritual change.

If you like this blog and especially if you purchase the book (It is available on Amazon), please recommend it to a friend or family member. I would love of people to forward this blog to friends.

Next week, I am returning to the general pattern of the blog and to the subject of the Holy Spirit!

Yours in Christ,

Chris

Walking in the Way of Christ

This year our theme has been, “What is Next?” Some people live in the present, and I think that these are, in many ways, the happiest people. Most people, however, wonder about the future. We wonder about the future of our world, of our nation, of our communities, of our families—we wonder most of all about our future. It is natural to ask the question, “What is Next?”

imgresKathy and I have never been fans of long driving trips. My Dad and Mom were of another generation. I have vivid memories of two week trips from Kansas City to San Francisco and back in a car without air-conditioning! We would go zipping down Route 66, stopping at tourist attraction after tourist attraction: Old Albuquerque, to Sante Fe, to Taos, to the Grand Canyon. (Until one is a parent, it is impossible to understand how irritating it is to be with two constantly fighting little boys in a Chevy station wagon for twelve hours a day!).

Of course, as kids as we got back into the car after each stop, we had two questions, “Where are we going next?” and “How long until we get there?” (All parents get these questions.) Life is a little bit like being on a driving trip. The two questions we most want to have answered are:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How long will it take to get there?

Interestingly, for most of our lives most of us will not always understand the answer to those two questions! From time to time, we have no idea where we are going or how long it’s going to take to get there.

The Bible often uses the metaphor of a journey for life. In the Old Testament, and especially in wisdom literature, the Bible often describes human beings as on one of two paths:

  1. The Path of Wisdom or Life, which leads to blessings; and
  2. The Path of Foolishness or Evil, which leads to death.

The Caller who is Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, the first major activity of Jesus is to call people to go on a journey with him. This morning, we’re  reading from the first chapter of Mark, the portion where Jesus calls his first disciples. Listen in this blog to the Word of God as it comes to us through the writing of John Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him (Mark 1:14-18).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, Lord of Life: Come now to call us into your presence. Allow us to hear in the depths of our hearts your voice saying: Come Follow Me. In Jesus Name, Amen.

imgres-1Almost everyone who reads this passage is struck by a singular fact: the disciples are going about their daily business, trying to make a living when they meet Jesus and immediately go with him. Peter, Andrew, James and John, were fishermen. In Jesus’s day, being a fisherman was a good profession. They made good money fishing.

In addition, James and John were from a prominent family. It’s possible that John’s father had a commission to sell fish to the priests in Jerusalem. [1] From the passage, we see that John’s father was at least wealthy enough to employ hired men in the family business. As they were fishing and preparing to fish, Jesus walked by. Perhaps he stopped and had a short conversation. We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus said to them, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men” and they followed him. The same Jesus who called them calls us to follow him.

The Character of the Caller.

Why were Peter, Andrew James, and John willing to follow Jesus? There must have been something about Jesus that overcame their natural reluctance to leave their business, their family, their responsibilities, and follow Jesus. They must have seen something in Jesus that they desired.

We know from the Bible that not everyone followed Jesus. The Scribes saw nothing special in Jesus. The Pharisees saw nothing special in Jesus. The Sadducees saw nothing special in Jesus. The Priests saw nothing special in Jesus. In fact, most people saw nothing special in Jesus. What did the disciples see?

In the Old Testament, wisdom is often pictured as a woman urging the human race to leave the path of foolishness and follow the path of life. In the New Testament, John begins his Gospel with these words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:1-13).

In other words, what Peter, Andrew, James, and John saw in Jesus was the very wisdom and power of God in human form.

John wrote his gospel as an old man. I don’t think that these words from the beginning of his Gospel sprang into John’s mind the first time he saw Jesus. However, I think he did see that there was something special about this man. In Matthew, Jesus compares himself to Solomon, saying that “one greater than Solomon” is present in Jesus (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). Paul says in First Corinthians that Jesus is the very wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24).

imgres-2I think Peter, Andrew James, and John saw some glimmer of the majesty and wisdom of God in Jesus. They saw something of the love of God in Jesus. This is important for us. We will not follow Jesus unless we see something different in Jesus, something that we long for in the depths of our hearts. We will not follow Jesus unless we sense that we cannot find what we are looking for, we cannot arrive at the destination in life we are seeking, unless we follow him.

The Way of the Caller.

Jesus does not come to Peter, Andrew, James, and John asking them to come to his seminary, attended Sunday school class, participating his Bible study, or be in his school for living. He says, “Come and follow me.” There is nothing more important in the Christian life than hearing Jesus say to us, “Come and follow me.” More than anything else, Jesus was calling the disciples (and us) into a personal, one-on-one, three-on-one, twelve-on-one relationship.

As I mentioned a moment ago, in the Old Testament the way of wisdom was often called the “Path of Life.” Interestingly, one of the first names for Christians was “the People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). In Hebrews, the author writes to Jewish Christians that, “We enter through a new way that Jesus opened for us. It’s a living way that leads through the curtain—Jesus’ body” (Hebrews 10:20, Easy to Read English Version [emphasis added]).

There is a lot packed in to that single sentence! A path is something we follow to get somewhere. In Jesus, we have a new path to God and to abundant, eternal, life.  We have a new way to fellowship with God and a new way of living. This new way is not about forcing ourselves to obey the law. It’s not about a kind of works righteousness. That was the old way.

The way of Jesus, the new way, is a living way. It is a new path to wholeness and fellowship with God. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, and the sacrifice he made for us, we can have a close, personal, daily relationship with God and walk on the Path of Life with God in Christ.

So often, we contemporary American Christians think of discipleship as attending a Bible study, memorizing some Bible verses, being involved in some church program, or some other activity. Jesus wants us to be involved in some of these things; however, the call is to be in a personal one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three (you get the idea!) relationship with Jesus as we walk together with Jesus and our fellow disciples day by day.

The Power of the Caller.

images-2Our power for living and walking with Jesus will not come from ourselves, but from Jesus. The call to follow Jesus is a call to follow Jesus into a completely new way of life. When Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” they probably thought they were going to follow Jesus in accordance with the laws and the prophets. Jesus went out of his way to tell them (and us) that his way is externally no different than the way of the law and the prophets. He did not come to change the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17). His way is a New Way because it is a way of living from a center inside of God’s presence and power and of being gradually changed by the power of God’s love. In fact, when the disciples tried to walk with Jesus on their own power, they failed. For example, when Peter try to walk on water without Jesus, on his own power, he sank (Matthew 14:28-29).

Perhaps my favorite Bible verse is Second Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Behold: The old has gone. The new has come.” In this verse, Paul, filled with excitement about the Gospel and in its power tells us that, if we are in Christ, the power of God will make of us a new creation. The old person with all of its failures, weaknesses, false selves, and sinfulness will go away. Instead of the old person, a new person will grow up in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us (all of us) have hopes and dreams. If we are honest, we know in the depths of our hearts that we desire to be something that we are not. We hope to achieve a better character than the character we have. We hope to be more humble, more loving, more peaceful, more merciful, more courageous, than we are. Yet, most of us understand that, in reality, we are not going to change—we are not going to become better people—we are not going to arrive at the place we hoped to arrive—on our own power. We need the power of God.

As I mentioned earlier, I have lots of memories of cross-country car trips through the Great American Desert without air conditioning. If we had tried to walk those trips on our own power our family would never have made it. We would have died of thirst in the Great American Desert, as many pioneers did in the 19th Century.  It is only because we were driving a car, and the car was powered with gasoline, that we made it to our destination. In just the very same way, we cannot reach the kingdom of God our own power. We need the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ, the power of God to reach our destination.

The Gifts of the Caller.

For the next several weeks, we are going to be talking about various gifts that we receive from the Holy Spirit. We are going to learn more about who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit does, how the Holy Spirit operates, and how we can receive the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit. These gifts of the Spirit are the presence of the wisdom and love of God working in our lives in a new and powerful way.

A few weeks ago, we talked about prayers of thanksgiving. I mentioned that, for the next several weeks, we are going to spend a lot of time in First Corinthians. In First Corinthians, Paul gives the following teaching:

For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:5-7).

In this passage, Paul praises the Corinthians for all the gifts they have received from God, and for the next few weeks we are going to talking about the gifts we receive by the power of the Holy Spirit.

iconKathy loves to travel. I’m not as big a traveler, but I like to travel too. One of the things that we enjoy about traveling is the change it makes in your life. When you visit new places and see new things, you become a new person. As we travel, Kathy normally purchases gifts for our children, so that they can also be enriched by the journey we’ve taken. Sometimes, we buy gifts for friends, family members, coworkers, and others. Why? So that they can enjoy the journey as much as we did.

Jesus is here this morning asking each one of us to follow him. He’s not telling us exactly what we going to be doing or where were going to be going. He didn’t tell the disciples that, either. We can hear his call and, like many of his contemporaries, go about our business, rejecting him. Or, like disciples, we can look at his eyes and into the soul of the one revealed to us in the Gospels, see the very wisdom and power of God, and follow him. If we do, he promises we will not lack anything, for we will be filled with the presence of his Spirit and the power of love and wisdom the Spirit brings.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  See, John 18:15-16. In the Gospel of John, it appears that John was familiar with the household of the High Priest, as if he and his family had some familiarity with the home and its inhabitants. Some scholars speculate that John was from a prominent family and had delivered fish to the High Priest’s home. We cannot know for sure.

 

Lord, Teach Me to Pray: Prayers for Protection

 

imgres-3This blog is being published on the fifteen anniversary of that attacks of September 11 2001. At such a time, it is important to think about prayers of protection.

On September 11, 2001, fifteen years ago today, our nation was attacked by a group of terrorists. Several airplanes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. The plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was apparently trying to reach a target in Washington. Since that time, our nation has been engaged in the so-called “War on Terror.” At fifteen years and counting, this war is the longest war in our nation’s history. Kathy and I had the opportunity to visit the 9-11 Museum in New York City just as it opened. It was a sobering experience, especially to read the names of those killed when the Twin Towers collapsed.

This week I had lunch with a fellow pastor who served in the United States Navy into the Second Gulf War. He reminded me that history is filled with wars that lasted fifteen, twenty, thirty, 100 years, and longer. Such wars, like the War on Terror, are more than just conflicts over economics political power, or national borders. They are conflicts over different ways of life. The Second World War only lasted four years for we Americans, but it lasted much longer in Europe. It was a war to determine whether freedom would endure in Europe. World War II was what we might call an “existential war.”

Long wars are  clashes of civilizations. By their very nature, they involve periods of danger, periods of quiet, and many casualties. In wars that are clashes of civilizations, the result is less determined by initial military power and more determined by who has the deepest faith in their way of life. This kind of faith requires confidence in the future and in God’s protection during a long period of uncertainty.

We in the West are at the end of what we call the “Modern World” and at the beginning of what we currently call the “Post-Modern World.” [1] At such times in history there are often long, dangerous conflicts and economic and political dislocation. Such was the case when the ancient pre-Roman civilizations disintegrated, when the Greco-Roman civilization decayed, and at the end of the Middle Ages when the modern world began. We are now at another break in human history. It is very likely that the current period of danger and uncertainty will last for the rest of the lives of everyone now alive. We will need to pray a great deal over the next few years.

David Looks Back.

Our text for this meditation is from Psalms 18. [2] Psalm 18 is perhaps the most interesting Psalm. It appears verbatim in Second Samuel chapter 22. In Second Samuel, the song appears at the end of David’s life, inserted into the story as a kind of spiritual commentary on the meaning of his life and God’s blessing upon him. Here are selections from the first eighteen verses of the Psalm:

I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears (18:1-6).


The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. 
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place;  he rescued me because he delighted in me (18: 13-19).

Today, O God, we come thanking you for the protection you have given our nation and for the special protection you have given us during the so-called “War on Terror.” Please give us faith in you and in your protection and a willingness to await your deliverance from this time of danger and distress. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 David: A Man In Need of Protection.

There was a time when every schoolboy knew the story of David by heart. David was the youngest son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, who was married to Ruth the Moabitess (Ruth 4:21-22). As the youngest son, he had been given the lowliest of jobs: he was a shepherd of sheep. In his day, his oldest brother would have inherited most of the family wealth. His future was as a working man. He was also a musician and psalm writer, and he was quite good at using a slingshot (I Samuel 16).

Saul, the king of Israel, had not been obedient to the Lord (I Sam. 15). Therefore, Samuel, the prophet of God, was commissioned to go to the land of Judah, to the home of Jesse, and anoint one of his children as king. One by one, God rejected each of his older brothers. Finally, Samuel asked if there was anyone else at home. Jesse answered “Only my youngest son (1 Sam. 16:11). When David was brought before Samuel, God spoke to him and David was anointed to be the next king of Israel (see, I Sam.l 16:13).

In those days, Saul was fighting a battle against the Philistines. In the land of the Philistines there lived a group of giants, one of which was so large that he was called “Goliath.” One day, David was sent with some food for his brothers. He went to the battlefield and heard Goliath taunting the Jews. No one would go out and fight this huge monster. Not even Saul, who was a large man, was willing to do that. David, filled with the Holy Spirit, fought Goliath and won (I Sam. 17).

imgres-2David became one of the greatest Saul’s warriors. Unfortunately, as be became famous David became a threat to Saul, who constantly tried to have him killed (I Samuel 18). For many, many years, David’s life was in constant danger. Even after he became king, his life was often in danger from his enemies, and even from his own family. His own son, Absalom, rebelled against him. In those days, David often wrote prayers for protection, many of which we have recorded in Psalms (see for example, Psalms 3:1-2; 9:2; 6:4; 7:1-2;17:1-2). David knew what it was to cry out to God for protection.

Jesus: A Model of Hope.

As David looked back on his life, he could praise God for the protection God had given him over the years in times of danger. Jesus gives us another role model—a role model for what we might be like when we face danger and threats which do in fact occur and from which we are not delivered as we would wish.luke22v42-not-my-will-1280x960 Jesus prayed two prayers during the last hours of his life that are important. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed to God that the cup he was about to drink might be taken from him (Mark 14:36). At the very end of his life, he prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). His first prayer for protection was not answered in the affirmative, but his faith in the goodness of the Father remained intact.

In the beginning of our prayer life, it is common for us to assume that all of our prayers in accordance with God’s perfect will be answered, “Yes.” As we grow older, and as our faith deepens, we learn that life and faith are more complex. Every soldier on the battlefield prays to be delivered. Unfortunately, some are and some are not. Our world is not a perfect world, and bad things do happen.

Jesus came to reveal to us a deep mystery: Sometimes the depth of human brokenness, evil, sin, violence, and pain require a sacrifice. It would be nice if every serious problem could be resolved without conflict. That is not always the case. It would be nice if our enemies in the War on Terror, who are clearly in the wrong, would see the error of their ways and peacefully stop. Unfortunately, that is not likely to be the case.

There are times when we will legitimately pray for protection and not receive the protection for which we prayed. This does not mean that God does not hear our prayers. God hears our prayers, just as God heard the prayer of Jesus in the Garden. Sometimes, our prayers simply cannot be answered as we might desire. It is then that a deeper faith is required. Faith continues to believe and hope even when a prayer is not answered as we would wish (see, Hebrews 11:1-2). The faith of Jesus “commends our spirits unto God” at such times.

A Story from the Greatest Generation.

I am dedicating this blog to one of my professors: Dr. James Luther Mays. Jim Mays was a well-known professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia. Just before I graduated, Dr. Mays published a commentary on Psalms. [3] Obviously, a professor in his last years of full-time teaching and a masters’ level student do not become best friends; however, we had a kind of mutual friendship and understanding based upon an incident that occurred one day in class.

imagesI was in the last Psalms seminar that Dr. Mays offered at Union Theological Seminary in 1994, just before his commentary was published. One afternoon, we were looking at some of the many psalms in which David prays to God for protection and victory over his enemies. Often, Psalms records these prayers in violent terms. Some of the younger students were complaining about David, the Psalms, and the God of the Old Testament in general.

After listening for a while, I made a comment. Basically, I observed that, until your life has been in physical danger because of a relentless enemy bent on destroying you, you can’t fully appreciate or understand these prayers. “In battle,” I observed, “men have always prayed such prayers and there’s nothing wrong with it.” The debate went on for a while, then Dr. Mays looked down the table at me and said in a quiet voice, “I think Chris is right.” We looked at each other straight in the eye, and in just an instant, we had a moment of deep mutual understanding.

Jim Mays was a birdwatcher, a gentle person, a fisherman, the author of commentaries on various Old Testament books, and regarded as one of the finest professors at the seminary.  No one could possibly have considered Jim Mays a man-of-war. Unlike some professors, he never raised his voice in class no matter how ill-prepared a student was or how off base his or her answer to a question might be. Jim Mays was a quiet, peaceful man.

imgres-1Years later, I picked up a book and looked at a picture. It was taken during the Second World War, and it looked exactly like Dr. Mays and the inscription “J. L. Mays” was on the picture. This week, I attempted to find that picture but could not. I did, however, read his obituary in the Richmond Times Dispatch. [4] It turns out that Dr. Mays served in the Second World War. He was one of the  unlucky individuals that served in both Europe and in the Pacific Theaters of that conflict. I always thought he must have fought in the war, because in the moment we shared looking into each other’s eyes I saw the eyes of a man who remembered what it had been like to be very young, very much in danger, and very, very scared. Such men know what it is like to be scared and to pray for protection.

Lessons for Us.

The deepest human instinct is to cry out to God, the supreme power of the universe, to protect us when no one else can. There is nothing wrong with such prayers. They represent our deepest instinct that the universe has a moral order, that God cares for us personally, that he hears our deepest needs, and desires to protect us from danger. This is a deep truth we all need to remember.

It is also true that God answers all of these prayers. I believe that he answers all of the prayers in the affirmative, despite the fact that some of these prayers will be answered in heaven and not on earth. The life of faith is largely a life of growth in trusting the Lord of the Universe, his goodness, his kindness, his power, and his love. This trust grows both when we receive that for which we ask as we have asked for it and when God gives an unexpected or unwelcome answer. The cross and resurrection are not what Jesus asked for in the Garden. They were better. They were more important. They changed the world.

In Christ, we see the fullness of God’s wisdom and the depths of his answers to our prayers for protection. His providence and his love extended beyond our imagination into eternity. This is a truth we need to remember, and we need to remember it as we pray for protection now and in the future.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] It is not a part of this blog to talk about what constitutes the “Modern” and “Post Modern” world. The Modern World began with the development of modern science, technology, and critical thinking, roughly 300 years ago. Sometime in the middle of the 19th Century, or about 150 years ago, this era began to end. Confidence that human reason can create a perfect, harmonious world and solve all human problems began to dissipate. By the end of World War I clearly we had entered a new era. It remains unclear whether our current era is a new era or simply the decadent form of the modern era. I lean towards the view that we are currently in a decadent phase. Certainly in the West there has been a great loss of faith and confidence in human reason and its capacities to harmonize human life. At this point, one can only guess at the world that will emerge from our current period. My guess is that it will be less confident of human reason and goodness, more humble in the face of problems, more realistic about our human capacity to create a perfect world, and less materialistic than the Modern World has been.

[2] I have consulted many sources for this sermon, Dr. Mays commentary  “Psalms” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994) and Arthur Weisner, The Psalms tr. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1962). Some commentators doubt that David wrote the Psalm, a conclusion with which I disagree, and in any case think unimportant to understanding. It was meant to be read in the context of David’s life.

[3] This is Dr. Mays, “Psalms” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994) noted above. I have an autographed copy of the commentary given to those who participated in the seminars leading up to its publication. It is and always will be a treasured possession.

[4] James L. Mays, 1921-2015 in Richmond Times Dispatch, November 8, 2015 (downloaded September 7, 2016).

Teach Me to Pray: Thanksgiving

imgresThis is Labor Day weekend, a time when we remember and thank God for those who labor so that we might enjoy the blessings of life. It is appropriate, therefore, that this week’s blog is about Prayers of Thanksgiving.

We are nearing the end of our series on prayer. Our theme this week is on  Prayers of Thanksgiving. Thankfulness is a Christian virtue. Prayer involves thankfulness. As I mentioned this week in the meditation, “There can be no vital prayer life without thanksgiving. Eventually, a thankless prayer life will become no prayer life at all. To thank God is to remember his blessings, accept his judgments, and know that “in all things God is working together for the good for those who love him” (Romans 8:26), Jesus went to the cross after giving thanks. In the same way, we must learn to give thanks in all circumstances.” This is not always easy.

This week at our staff meetings, we read our text for the day and then we went around the room and everyone mentioned things they were thankful for. Interestingly enough, just as happens in my own personal prayer life, things began kind of slowly. The first person had to think for a moment and then gave an answer. After a while, all of us began to have an easy time thinking about all the things that we take for granted for which we should be thankful. We were thankful for spouses. We were thankful for our children. We were thankful for church. We were thankful for coworkers. We were thankful for the fall that is coming. We were thankful for a lot of things. When our time of prayer was over, we had a happy staff meeting. Why? Because we were now approaching the week’s work with thankful hearts.

Some people are naturally thankful. My wife is naturally thankful. Being Scottish, and a bit of a pessimist, thankfulness does not come as easy to me. It is like any other Christian virtue: some people find it easy, and some people find it hard. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, a thankless prayer life eventually becomes no prayer life at all. It is human nature to forget what God or other people have done for us in the past, and focus on today’s problems. When we do this, we stop praying because we forget that God really does answer our prayers!

Prayers of a Thankful Christian.

36618_all_062_01The apostle Paul was a thankful Christian. In his earliest letter to the Thessalonians, Paul expresses his thankfulness for the Thessalonian church (I Thess. 1:2). In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is equally thankful (2 Thess. 3). When Paul was in prison and writing to the Philippians, he tells us he thanks God every time he remembers that church! (Phil. 1:3). In Paul’s last letter, Second Timothy, he thanks God for Timothy, his beloved son in the Lord, who he remembers day and night (2. Tim. 3).  Over many years of discipleship, Paul learned to be a thankful Christian.

Our text comes from one of his earlier letters, his First letter to the Corinthians. Here is how Paul begins:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you (1 Cor. 1:1-6).

Let us pray: eternal God, who is given us everything, even life itself, come into our hearts this morning and allow us the gift of thankfulness. Help us to remember to thank you daily for all the blessings you have given to us. In Jesus Name Amen

 Paul: Thankfulness in Hard Times.

This morning, we are talking about learning to pray (and praying !) prayers of thanksgiving. If you are like me, it is easy to forget to thank God for answered prayers during good times. And, in bad times, it is easy to not thank God, because we don’t think we have anything to thank God for. Thankfulness, is not an easy virtue to develop or express.

Next month, we’re going to spend some time in the book of First Corinthians as we think about Spiritual Gifts. Today, we’re going to look at the first six verses of the letter, and especially the story that surrounds those verses, because Paul’s thankfulness towards the Corinthians, shows us a lot about how we ought to be thankful people.

Paul founded the Corinthian church around the year 50 A. D. When Paul arrived in Corinth, he had just experienced a difficult missionary experience in Athens. He might even have been a bit depressed about his ministry. images-2 Then, he met Priscilla and Aquila, two Jewish converts to Christianity who had been exiled from Rome. They were tentmakers just like Paul! Paul went into business with them, and began to disciple them and others (Acts 18:1-4). [1]

As was often the case, Paul began preaching in the synagogue. Pretty soon, however, there was trouble. Paul had to leave the synagogue. Nevertheless, his ministry in Corinth was successful. He stayed there eighteen months (18:5-11). After Paul left Corinth, other apostles and other Christians visited the church. Eventually, the church turned on Paul and turned on one another. They began to fight and argue with each other. They began to reject Paul’s teaching. They divided into camps (I Cor. 1:10-12).

When this happened, Paul was way across the Mediterranean Sea in Ephesus. Although we only have two letters to the Corinthians, scholars believe there were actually four letters from Paul about the problems of this church. In addition, there were almost certainly several lost letters from the Church; and probably, because of the active trade between Ephesus and Corinth, visits from people from Corinth informing Paul about the problems. In all of this, Paul was saddened and even driven to distraction by what was happening in Corinth.  If ever there were a situation in which Paul could not be blamed for forgetting to be thankful, the Corinthian church is that situation! Nevertheless, Paul continued to be thankful.

What can we learn from this? We can learn to be thankful. We can learn that our lives do not have to be blessed for us to be thankful. We do not have to be successful to be thankful. We do not have to be appreciated to be thankful. The only thing we need to be thankful is to realize that God is at work in the good and bad of life. So often we think that God is absent in the bad parts of life. He’s punishing us. He’s deserted us. He doesn’t love anymore. None of this is true. God is with us and discipling us in the good and in the bad times of life. Paul was able to be thankful even in very stressful circumstances, and we can also learn to be thankful in stressful times.

Contentment and Thankfulness.

imgres-1One reason all was able to be thankful in all circumstances is that Paul had learned to be content in all circumstances. In Philippians, Paul tells the church to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving make your requests known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Later, in chapter 4, Paul says the following:

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Phil. 4:10-13).

There is a lot in these verses. Paul was able to be thankful because Paul had learned to be content. There’s probably no Christian virtue we preach about less in our culture, or need more, then the virtue of contentment. Contentment requires that we live simply, and not be constantly desiring to have more things, to be better looking, to be heavier or thinner, to have a bigger house or smaller house, to have a better car, or even to have the latest iPhone (to be released next week!). When we are able to be content with what we have, we don’t worry as much because we have all we need already.

images-3If we are content with what we have, we may still desire certain things. We might be sick and desire to be healthy. We might be overweight and want to be skinnier. We might be slender and want to have more muscle. We might be having children want a better job. Being content does not mean that we do not legitimately want things we don’t have. It means we are content with what we do have even as we ask God for what it is we desire. If we trust our Heavenly Father to give us what we need, then we don’t have to be anxious about anything even though we are praying and asking God for things we don’t have. Being thankful means that, even as we ask God for what we don’t have, we are thankful for what we do have.

This may seem really difficult. I find it difficult. It is really hard when you feel that you deserve something or need something to be thankful for what you already have. However, I have noticed in my own life that, if I’m not thankful, my prayer life suffers. You might think the pastors are so spiritually mature that they never burn out. That’s not true. You might think the pastors are so close to God that they don’t become depressed when prayers that they believe are legitimate are not answered or when the answer is, “No”. That’s not true. You might think the pastors are so mature that they only pray for the things God wants to give them. That’s not true.

Simple Steps to Thankful Living.

Here’s some simple ways we can thank God for the simple pleasures of life:

  1. Prayers at Meals. First, we can say prayers and meals. I’m glad that I grew up in a family where Mom and Dad forced us to be together most of the time and say grace before meals. When I became a Christian, I started extending that grace to meals out. We can be thankful and teach our children to be thankful but remembering to say grace and meals.
  2. Regular Thanksgiving. Second, we can develop the habit of saying a Prayer of Thanksgiving to God at least once a day. One good habit is to say a prayer of Thanksgiving for the blessings of the day before you go to bed. I’ve been trying to do that recently. No matter how hard the day has been, thanking God forces us to think about the blessings we have received even in a bad day. Believe me, it doesn’t always work very well. But it’s worth trying.
  3. Special Thanksgiving. Have you ever prayed for something, received an answer to your prayer, and then sometimes later realize that you never thanked God for it? I have. When we have a special prayer, and our prayers are answered, we should immediately stop and thank God for the answer. I could be praying for a parking place at the hospital on a busy day. If God gives me a parking place, I should be thankful.
  4. Reflective Thanksgiving. Every so often, and perhaps especially on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, we should take time out to reflect on the last year and take time to remember things for which we really should be thankful. I keep a prayer journal. Often, I don’t even notice when a prayers is answered. Every so often I go back and read my journal. It’s surprising how often my prayers are answered, perhaps a long time after I prayed them, perhaps in a different way than I prayed for; but they have been answered. Taking time to reflect on the blessings God has given us is important.

Thankfulness and the Cross.

imgresWe are told that, on the night Jesus was betrayed, right before he went out to be arrested, tried, flogged, and crucified, he had a meal with his friends. When he picked up the bread, he said a Prayer of Thanksgiving. Jesus was thankful to God even though the cup that he prayed be removed from him was not removed. Jesus was thankful even though his prayers are not answered as he would have wished. Jesus was thankful even though times were tough and going to get a lot tougher.

There are times in our lives when we have to bear a cross of one kind or another. When hard times come, and when we are tempted not to be thankful, it is helpful to remember that Jesus was thankful even on his way to a cross.

Part of learning to live wisely and well is learning to develop the habit of thankfulness and of thanking God. It is one of those Holy Habits that make us wise in the things of God.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  The historical narrative is based on William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975) and Clarence t. Craig, “Introduction and Exegesis” The Interpreters Bible Vol. 10 “Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians” (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1953).

Lord Teach Me To Pray: Heal Me

One of the most misunderstood, and in mainline churches often ignored, aspects of Christian faith has to do with the power of prayer as regards healing. Some churches placed too much emphasis on healing prayer and have an almost magical approach to the subject. Other churches disbelieve that healing occurs in response to prayer. Still other churches ignore the subject entirely. At Advent, we try to have a middle of the road approach to healing prayer:  We believe God heals, but we don’t expect a miracle every time we pray.

images-7The healing ministry of the church is important. Those churches which do not believe that God continues to heal are, in my mind, missing an important aspect of Christian faith. All Christians, including those who aren’t particularly interested in healing, pray for healing. Almost instinctively, when we are sick we pray for God to heal us. When someone we love is sick, we pray for God to heal them—even if we doubt that such a healing as possible.

This week one of our young people had to go into the hospital. Gretchen posted a prayer request on Facebook without naming the child. Many of our members “liked” that post and indicated they were praying. In addition, one of the prayer groups that meets regularly prayed for this young person. We don’t know yet whether God is going to heal that person as we are asking, but we’re asking.

This summer, I spent some time with friends I’ve known since we were younger. We had our first children at about the same time. This couple had a child born prematurely with serious health issues. Our friendship became closer one night when the husband and I went together to St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston Texas to see his child. My friend wasn’t used to being around sick people. He wasn’t used to being in an intensive care unit. Neither was I at that point in time! Nevertheless, we went and prayed together, and we’ve been friends ever since.  Our time together and our prayer together is a part of the bond of friendship and faith we share.

Jesus Heals the Blind and Afflicted.

Our text for this blog  involves two healings of Jesus taken from the Gospel according to Matthew:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you;” and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region. While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 9:27-35)

Prayer: God of Healing: We ask that you would come and show us how we can pray for one another, for friends, even for non-Christians, as we seek the healing of people, situations, and even of our culture and world. We ask this in Jesus Name, who was and is the Great Physician, Amen.

The Healing Ministry of Christ.

imgresThere is no question but that healing was an important part of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus performed over thirty healings in the New Testament. One reason I chose today’s text has to do with the fact that it is “ordinary.” Jesus was either in Capernaum or a nearby town. He had already healed a paralytic (Matt. 9:1-9). He had healed Matthew from greed, commenting that it is not the healthy that need a healer but the sick (vv. 9-13). He had healed the dead daughter of a “ruler” of the people; and along the way, he healed a woman with the flow of blood (vv. 16-26).

As Jesus returned home from healing the ruler’s daughter, he was met by two blind men. They cried out, “Son of David, have mercy upon us (v. 27). Apparently, they followed him into his house or wherever he was staying. They had already called him, the “Son of David,” indicating that they believed him to be the Messiah. Jesus asked them if they believed (had faith) that he could heal them. They respond, “Yes” and were healed (v. 29). Immediately thereafter, Jesus healed a demoniac.

If you take chapters 8-9 of Matthew together, Jesus convincingly shows his power over physical disease, genetic problems, death, and spiritual evil. In Chapter 10, Jesus called his disciples together and commissioned them to drive out evil spirits and heal diseases (10:1). Not only do his disciples heal people and cast out demons in the Gospels, but in the book of Acts in the letters of Paul we also see evidence that the healing power of God in response to prayer continued to characterize the ministries of Peter, James, John, Paul, and the other apostles. Early in Acts Peter and John heal a person who had been a cripple from birth (Acts 3). Later on, we learned that the apostles, all of them, performed many signs and wonders (5:12).

The apostles were not the only members of the early church gifted with the power to pray for and receive healings. In his letters, Paul mentions the gift of healing and intercessory prayer as spiritual gifts (See, I Corinthians 12:9-10). Apparently, some people when they prayed, experienced dramatic responses to those prayers. People were healed.

During the first few centuries of the church, followers of Jesus were known for the power of healing prayer. [1] Healing ministry was a normal part of early Christianity. Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) writes of how the early Christians healed and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Irenaus who lived around the same time as Justin, attested to similar healings as those found in the Gospels and Acts. [2] One of the main ways the Rome Empire was converted to Christianity involves healings and exorcisms—signs and wonders.

The reality that God does sometimes answer prayer for healing continues to reveal itself today in the church. More than once, in my ministry and in the ministries of others, I and others have seen and see answers to prayers for healing. Therefore, the praying and healing ministry of the church continues to be important today.[3]

The Kinds of Healings God Provides.

Often, in discussing healing, we focus on physical healing. Physical healing is important; however, it is not the only kind of healing in which Christians are interested. Paul was never healed physically; however, Paul was healed from his spiritual anger and violent nature (Galatians 1:11-23). Peter, so far as we know, was not healed of a physical ailment (though his mother was). Instead, Peter was healed from a character defect.

In other words, there are many different kinds of healings. We may be healed physically. We may be feet healed emotionally. We may be healed spiritually. Our character may be healed. We may experience healing in our relationships with other people. Finally, we may experience social healings.

For example, this summer we have experienced increased racial tensions in Memphis and other cities. I think we have seen the results of pastors, congregational members, and others praying for peace in our city. We have been delivered from some of the worst things that have happened elsewhere. Our Christian response to any form of illness: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, marital, family, or social should be to pray.

Healing Ministry of Advent.

cordova-church-315-x-475When I came to Advent, one of the first things we did was to begin putting a prayer list in the bulletin. Over the years, we have prayed for hundreds of our members. In the vast majority of cases, the person was healed to a greater or lesser degree. Now, in many cases, that person was also being treated by a doctor, nurse, or other professional. This is an important point to make: Christian healing, and our prayers for healing, are not intended to replace the work of doctors, nurses, counselors, and other healing professionals. We believe that God is working through a variety of means to achieve healings. Our prayers may only be a part (the spiritual part) of the healing process. [4]

Many years ago, a member of our church came to us asking that we have a healing service for their son, who was having a serious physical problem. We had our first Advent healing service in the Upper Room, which our members know as the “Barnabas Classroom.” Dave and I did not expect many people to come, but there were about twenty people in attendance. Since then, from time to time we’ve had healing services. During the time when we were joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), we had another request. It so happened that we honored that request at the same time we held a prayer vigil for the decision we were about to make to join the EPC. Since that time, we have had a healing service, and prayers for healing, at 6 o’clock in the evening on the first Friday of every month, almost without exception. On an average First Friday, we have perhaps six people in attendance. We’ve had as many as thirty in the past. Many of our prayers have been answered.

During our First Friday Prayer Vigils, we pray for every member of Advent who is on the prayer list, more than once. In addition, during some of the special times of prayer, we open the floor for other prayers. There are almost always prayers for healing that are not contained in the prayer list for that week with that prayer vigil.

Our church has a Stephen ministry program and the Care Team program. We also have more than one prayer group and prayer chain. All of these groups involve praying for the healing of our members. Finally, many of our members pray for the healing of our community, nation, and world. These prayers may be about a physical disease in the news, like the “Zika Virus,” or for healing of emotional, spiritual, or other problems of our society. Hardly a week goes by when one of the pastors is not asked to pray for the healing of some person or situation.

Experiencing the Healing Power of God.

images-6This afternoon at our church, we are sponsoring a special time of teaching about prayer. Many people do not understand how to pray, and especially how to pray for healing. One of our seminars this afternoon has to do with intercessory prayer, which includes prayers for healing. For just the next few moments, I would like to set out a few ideas that may help us as we pray for healing:

  • First, we can pray for healing alone or in a group. Sometimes, there is both power and comfort in praying as a part of a larger group. Sometimes, the matter is private, and it is best to pray in private.
  • Second, although all prayers should be from the heart, sometimes we may feel better if we pray the words of another person. During our healing services, we pray both prayers from the heart that are spontaneous and written prayers from a bulletin. In just a few moments, any of us can research healing prayer on the Internet and find examples of many great prayers from the history of the church.
  • Third, we can use Holy Scripture to pray for healing. One common feature of our monthly healing service is a time when we pray through a story from the Bible where Jesus heals another human being. Using the prayers and example of Jesus can be a great encouragement.
  • Finally, we should pray with faith. Confident that God will answer our prayers, we learn to pray without ceasing for the healings we desire. Some prayers are not immediately answered. This should not stop us from praying for those we love and whom God has placed upon our hearts.

Last January, I had to have an operation. We had been praying for a health issue for some time, and then finally God allowed our doctor to figure out what was wrong. It was not a serious operation. I went into the surgery center after noon and was home before dinner. Naturally, Kathy prayed for the operation before I went in and we both prayed just before they took me in to surgery. As I was coming out of the anesthesia, the nurse, who I think understood we were Christians, revealed a spiritual or emotional need she and her family were having. It so happens that her problem was similar to a problem we had experienced. We prayed for her right then and there. None of these prayers involved anything dramatic, but we do believe that God was working in and through the prayers, the doctors, the nurses, and others to not just heal me, but to witness to that healing power in the life of others. Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Fr. George Morelli, “The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing” at http://www.antiochian.org/morelli/the-ethos-of-orthodox-christian-healing (downloaded August 18, 2016). This is a fine article that deals mostly with the role of healing in the contemporary orthodox churches, but also with the historical roots of healing in the history of the church.

[2] See, “History of Christian healing” at www.centerforinnerpeace.com (Downloaded August 18, 2016). See also, Mark A. Pearson, Christian Healing: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1995) and Bishop of Naupactus Hearths, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams, (Levandia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994).

[3] Our members know that Kathy and I have been developing a Bible Study, “Salt & Light. ” One of the lessons has to do with prayers for healing. Around the world, wherever the church is growing, there are signs and wonders, including healings. See for example, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, Monument CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). There is an urgent need for the Church in Europe and North America to recover the ministry of healing as a part of the outreach of the church in society. This is hard in a secular, and even pagan, culture. However, it is important.

[4] The church has always believed that God works both through prayers and through the skill of physicians and others. In fact, early Christians promoted hospitals, homes for the elderly and trained doctors and nurses. Technically, this aspect of the healing ministry of the church is called “synergy.” God works with, under, through, and above human healers in response to prayer.

Know Me

imgres-2This week, the blog involves selections from Psalm 139 and focuses on the importance of our resting in God’s prior understanding of us.

Almost anyone who has had children understands that parents and children have a special kind of relationship. Often children do not understand or appreciate the relationship, but it is there.  Our children carry within them our genetics, our family history, the way we were raised, and the way they were raised—and that means that we know our them in a special and unique way.

Often step parents have difficulty understanding step children, and step children have difficulty understanding step parents. One piece of pastoral advice I have often given is to assure the step parent that no step parent can have precisely the same understanding and native empathy for a child that does not share their genetics. One can be a good and even great step parent, but no step parent can actually become the biological parent of a child.

Kathy and I have an understanding of our children—and you have an understanding of your biological children–that is based upon more than time together. It is based on family history, genetics, etc. Sometimes, for better or for worse, I can actually feel what one of our children must be feeling as if I was standing before myself. I have never had that feeling for another person’s child.

Why have I spent so much time on this? Here is why: We are all children of God. Even those who do not know God and have not received Christ and become children of God in a special way are children of God in the sense: that God created the human race. God is eternally present in all of his creation, including our bodies and hearts and minds even before we know or are aware of his presence. We carry the image of God inside of our hearts. There is nothing we can be or do that God does not know and understand completely. God is the ultimate parent. God knows us as a parent, but better than any human parent.

A Plea from the Heart.

Our text is from Psalm 139. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us this morning from the voice of the Psalmist:

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
 You know when I sit and when I rise;  you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;  you are familiar with all my ways.
 Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.
 You hem me in behind and before,  and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”even the darkness will not be dark to you;the night will shine like the day,For darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful: I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—  When I awake, I am still with you. (vv. 1-18)

 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (vv. 23-24).

The Importance of Relationships.

images-2This blog begins where many sermons either begin or end: by noting that relationships are essential for human life. it bears repeating that people with healthy relationships live longer, deal with stress better, are healthier, less depressed, have stronger immune systems, and even lower blood pressure than people who do not experience healthy relationships. People who are deprived of relationships when they are young suffer a host of personal, psychological, and social problems later in life.

Often,  we stop at the point of talking about the importance of relationships. We fail to go on to note that all relationships are based upon communication, and all communication is an exercise in knowing and being known. If you think back upon the most important conversation in your life with the most important person in your life, you are likely to conclude that what made that particular conversation so important was the moment in which the other person realized that you could be trusted to know them, and you realized that they knew you in a deep and loving way.

Scholars and pastors often tell their congregations that the Old Testament word most frequently used for knowledge is also used for the physical relationship of men and women. In other words, knowledge, real knowledge, life changing knowledge, is more than information. Information communicated in words or numbers is only the surface of our knowledge. The meaning, importance, and power of that knowledge is the depth of what knowledge is all about.

Sometimes in the church and in social groups we joke about the differences between men and women. While there are real differences between most women and most men, there are areas in which we are identical. One of those areas has to do with our desire to be known. We human beings express this in many ways. For example, communication experts tell us that people who do nothing but listen are often considered to be better communicators than those who speak. Why would that be the case? It would be the case because we all have a desire to be known and understood. We think of people who understand and know us as being good communicators.

God is the Source of True Loving Knowledge.

imgres-4As Christians, the importance of relationships and communication should not surprise us. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Our Christian faith teaches us that God exists as a loving relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In John, the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) is referred to as the “Word” or “Logos” in Greek. (John 1:1). This Logos, or Word, is the rational expression of God’s wisdom and love radiating into the world by the Grace of the Father.

God exists in the eternal relationship of self-giving love, and Jesus is the incarnation of the rational expression of that love. Part of being made in the image of God is being made for a loving, self-giving relationship with God and other people. The eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, exist in a perfect relationship of love. The members of the Trinity are the same in being and express a kind of unconditional love based upon perfect understanding (God’s Omniscience), Perfect Love (God’s being of Agape, Self-giving Love), and Power (the ability to express perfectly that love). Human beings, who are made in the image of God, were made for relationships that mirror the relationships of God, including the Divine communication of self-giving love within the Trinity.

Most people understand in some way that human relationships are important. In addition, most people understand that communication is important for healthy relationships. For example, there is no realistic kind of marital counseling that does not emphasize the point that most marital problems are actually communication problems. Financial problems, emotional problems, physical problems—almost any kind of problem you can imagine in marriage— normally involves an underlying communication problem.

It’s a harder for us to understand that almost all the problems we have in our spiritual life are also communication problems! If we feel isolated and alone, somehow we are communicating our need for a relationship to God in an appropriate way. If we feel lost and without guidance from God, often were not communicating with God appropriately.

This is not an essay on listening prayer; however, since at least 85 percent of successful communication is learning to listen, it’s not surprising that most of us have trouble communicating with God since all we ever do is talk! If you only time we pray is when were in trouble and need an answer, our level of communication with God and our relationship with God is going to suffer.

Prayer begins with Knowledge—God’s Knowledge of Us!

A second area in which we can misunderstand what it means to pray and communicate with God, to have a relationship with God, is when we think of God as a kind of abstract principle, a force, a power, or even a distant creator no longer personally involved in creation, a “First Principle” of sorts. You really can’t have a relationship with the force or power or principle. In order to have a vital prayer relationship with God we have to keep in mind understand that God is a person and he wants to have a personal relationship with us. God wants to communicate with us.

imgres-3As I was preparing for this blog, I read an article about human relationships. It was actually an article about relationships between men and women. It turns out that whether the man for the woman initiates a relationship, people normally only initiate a relationship if they already believe that the other person wants to have a relationship. In fact, the person who initiates a relationship has already been signaled by the other person in some way that they want to open a relationship. This is also true in friendships and social relationships. We naturally form relationships with people we sense are already open to a relationship with us.

A good portion of Psalm 139 has to do with expressing the psalmist’s understanding that God has already established a relationship with the writer and the human race and signaled that He desires a deeper relationship, before we establish any relationship with God. God made us, God is always present with us. God already recognizes that we are unique and valuable—he made us that way! God already understands us. He knows our strengths, our weaknesses, our sins, our shortcomings, our fears, our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. God, you see, is interested in us. God also loves us before we love God. The doctrine of grace is a simple recognition of the fact that God loves us and desires us to be a relationship with him even when we are alienated or distant from God.

The author C. S. Lewis wrote a book called, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a character called “Eustace” askes Edmund whether he knows Aslan, a giant lion who is the Christ of the series. Edmund answers, “Well, He knows me.” [1] In other places in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan is portrayed as knowing characters before they ever know Aslan. This is Lewis’ way of reminding us that God knows us long before we know God. God is listening to us long before we decide to communicate with God. God is offering us his grace long before we decide to accept that grace. The foundation of our relationship with God is God and God’s love for us.

Where Do We Go from Here?

For the next several weeks, we are going to talk about prayer. We are going to talk about praying to God for healing. We are going to talk about praying to God to refresh us and give us the strength to go on. We are going to talk about the importance of thanking God for answering our prayers. Finally, on September 11, going to talk about praying to God for protection. As Cindy mentioned in the moment for mission a few moments ago, next week after church you’re going to have a short seminar and an opportunity to learn more about prayer. We hope many people will sign up.

Those of us who have children know that long before the child speaks a word to us we are communicating to the child. Every time we hold the child, we are communicating love to the child. Every time we  put a child to bed, we are tell them we love them. Every time we sing a song, tell story, or just say good night, we are telling a child we love them. Every time we pick up the child and say good morning, we are communicating love to the child.

As to God, we are like a child. God has been knowing us, loving us, and communicating with us a long time before we ever know God , love God, and communicate our love to God. God is listening to us a long time before we listen to God. In other words, God is building a relationship for us long before we build a relationship with God. That is the meaning of grace.

imgres-1I think it helps begin to learn to pray to remember that God already knows us, already knows our hopes and dreams, already knows what we intend to pray about long before we ever pray. Prayer, you see, is not as much about information as it is about a relationship with the living God who loves us and cares for us.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1952, 1980), 117. I am indebted for this quote and for the insights and research of Brian S. Rosner, Known By God: C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoerffer E. Q..4 (2005), 343-352. Both for the quote and for the insight into the way Lewis speaks of God’s knowledge of us through the character of Aslan. Rosner has the insight that evangelicals talk a great deal about knowing God, but not enough about God knowing us.

What God Remembers: Seeing What God Sees

It is good to be back. Next week, we begin a series on prayer. This week is on Matthew 25:31-45 and asks us to learn to see what God sees and react accordingly.

Three weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah’s final prayer. Near the end of his life, three times, Nehemiah asks God to remember him. In that sermon, we focused on the fact that we all search for a kind of significance in life.images-2

We all joke about losing our memory as we grow old. There is a story told about a President who decided to visit a local Washington, DC nursing home. The President began his tour down the main hallway and passed by a little old man who doesn’t seem to notice him. Sensing this, the President backtracked to the resident and asked the resident, “Do you know who I am?” The old man looks up from his walker and says, “No, but if you go to the front desk, they will tell you your name.” Part of the tragedy of dementia is that we lose a part of who we are.

Memory is important. Psychologists tell us that our character is largely determined by our experiences and memories. Experiences and memories form and shape us. They shape what we find valuable and what we find not valuable. Our memories control who we are, what we desire, how we react to stress, what things make us angry, and what things give us joy. When a person loses their memory they lose all or a part of themselves.

John Polkinghorne, when he speaks of eternal life speaks of God’s memory. God has a perfect memory. God sees and remembers every single fact about every single particle of our existence. God remembers all that we are in all that we’ve done. When Polkinghorne speaks of eternal life, he says that God, in his mercy, will reconstruct us at the time and a place of his choosing.[1] In other words, because God loves us, he remembers us. Because he remembers us he will not let go of us. Instead, he will choose to re-create us, not just as we were, that he intended us to be.

When We Meet the Son.

imgresOur text this week is one of my least favorite passages from scripture. When I looked back to see how often I had preached on this text, I found that I preached on it exactly one time in 25 years. This text is about the final judgment, and it doesn’t necessarily make any of us feel very comfortable. It challenges us. It forces us to ask the question, “Am I doing the kinds of things for which God would want to remember me favorably?” In other words, “Am I being wise in my Christian walk?”

Here is a part of what Jesus says near the end of earthly ministry about what God sees and remembers:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-40).

Prayer: Lord God, particularly today, we pray as we sometimes do that if anything is said contrary to your will you will snatch it from every ear, but if anything is said according to your will, you would please burn it into all of our hearts. In Jesus Name, Amen

 A Prophesy and Parable of the Coming of the Kingdom.

During the last week of his life, Jesus, among other things, taught his followers about the end of the age. He promised them that he would return. He warned them that they should be careful to be wise in how they behaved, watching for his return. He let them know that no one knows the day of the hour of the return (Matthew 25:13). He taught them that they must be good servants, continuing to be about the Masters business until he returns (vv. 14-30). He then spoke about the final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).

imgres-1Be Filled with the Spirit. First, Jesus told a story about ten young women, who are bridesmaids for a friend (25:1-13). We know this as the “Parable of the Ten Virgins.”  Under Jewish custom, on the wedding night the bridegroom would come and get the bride from her home taking her to his own home. Of the ten bridesmaids, five, who were wise, had lamps that were filled with oil. Five, who were foolish, had not filled their lamps. Unfortunately, the bridegroom came late at midnight, hours after he should have arrived. The five foolish bridesmaids were forced to go and get oil so that they could lead the bride to the groom’s home. When they arrived, they were locked out of the wedding banquet. Jesus by this story, reminds his followers that they must remain filled with the Holy Spirit (the oil in their lamps) and be watchful because no one knows the day of the hour of his return (25:13).

imgres-2Use your Talents. Second, he told the story of the wise and foolish servants, what we sometimes call the “Parable of the Talents” (25:14-30).  A man went on a long journey, Jesus says. When he left, he called his servants and gave them money to invest for him. When he returned, the man asked for an accounting. The first servant, with whom he left five talents, brought him five more. The master praised the servant. The second servant, to whom he gave two talents, brought two more. The master praised this servant. Then, the servant to whom he gave one talent came and brought him only one talent. This servant, fearful of the master, simply buried the talent and did nothing with it. This servant was criticized. This parable is a reminder that God has given each one of his talents that he expects us to use.

imagesDo the Right Things. Finally, Jesus talked about the last judgment in what is sometimes called the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats.”. In this teaching, Jesus described himself as the Son of Man, the King of Kings, who returns from a long journey to heaven to reassert his control upon the earth. Having defeated all his enemies and taking control of all the earth, he brings the people of the earth together and separates them like sheep and goats. The hearers of Jesus would have visually been able to see the white sheep and the black goats of Israel lined up ready to be separated.

The King begins by blessing those on his right. In his blessing, he teaches us what God truly sees, remembers, and values. He invites these servants to inherit the kingdom prepared for them with these words: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (vv. 35-36). Then, he condemns those on his left because they’ve not done these things. They object that they never saw him in need. Jesus answers them that then they failed to do the proper things to the “least” they did not do them for him.

How are we to understand these verses? Are we to assume that, contrary to much of Scripture, we are not saved by faith but by works? Are we to assume that God, who has promised to forgive our sins, actually will not do so at the last judgment? The answer is “No.” What Jesus is doing is clearly explaining what a good servant will do as he or she invests her time, talents, and energy as we await the return of Christ. It turns out, that what God will remember us for our acts of love and service to others as we, like Jesus, serve others. [2] This is a parable about how to wisely and lovingly use the time God has given us.

This is another story, like the wise and foolish virgins and the wise and foolish servants, designed to help us live our the Christian life loving others and using our time, talents, and energies wisely. If we are wise, then we will use our time to do things that God truly desires and which God will truly remember us for doing. The story is a story of having wisdom in a foolish world.

The Problem of Inattention.

Why do you suppose we so often fail to love and serve others? As a person who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, I think I can give you an answer: Inattention. adhd_inattention2As the story unfolds, both the sheep and the goats fail to see Jesus; however, those who Jesus praises do see human suffering. They see those who are in prison. They see those who are hungry. They see those who are naked. These people saw the world the way Jesus sees the world and responded to human need. The people who Jesus criticizes would certainly have stopped and helped the poor, the suffering, the hungry, thirsty, if I had known it was the Messiah. However, they did not see Jesus. They saw only human beings (or nothing at all) and passed by.

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, thinks that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world, being transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our lives and be able to habitually  do the kinds of things that please God.

In this week’s bulletin and on Facebook, I pointed out that seeing involves two aspects: First, we have to have the natural ability to see. Physically, we need eyes. Spiritually, we need eyes that see the world in the way God sees the world. The transformation of our seeing is a work of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, physically and spiritually we have to pay attention. This is our work.

It’s easy not to pay attention. When I’m proofreading, after a while I get tired. It’s hard to pay attention. I get sleepy. The same thing is true as we look at the world around us. It’s easy to get tired of the poor. It’s easy to get tired of looking at people different from us. It’s easy to stop paying attention to human suffering. It takes attention to see the world the way God sees the world. We cannot pay attention because of our own talents and abilities. As Jesus makes plain in the parable of the Ten Virgins, only the Holy Spirit and keep us awake to the tings of God.

Paying Attention to What God Sees.

Just before I left on vacation, there was a tense incident in Memphis. The following Monday, a group of local pastors met for a time of prayer about our city. We heard from the Police Chief, Shelby County Sheriff, and other public officials. All of them recognized that churches can play a role in healing our city. At one point, a community leader told us that he was not asking us to start in new programs or become actively involved in politics. He was just asking us to continue to make disciples and be the church. I can’t remember exactly the way he put it. But, basically he was saying we can share God’s love with others in ways that government and the police cannot. We can change the human heart, and it is from the human heart that piece or violence flows.

In recent years, we have used the phrase “Worship + 2” to describe a way of being a disciple at Advent Presbyterian Church. We desire people to be regular in worship. We desire people to belong to some kind of discipleship group (Sunday School, a Small Group, etc.) in order to grow in Christ. We also ask folks to serve Christ in some way. Changing human hearts involves preaching the gospel It involves learning how to communicate the gospel to other people. It involves teaching. It also involves living out the Gospel day-to-day in our community. It involves being Salt & Light in our world.

Advent has many ways for us to put our faith to work serving others. Just before I left, we had a mission trip to Honduras. While I was gone, we had the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here for a week. It was a wonderful success, and three young men came to Christ. Each month, we have people helping in the various ministries of First Presbyterian Church in the inner city. We have folks who help young people learn at Riverwood Elementary School. We have volunteers who help with Youth Leadership Memphis. This morning, we have heard from the Unnerstalls, who saw a need in the Middle East and responded. We have many ways inside and outside of our church by which people van serve those in need. The question is, “Will we see the need?”

The Things God Remembers.

images-1At the Last Supper, Jesus asked his to remember him, and they did. The sacrifice that Jesus made for them was so enormous and so unexpected that they could not forget it. The reason we come to the Lord’s Table is because disciples have always remembered and reenacted his sacrifice. When we take time to serve other people, and especially when we take time to serve the least and the lost, we again reenact what Jesus did on the cross, this time for the benefit of another human being.

Amen

[1] See, John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2002).

[2] This is one of the many instances when we can sometimes both take too literally what Jesus is saying and also fail to pay attention to the context. This story of the last judgement might be called a teaching with parabolic elements. See, William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973), 885 and Charles Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew” in The Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 325).  As a follow up on the Parables of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Ten Talents, it is clear that Jesus is not so much giving a literal picture of the final judgement as he is teachings his disciples (and us) what kind of people we ought to be between now and his return. We need to be filled with the Spirit, use the talents and gifts God has given to us, and care for the least and lost just as Jesus did when he was among us. This hard teaching of Jesus needs to be taken in context just as all the teachings of Jesus need to be taken in context.

Rebuild: Praying for a Legacy

As I finished  the search for this blog, the events of Dallas were in the news. The events of the past few days remind us that our nation often descends into a violent and immoral (sometimes “amoral”) darkness. Next week, the blog will be on the need for peacemakers and truth-tellers who stand up and attempt to renew our culture. We should all be in prayer for our nation.

Today, we come to the end of our study of Nehemiah. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed learning more about Nehemiah and his book. Nehemiah is a book for laypeople. Nehemiah was a layperson who put his faith to work in his everyday life. He is a role model for all of us, pastors and laypeople alike. In fact, he is probably a more important role model for laypeople then for pastors.

As I drive down Germantown Road in Memphis, I often pass a billboard for a company called, “Legacy Wealth Management.” I don’t know anything about the company. However, I love the first word of their name, “Legacy.” It never fails to catch my eye. I think as we grow older, it’s natural to think about the legacy we’re leaving behind. We wonder how people will remember us. We wonder how our family will remember us. We wonder how our church will remember us. We hope that our life has made a difference. We hope for a legacy.

imgres-1Some years ago, a man named Bob Buford, wrote a book called “Halftime.” [1] In the book, Buford makes the observation that most people spend the first half of their life seeking success of one kind or another. It can be success in business, education, sports, marriage, child raising—in any of the many things we human beings value. We begin our adult lives trying to succeed by our own definition of success, whatever it may be.

Buford believes, however, that somewhere around 50, people begin to shift the focus of their lives from success to significance. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that Buford is correct. Human beings desire and need to feel significant. We desire for our lives to count for something.

In today’s blog,  we are talking about our Christian legacy, what we want to be remembered for. Nehemiah was a human being. He’d been successful by worldly standards. He had been a high official in government. He had been the governor of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Nehemiah’s focus at the end of his life was on significance not success.

The Last Actions of a Reformer.

Nehemiah is a surprisingly complicated book. Most Christians know that Nehemiah was involved in building a wall around the city of Jerusalem. imagesThe story of Nehemiah and the wall is like the story of David and Goliath. Those of us who grew up going to church remember seeing pictures of David and Goliath in our Sunday school curriculum. We also remember seeing pictures of Nehemiah and his wall. Very few people, however, recognize that the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah were deeply related. Even fewer recognize that Nehemiah was a spiritual leader as well as a wall builder. Interestingly enough, when Nehemiah reached the end of his life, and prayed to God for his legacy, he never mentions the wall. He asks to be remembered for his part in the renewal he and Ezra were part of leading.

Our text is from Nehemiah 13:

I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms. I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zakkur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their fellow Levites.

Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services (Nehemiah 13:6-14).

Prayer: God of History, as we conclude our study of Nehemiah please come by the power of your Holy Spirit that we might be empowered to be people like Nehemiah in our own age. Give us a heart for You and for others as we seek to rebuild our society. In Jesus Name, Amen.

How We Got Here.

During election years, I like to preach a sermon series that is helpful in preparing us to make  decisions on election day. Four years ago, I preached a series on Daniel, one of the great political figures of the Old Testament. I’ve never preached through Nehemiah, so this year I decided to preach a series on Nehemiah and his book.

Today’s text occurs some years after the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt (Nehemiah 12:27-47). It also occurs some years after the worship services we studied last the last two weeks. After the Jerusalem wall was rebuilt, and the people rededicated themselves to the God of Israel, to worshiping God in his temple in Jerusalem, and to living holy lives, Nehemiah was recalled to the court of King Artaxerxes. He stayed there for a number of years. After a time, however, Nehemiah asked permission to return (13:6). [2]

Before Nehemiah left to return to court, the people committed themselves to obey the law of Moses (9:38-10:39). Generally speaking, the people of Judah made three basic promises:

  1. First, they promised to maintain the faith of the Jews. Because in their day (and often in ours) mothers primarily transmitted faith to children, the Jews promised that they would marry within the Jewish faith and educate their children within the Jewish faith.
  2. Second, they promised to support the Temple by bringing the tithes and offerings required by the law of Moses so that the Temple could operate.
  3. Finally, they promised to keep the Sabbath. You might ask, “Why mention keeping the Sabbath and not the rest of the Ten Commandments?” Sabbath keeping was distinctly Jewish. The story of creation (Genesis 2:1-2), the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and the remainder of Moses’ teaching, all emphasize the importance of the day of rest. Sabbath keeping encapsulates all the law teaches about what is good for the human race. [3]

Every religion has its distinctives. No religion can maintain itself if it ignores those distinctives. The distinctives of the Christian faith are not exactly the same as the distinctives of ancient Judaism. If we were to make a list, it might look something like this:

  1. We will love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our souls and all of our minds and our neighbor as ourselves.
  2. We will disciple others, Especially we will disciple and raise our children as Christians and teach them what it means to be a Christian.
  3. We will be diligent to worship God and support the work of Christ in the world.

We each might come up with another list, but this is a list. It’s a list of things central to what it means to be a Christian. So if we want to recommit ourselves to be Christians, we might commit ourselves to discipling our children and others, to sharing God’s love, and to supporting the mission and work of the church.

The Danger of Backsliding.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he discovered that the Jewish people had been guilty of backsliding. They had failed to keep the promises they had made to God.

imgres-2Human nature, is pretty much the same throughout history. We have a tendency to drift backwards in our spiritual life unless we are accountable to moving forward.

We live in a nation that likes to believe that people are naturally good, or at least people like us are naturally good. Unfortunately, we all have the tendency to be selfish and a tendency to take the path of least resistance. One thing I believe is clearly true is this: The easy, attractive, path is seldom the right path. This is why Jesus warns us that the way that leads to destruction is broad (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is one reason we need spiritual leaders. Families need spiritual leaders. Churches need spiritual leaders. Countries need spiritual leaders. Without spiritual leaders who remind us of the promises we’ve made, we often forget those promises. When we forget our promises, we all tend to backslide a bit. Therefore, one of the most important job of good leaders is to hold people accountable. Nehemiah was a courageous leader—and not afraid to take action to see that the people of Israel did not forget the promises they had made to God.

Just this past week, a number of people pointed out to me an article in which a well-known judge advised Americans to forget the Constitution. [4] Even well-regarded people, it seems, have forgotten the source of our freedoms and the importance of our system of limited government. Like the ancient Jews, we need leaders who honor our past and remind us of the commitments we have made, not leaders who urge us to forget them. In a number of areas, we see America backsliding: morally, in the area of religious liberty, and in the protection of other of the rights upon which our nation was founded. [5] This kind of behavior can only end in our losing our freedoms and our way of life.

The Courage of Nehemiah.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he immediately began to set things straight. While Nehemiah was gone, one of the priests, who was in charge of the Temple storerooms, had allowed Tobiah the Ammonite to have a private residence within the temple courts (Nehemiah 13:1-9). Because of an incident in Jewish history, Ammonites were forbidden to participate in the life of the Temple.imgres-6 If you remember, this same Tobiah was an enemy of Israel who tried to stop Nehemiah’s project (see, 2:16; 4:7; 6:1-14). Nehemiah immediately had Tobiah removed and his room returned to its intended purpose

Nehemiah also learned that the people were not giving their tithes and offerings to the temple. As a result, the Levites and other workers in the temple courts had not been paid. He immediately encouraged the Jews to bring their ties of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms (vv. 10-13).

As Nehemiah traveled around Judah, he noticed that people were working on the Sabbath. He immediately reminded the people of their promise to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (vv. 15-22).

Finally, Nehemiah realized that the Jewish people were intermarrying, as a member of a priestly family had done into the family of Tobiah the Ammonite (vv. 4ff). He, therefore, took steps to see that the practices that had led to the decline of King Solomon and the decline and death of the Kingdom of David did not recur (vv. 22-28).

Sometimes this passage seems harsh to us today. It is important to remember that this was the way the ancients maintained their religion in the face of paganism. We might not do the same things today, but we have the same need to courageously resist the paganism of our society and help our children do the same. [6]

Nehemiah’s Prayers.

imgresDuring the last chapter of Nehemiah, Nehemiah prays for God to remember his faithfulness. He asks God not to allow the backsliding of Israel to blot out the work that is done (v. 14). He asks God to show mercy upon him and remember him (v. 22). He asks that God remember him with favor (v. 31). In each one of these prayers Nehemiah is asking God to remember him for his spiritual qualities and what he  has accomplished in the spiritual realm. In other words, Nehemiah desires a Godly legacy.

This is a feature of Nehemiah that I find amazing. You would think that the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem would want to be remembered for his building campaign! You would think that a great administrator like Nehemiah would want to be remembered for his faithful administration of Jerusalem. You would think that a courageous leader, who faced many enemies, would want to be remembered for his victories over fear. Nehemiah does not mention any of these accomplishments. He wants to be remembered for his faith and faithfulness to God.

As we complete our study of Nehemiah, each one of us might ask ourselves the question, “For what do I want to be remembered?” “What is it that give my life true significance?” “What is it that I could do that would create the best possible future for my family, children, spouses, parents and grandparents?” “What could I do to make my neighborhood, city, state or nation a better place?” “What could I do to make Advent or my local church a better place?” “What could I do to create a legacy that would really, truly be significant?”

These are questions that will drive us to our knees in prayer as they drove Nehemiah to his knees in prayer. As I mentioned in the beginning of the blog, our nation is not in a good place. We have drifted away from wisdom, for love, for caring for our neighbors, and from the ideals upon which we were founded. It will take a lot Nehemiah’s to rebuild America’s culture.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bob Buford, Halftime (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).

[2] Nehemiah left Susa in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes (1:1) and was recalled in the thirty second year (13:6). “Some time later” when Artaxerxes was in Babylon (v. 6), he asked permission to return to Jerusalem, which is when this chapter’s events occurred. Perhaps Nehemiah was now retired. Perhaps, he just wanted to see Jerusalem again. Some scholars date his trip at about 430 B.C., more or less. See, James M. Hamilton, Christ Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah (Nashville, TN: 2014), 218.

[3] Id, at 215.

[4] In a recent op-ed for Slate, Judge Posner, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, argued that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments “do not speak to today.” Judge Posner has since apologized; however, his remarks illustrate the difficulties we are in as a culture. He is one of the most respected of Federal Judges. He is a scholar. He is also symptomatic of the unhistorical materialistic bias of so much modern legal thinking. (Judge Posner has long been an advocate of a reductionist, economic theory of law.) He is a fine judge, but his theory does not do justice to the historical nature of human life and history or to the complexity of the idea of justice.

[5] I could right an entire blog about the need for Americans to think historically and allow our government and culture to change organically. The universe and human history evolve historically event by event. Current choices are bounded by past decisions and past experience. Too much of modern politics is what I call “revolutionary,” i.e. based upon the naive assumption that anything we think best is possible.

[6] Giving Tobiah the Ammonite an apartment in the temple illustrates the problem with intermarriage: It was too easy to compromise issues of faith. The Ammonites were enemies of Israel and had betrayed the Jews in the past. There are two mistakes commonly made by conservatives and liberals in evaluating certain historical events like the exclusion of non-Jews from the temple. The first is to mindlessly believe we ought to imitate the legalism of the Old Testament. The second is to naively critique the entire Old Testament on the basis of social customs we no longer follow. The truth is that future generations are likely to look back upon many of our customs as barbaric and unwise. Once again, history evolves and we cannot expect ancient people to think or behave as we do.

Worship that Transforms a Nation

Happy 4th of July to all my friends and readers!! One of my earliest Christian memories is of being in a prayer group with a number of older ladies praying for revival. Our church did experience a revival, though at the time I am not sure we recognized what was happening. I suspect many of those ladies felt that the Great Revival of faith in America they had prayed so diligently for never came. Once again, as you will see below, that may not be true. In any case, we need millions of Americans praying and working for a revival in our land.imgres

Today, we are thinking about the way in which worship, and especially confession of sin, can transform not only Christians (us) but also the society in which we live.When there is  a renewal of faith in a culture, we call it a “Great Awakening.” In American history there have been at least two and perhaps four “Great Awakenings.”

During the “First Great Awakening” two great preachers, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, led a religious revival in the American Colonies. John Wesley and the emergence of Methodism were also important in this “First Great Awakening.” [1]

After the Revolutionary War, a “Second Great Awakening: occurred. Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists were leaders in the Second Great Awakening. The Evangelist, Charles Finney, who founded Oberlin College, was the great figure of the Second Great Awakening.

Many scholars believe America experienced a “Third Great Awakening” in the late 19th and early 20th Century with the emergence of the charismatic movement and modern revivalism. This Great Awakening culminated in the emergence of the Pentecostal movement and denominations such as the Nazarenes, the Assembly of God, and others.

Finally, some scholars believe there was a “Fourth Great Awakening” beginning in the late 1960’s and 1970’s as large “mega-churches” and groups, such as the Willow Creek Association emerged and new forms of worship and sharing the gospel developed. This is the period of Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and other leaders.

Whatever the details, religious fervor has ebbed and flowed throughout American history, and different religious groups have  benefited from times of revival. This means we cannot be too discouraged by our current spiritual condition in America. Who knows? We may be near the beginning of another Great Awakening!

 Worship that Changed Israel.

images-1Today’s reflection is based upon Nehemiah 9, the most complex text we are studying in this series of reflections. Last week, we reflected on the work of Ezra in re-familiarizing the Jewish people with the law of Moses—their Bible. This week, our text is from part of a worship service that either began or culminated the national renewal Ezra and Nehemiah worked to accomplish. [2]

Let’s read the Word of God as it comes to us from Nehemiah 9:

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.  And the Levites … said: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.  Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (Nehemiah 9”1-4, 5-6, edited and shortened for readability).

Prayer: God of History: As we celebrate our nation’s independence we do pray for a revival in our day, just as powerful as the revival in the days of Nehemiah and times in our own history. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Transforming Worship.

We need to remember the words of the Psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). One message of Nehemiah is that there can be no political renewal of a people or nation unless there is also a spiritual renewal. This is important for Christians in America. We need to remember that any improvement in our culture and politics will be preceded by an outpouring of the Spirit and a renewal of our faith and morals. Practically speaking, this means that we cannot expect a renewal of our nation unless there is a renewal of worship and deep discipleship in our churches.

In Nehemiah 8, we learned of a Great Awakening in the life of Israel. We learned that Ezra led a great worship service in which the law of Moses was read, explained, and celebrated (Nehemiah 8:1-12). This worship service went on for weeks. (For those of you have heard of the “Brownsville Revival,” where a worship service went on for months and years, this worship service was perhaps similar.) The people were so caught up in the spirit, that they continue to worship day after day for a long, long time. [3]

We can learn some things from this great, month long worship service:

  • First, the worship of Israel was communal. That is to say, this was not the worship of isolated individuals but of a community. It is important for us to have personal faith. However, personal faith is not enough. We human beings were made for community. Not only do we need to worship God privately, but we also need to worship God publicly.
  • Secondly, the worship was Biblical. At the very center of the worship of Israel were their Scriptures. If our worship is going to transform our lives, then the word of God needs to sit at the very center of our worship. This doesn’t mean that music, the arts, the prayers,  and other parts of worship are unimportant. They are very important. It means that we come to worship to center ourselves on the word of God as we sing them, pray them, and hear them read and preached.
  • Third, the worship was prayerful. Occasionally, people remarked to me that they rarely go to a church in which there is as much prayer as there is at Advent. I take that as a compliment. Prayer is the primary way in which we allow God to speak into our hearts and into our community.
  • Finally, the worship was action-oriented. This goes beyond our text, but this entire worship service ends with the people of Israel recommitting themselves to God and changing their lives (v. 38). Our worship should not end when the Sunday service of our local church ends. Instead, our worship should continue throughout the week until we meet for worship again. Our worship should lead us to recommitment, renewal, engagement with our culture. [4]

Transforming Confession.

At the end of their time of reading the law and hearing it explained,  the people prayed a great, long prayer of confession. This is a part of Nehemiah we have touched on before. In chapter 1, we learned that Nehemiah began planning his restoration of Jerusalem with a great prayer in which he confessed his sins and the sins of the people of Israel. In today’s text, over and over again, the people of Israel confess their sins and shortcomings to God. The prayer records their entire history of sin against God.

Why is confession connected to renewal? The word, “Renew” implies restoring a person, group, or community to a prior,  better state. To renew is to make new. In other words, renewal implies change. If we are to change and become new, we have to understand that part of us that needs to change. It’s true people and is true of societies. Until we know we need to change, we won’t change.

Most people don’t change until they have a deep sense that something is wrong. There is an old saying that “People do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.” Confession and repentance are those moments in which we clearly understand that we have to change. We change when we realize that we simply can’t stay the same. Confession is the first step in transformation. It is that moment when our mind and will are committed to change. [5] This is true of both individuals and nations.

Our Transforming God.

Nehemiah 9 contains a history of Israel that begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and ends with Israel renewing its covenant with God. Along the way, we learn that it was God who chose Abraham (9:7). It was God who delivered Israel from captivity in Egypt (v. 9). It was God who gave Israel the law of Moses (v. 13). Unfortunately, in spite of all these blessings, Israel became arrogant, disobedient, and refused to repent (v. 16). As a result, Israel suffered. Nevertheless, God did not abandon them (v. 19). Instead, got continued to be faithful to his promises and bless the people of Israel (vv. 22-16). Yet, over and over again, Israel was ungrateful.

All of this is summarized as follows:

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies (v. 26-27)

What is being described here is sometimes called the “Cycle of Sin, Punishment, and Restoration.” It can be graphically represented something like this:

Picture

God blesses us. Unfortunately, as God blesses us we begin to take God for granted. We become arrogant. We sin. We fail to obey the word of God. Therefore, God takes away our blessing. We suffer oppression. Once we confess our sins to God, however, God in his mercy delivers us. We receive blessings, and the cycle begins again.

Notice I  put confession in the center of the graphic. Confession is in the center because confession is at the center of any and all renewal. Once we have strayed from God’s word, God’s law, and what God desires of us, only confession, repentance, and renewal can restore us.

This is something we Americans need to think about. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion concerning where we are between blessings and oppression, but I think very few thinking people believe that we have much in the way of blessings left before us without a little confession, repentance, and renewal to restore us.

A Transforming People.

Our text in Nehemiah reminds us that our worship is not optional. Worship is at the center of what it means to believe in God, to trust God, and to respond to God’s love. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we should not give up meeting together as some people do (Hebrews 10:25). This does not mean, however, that our worship ends when we go home from church on Sunday. Worship is not the end, but the beginning.

imagesThe apostle Paul reminds us that our worship is supposed to be a part of our way of life (Romans 12:1-2). Our worship is supposed to change the way we think. It is supposed to change how we see the world. It’s supposed to change how we behave. When we see that the love of Jesus is at the center of the universe, we are transformed. And, as a transformed people, we are called to follow Christ into the world offering ourselves as living sacrifices.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The term Great Awakening refers to several periods of religious revival during the course of American history. Historians and theologians identify at least two (the First and Second Great Awakenings) and perhaps as many as  three or four waves of religious renewal and revival  between the early 18th century and the late 20th century.  Prior to the First Great Awakening, in both England and in America, faith and worship had become routine and divorced from the lives of ordinary people. George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, who were both brilliant, emphasized the emotional and spiritual content of faith. Even today, and especially in Presbyterian seminaries, Edwards is regarded as perhaps the most brilliant and capable American theologian. In particular, the First Great Awakening emphasized confession of sin and repentance. Edwards famous sermon, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” was designing to bring people to confession and repentance, as out of date and harsh as it seem to modern ears.

[2] As mentioned in a prior blog, the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is unclear, and it is possible that the diaries of Nehemiah were added at a later date or inserted into the text for other than purely historical purposes. No one knows. What we do know is that both Ezra and Nehemiah were reformers and rebuilders. Nehemiah was a physical and political rebuilder. Ezra was a spiritual and cultural rebuilder. The events of Nehemiah 7-9 may have occurred near the beginning of Ezra’s renewal or later as its culmination. We cannot say for sure. For more information, see, Balmer Kelly, “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther” in The Layman’s Bible Commentary (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1962) and Mark A. Throntveit, “Ezra-Nehemiah in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1992). What is clear is that the text moves from rebuilding the Temple, to rebuilding the culture through the law of Moses, to rebuilding the physical defensibility of the city (Throntfiet, at 3).

[3] The Brownsville Revival (Pensacola Outpouring) was a Christian revival within the Pentecostal Movement that began on Father’s Day, June 18, 1995, at Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida.Characteristics of the Brownsville Revival movement included acts of repentance by parishioners and a call to holiness, said to be inspired by the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. More than four million people are reported to have attended the revival meetings from its beginnings in 1995 to around 2000. See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownsville_Revival (Downloaded June 30, 2016). Some people doubt this revival was authentic; however, its length is a decent analogy for what happened in ancient Israel.

[4] This is why it is not so important that we remember each Sunday’s worship. The purpose of worship is not more head knowledge, but heart commitment to live as Christians for the week to come. Those who denigrate worship because people cannot remember the sermon do not understand the spiritual and communal importance of worship.

[5]  The Greek word for repentance (“metanoia”) means to change or turn around. This is the idea behind true confession: we repent and change! In fact, if there is no change, we may not have really and truly confessed with a heart convicted of the seriousness of our sin.

Rebuilding: Leadership by the Word

The last Sunday in June is “Leadership Sunday” in our church. Each year, we ordain and install new elders and trustees on the last Sunday of June. This is because their term in office begins the first day of July. The congregation elected the officers we are ordaining today at our annual meeting last December. Since January, they have been coming to monthly training sessions and attending at least some Session and Trustee meetings. This week, their term in office begins.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read the story of a woman that I’ll call “Donna.” Donna grew up in a church located in a growing city in the Midwest. She has wonderful memories of church dinners, Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, and Youth Choirs. She went to a church camp in the summertime. When she grew up, she stayed in her parent’s church. For a long time, her close connections in the church and her memories blinded her to the reality that the church was shrinking.

imgres-1As her parent’s generation grew older, new young people were not joining her church. One morning during the worship service, she realized that her little church was dying. For a time, she went through denial. “Things will get better,” she said. They did not. As a leader in the church, she began to talk about the problem during church board meetings. The church tried a few things, but they didn’t work. When her children got to high school, they wanted to attend a local mega-church. Reluctantly, Donna agreed. When the children were grown, she never went back. Her home church closed a few years ago. [1] The church could never create the kind of leadership that would adapt to the changing environment of America.

It’s interesting: there have never been more books about leadership for public service, business, churches and other organizations. At the same time, in every area of American life, people remark that we do not have enough good leaders! Increasingly, in our culture, we need transformational leaders but we seem incapable of developing them.

Nehemiah: A Servant Leader.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Nehemiah was a special kind of a leader. He had a deep faith in God. He had a soft heart. He cared about people. He prayed. He thought. He planned. He had courage. He was willing to face opposition. He was a good administrator.

Last week, we saw the kind of servant leadership demonstrated by Nehemiah. When other people were taking advantage of their wealth, power, and position, Nehemiah refused to take advantage of his position as the governor of Jerusalem. He paid his own expenses. He took care of the common people and the poor. Instead of serving himself, Nehemiah served the people of Jerusalem.

In this blog, we’re going to talk about biblical leadership. Our text comes from Nehemiah 8:

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra, the teacher of the Law, to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, …. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra, the teacher of the Law, stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion….  Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law (Selections from Nehemiah 8:1-

Prayer: O God: Please come into our hearts and help us to see what true Biblical, servant leadership is all about. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Three Transformational Servant Leaders.

As we began our study of Nehemiah, I mentioned that three leaders provided special leadership for the Jewish people as they returned from captivity in Babylon: Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

The first of the great leaders was a man named “Zerubbabel.” He was a descendent of King David and led one of the first groups of people to return from Babylon (Ezra 2:1-2). He began rebuilding the Temple. He’s mentioned in the books of Haggai and Zechariah. We don’t know a lot about him, except that he seems to have been both a religious and political leader of great ability. He was loved by the people and respected by the prophets. Despite delays and orders to stop, eventually, the temple was rebuilt (Ezra 6).

imgres-2A few years after Zerubbabel, a man named “Ezra” brought another group of people from Babylon. We don’t very often study Ezra, but he was one of the most important people in the Old Testament. It is almost certain that Ezra is the author of both the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In addition, a good many scholars believe that he is the author of First and Second Chronicles. He may also have been the final editor of the book of Esther. Finally, there are those who believe that Ezra edited a good bit of what we call the Old Testament, which was put in a form while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. [2]

Not only was Ezra a great scholar, he was a good leader. Like Nehemiah, Ezra returned during the reign of King Artaxerxes. Whereas Nehemiah’s duty was to rebuild Jerusalem so that he could be defended from its enemies, Ezra’s job was to renew the culture of Jerusalem and of the Jewish people. The people of Jerusalem had rebuilt the Temple, but they had not rebuilt the culture from which the Temple emerged. God sent Ezra to rebuild the culture.

What is a culture? A culture is composed of all the human creations that characterize a people. Jewish culture for example includes Jewish history, Jewish law, Jewish poetry, Jewish music Jewish wisdom, Jewish prophetic literature, Jewish food, Jewish lifestyles—everything that makes something Jewish and characterizes the way Jews live.

In the same way, American culture is not just American politics, or American business, or American history, or American law, or any individual creation of Americans, it is the sum total of the way of life we create by all of our decisions and creations. When we renew our culture, we are talking about each one of us renewing that part of the culture that depends upon us.

Six Qualities of Rebuilders.

If we look at Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, we see common traits that we must also have if we are to rebuild our culture. I decided to focus on six qualities in this blog:

  • First, transformational leaders are biblical. There is no rebuilding American culture from a Christian perspective without transformational leaders who are Biblical. To be Biblical is to be more than a person who respects the Bible. It involves more than memorizing a few Bible verses. It means becoming so familiar with the Bible that our view of the world, of God, and of other people is shaped and formed by the story the Bible tells. Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah were clearly such people.
  • Second, transformational leaders are prayerful. Transformational, Christian leaders must be prayerful. There is nothing that can substitute for a deep prayerful relationship with God. One thing we emphasize in our church is making major decisions in a prayerful way. No leader can lead in a spiritual manner without a deep, abiding prayer life.
  • Third, transformational leaders are wise. Wisdom is the practical ability to make good decisions in complex circumstances. Wisdom does involve knowing a few things. A wise person has to know how things work. Nevertheless, wisdom also involves experience. It’s almost impossible to be wise without experience. It is experience, good and bad, success and failure, popular and unpopular that makes a leader wise.
  • Fourth, transformational leaders are loving. In America, we normally think of love as a feeling. Love is not a feeling. Love is an activity. Love is doing what is best for another person or group of persons and accepting whatever suffering may come as a result. There is no servant leadership unless the leader is doing what is best for those he or she is serving.
  • Fifth, transformational leaders are moral. In the American church, we place so much emphasis on grace that we sometimes forget that we are saved by grace so that we can live the Christian life. In addition, our culture is so amoral that it is easy for Christians to forget that we are bound by the moral law of the Old Testament. The Ten Commandments are not “Ten Good Suggestions.” They are God’s instructions for life. The Ten Commandments are also not the only moral lessons contained in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is filled with instructions as to how to live a good life. Good leaders live according to the teachings of the Old Testament in every area of life.
  • Finally, transformational leaders are energetic. Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and every other transformational leader in history had a kind of energy to keep working even when results are hard to see. Energy is related to the quality of perseverance. Transformational leaders must persevere.

Jesus as a Transformational Leader.

Prior to the 1970s, there were relatively few Christian books on leadership. In particular, there were not very many books on church leadership. Pastors were not thought of as leaders. They were thought of as caregivers with special gifts in preaching. A few pastors of large churches were thought of as managers or administrators, and every denomination produced a few books about administering large congregations.

Then, in the 1970s, a few very large mega-churches developed. Their pastors became known as leaders. In addition, it became obvious that the mainline denominations were declining. The result has been an explosion of books on church leadership.

Unfortunately, the explosion of books on leadership has not created an explosion of leaders. America, and especially American churche, needs leaders. America needs all kinds of leaders, in business, government, private charities, local communities, etc.. America especially needs Godly leaders who try to emulate Christ in their leadership. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be creating such leaders.

imgres-3I am not a tremendous fan of leadership books with titles like, “Jesus: The Greatest Leader Who Ever Lived.” Many, if not most, of these books portray Jesus as a kind of extremely nice modern business executive. Jesus was, however, a transformational leader. His life, death and resurrection, and his continuing activity by the power of the Holy Spirit in the church, have resulted in the greatest possible transformation of human society.

Nevertheless, generally we cannot look to Jesus for techniques of leadership. Instead, we look at Jesus to understand the spirituality of a servant leader. The disciples remembered that Jesus told them that in his kingdom the last would be first at the greatest the servant of all (Mark 9:35). To be a Christian leader is to serve others after the example and in the spirit of Jesus. There is no other kind of Christian leadership.

If a Christian is a leader, in the church, in business, in government, in private charities–in every area of life– that Christian needs to bring their faith to bear upon the leadership they exert. This is a matter of being sure we act in a loving and wise manner to serve the best interests of all people as we lead. This is not easy or automatic. It is easier in the church and much harder in areas outside the church. Nevertheless, servant leadership is not just for pastors. It is for all leaders, even those in politics and business.

In First Peter, the apostle writes the following:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (I Peter 5:1-4).

Transformational Christian leaders watch over the sheep, serve the sheep, are good examples to the sheep, and cares for the sheep. In the church, the leaders we elect to serve our congregations must make important decisions. They must manage a significant budget and often an endowment. They must sense how to grow our congregations in the midst of a general decline of faith in our culture. This requires a special, servant attitude. Loving people is hard because it involves not always doing what people want. It means doing what is best.

Worship + 2 Leadership.

Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah were not empowered to be leaders by magic or by their genes at birth. Of course, they had the genetic capacity for leadership.  Bet their is more than physical and mental strength to being a Godly leader. Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah worshiped God daily, weekly, and at the high holy days of their people. They read and studied the scriptures of their time. They were filled Holy Spirit as the prayed regularly and opened up their hearts to God Finally, they were not satisfied with “head knowledge.” They put their faith to work.

They might have stayed in Babylon or Persia all of their lives. Zerubbabel might have been satisfied to live in the court of Cyrus of Persia. Nehemiah might have been a cupbearer to Artaxerxes all his life. Ezra might have been happy translating Scripture, studying Scripture, and memorizing Scripture. Instead, they undertook to travel to Jerusalem, live in more primitive surroundings, face opposition, also that they could serve God and the people of God.

discipleshiptitle2We might say that Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, and Ezra, were worship and +2 believers. They were disciples of the Living God who led others to renew and restore their society. We need such leaders today.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  This is a composite story from several of which I am aware. In preparing the story, I looked at Mike Foss, A Servant’s Manual: Christian Leadership for Tomorrow (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002) in which he tells a story similar to many. My own home church, which is still open, has undergone a similar change.

[2] See, Mervin Brenaman, “Ezra, Nehemiah, & Esther” in “The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1993), 15-59.

Fairness for the Poor and Common People

A week ago, our church hosted its annual Vacation Bible School. This year on Monday, the middle schoolers made sandwiches for the First Presbyterian Church Soup Kitchen and prepared hygiene kits for Family Promise (formerly the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network or “MIHN”). Tuesday, they sorted food at the Food Bank. Thursday they led a VBS for an inner city Hispanic church. Friday, we sang for a local retirement home.

Every week, a certain number of people come to use our food pantry. We have people we help our regular occasion, and some of them were helped last week. Saturday morning, we discovered a young couple sleeping outside the Christian Life Center. Don and Cindy spent time helping that couple. Sunday afternoon, Kathy talk to me about a man she noticed sleeping in the bus stop near our church. Apparently, he’s been there on and off for several weeks.
On Sunday, Judge Potter continued the discussion with me about housing conditions we have in Memphis. On Monday, Cindy was still helping the young couple, and Daniel spent a couple of hours with me talking about the local mission initiative to help the poor.
Our church has always been involved in helping people. Next week, we will be hosting Family Promise, a program in which we help the transitionally homeless with shelter. Family Promise is unique in that it is the only program that allows husbands, wives, and children to stay together while they are transitionally homeless.

Christians have always cared about the less fortunate. Jesus indicates that we will be judged by how we treat those in need (Matthew 25). In Acts, the Apostles are already caring for the widows in the church (Acts 6). Paul and his fellow workers took up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem (see, 2 Cor. 8). The early church was known for its care of the poor.

In this blog we are looking at Nehemiah’s care for the unfortunate and  thinking about our Christian responsibility for the less fortunate and about fairness for common people.

Text and Prayer.

Nehemiah is one of the most interesting and important characters in Biblical history. He was soft hearted, compassionate, prayerful, thoughtful, and a fine administrator. Today, we are looking at his compassion for ordinary people and the poor, as well as his fundamental fairness and simplicity of character. Here is how Nehemiah 5 begins:

imgres-1Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.” (Nehemiah 5:1-5, edited for length).

Prayer: God of Justice: Only you are completely fair and completely compassionate. Today, help us to learn from this passage what we can do to promote fairness and compassion for the poor in our own community.

Inequality in Israel.

A constant feature of human society is economic inequality. In today’s lesson, we learn that the burden of rebuilding the Jerusalem wall fell disproportionately on the poor and common people. Some people were hungry because they did not own any property and were poor (Neh. 5:2). Some people who owned property had been required to mortgage the property for food (v. 3). Some people became financially strapped and could not pay their taxes (v. 4). Some Jews even had to sell their children into slavery to get money (v. 5)! Some of these people were what we call poor; however, some were we might call common people having trouble making ends meet.

imgresOn the other hand, there were the wealthy landowners and nobles. These people owned sufficient land that they could be absentee landlords. They were not required to work daily in the fields to earn a living. These people had excess funds they could loan at interest. This is exactly what they did. In the process, they become even more wealthy at the expense of the common people and the poor. They even foreclosed on the property of the common people in need.

Years ago, I had a friend who had been an attorney during the Great Depression in a small town in Texas. I asked him how life had been. He looked kind of sad and said, “Well for me it wasn’t so bad—if you didn’t mind taking other people’s wedding rings and farms.” In hard times, in ancient Israel and today the economic burden of hard times falls hardest on those least able to bear that burden.

Nehemiah was not the kind of person to just shrug his shoulders and go on about his business. When he heard the complaints of the common people, he was deeply moved and thought about the problem, perhaps for a long time (Neh. 5:6). Do you remember chapter 1? In that chapter, when Nehemiah heard about the suffering of the Jews, he mourned and prayed (1:4). In this case, he mourned and thought about the problem.

Nehemiah had a good heart. He was the governor of Jerusalem. He lived in a fine house. He had plenty of food. He could easily have turned his back on the plight of the common people and been friends with the rich and powerful. Instead, Nehemiah cared about the common people and the poor. Nehemiah was a leader of compassion and fairness towards all people.

Economic Unfairness Today.

We will never take action to help the common people or the poor until we have compassion on their plight. images-3Nearly a decade ago, the United States and all the developed economies of the world experienced the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression. In the United States, economic growth had become overly-dependent on the construction and sale of new homes. Congress and the banking system made it increasingly possible for people to buy homes who lacked the economic ability to repay them. These loans were packaged and sold to banks and financial institutions all over the world. In addition, an enormous market was created trading financial instruments that amounted to bets concerning the repayment of those loans.

When the debt pyramid that had been created collapsed, several investment banking firms went bankrupt and the world’s banking system was threatened with collapse. In response, United States and other governments nationalized most of that debt, rescuing the banks, their shareholders, and other financial institutions. None of this was without cost: the world’s taxpayers picked up the tab. The result was a deep recession we call “Great Recession” and the slowest recovery in modern economic history.

The result of the slow recovery has been rising inequality, with the wealthiest one percent of Americans controlling more of the wealth that in the past, hollowing out of the Middle Class (meaning that that the middle class never recovered from the recession), an increase in poverty, and a loss of faith in our way of life, particularly among young people. The result of the inequality, economic stagnation, and loss of faith is political instability.

There is more to the story than you can say in a sermon. The reasons for our problems are more complex than can be explained in twenty minutes. The problem was not caused entirely by the Great Recession. The Great Recession has just made the problem worse. For example, the changing world economy also plays a role in our economic problems as does the fact that we are not educating many of our young people for the jobs our economy is creating. Nevertheless, the basic conclusion remains: As in the days of Nehemiah, we are faced with a good deal of economic unfairness in our society. (See, International Monetary Fund, Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective (June 2015)).

 A Response Today.

In past weeks, I have focused on rebuilding American culture. The problems of our society are primarily spiritual, moral, and cultural. Rebuild-TitleNevertheless, spiritual, moral, and cultural decline have economic consequences. In order to rebuild our culture, we have to rebuild the confidence of people in the basic economic fairness of our society.

Nehemiah responded to the economic unfairness of his day by confronting the problem directly. He confronted the wealthy who were abusing their economic power. He confronted those who were taking advantage of the poor. He appealed to their conscience and to the law of Moses (Ex. 22:12-27; Lev. 25:35-54; Deut. 23:19-20). He demanded that they stop doing what they were doing (Neh. 5:11-13) He pointed to himself as an example of someone who was behaving fairly under the circumstances (vv. 14-18). In other words, Nehemiah both addressed the problem and set a good example for the people.

If we are going to rebuild our culture, we must confront the fact that our economic system has become unbalanced. In particular, the poor and Middle Class have lost purchasing power and are having difficulty sustaining their way of life. The economic stagnation caused by the Great Recession hurt those without jobs and new members of the job force more than it hurts those of us who been employed for a long time.

A sense of justice and cultural solidarity among all Americans should motivate all of us to seek to find ways to restore a kind of economic balance that will give people, and especially young people, economic opportunities and hope for the future. We are all related to one another, and if the young, the middle class, and the poor do not have adequate economic opportunity, then the rest of us will eventually suffer.

Nehemiah doesn’t show us exactly what we should do. However, Nehemiah does show us the kind of leadership that we need. We need a leadership that is compassionate and cares for the common people. We need leadership that understands the problem and is willing to confront that problem. We need leadership that can motivate all of us, and especially the wealthy, to do the kinds of things that will make our society better for everyone.

Something We Can Do.

Memphis is a great city. It’s a great place to live. However, Memphis is not without its problems. A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day in the Environmental Court of Shelby County. Last week, I was given more information about the housing problem in Shelby County. Did you know that about twenty-two percent, or almost a quarter, of the homes in Shelby County are blighted in some way? images-2

Many of the people who occupy these homes are what we might call the “working poor.” These are people that have jobs and a little income. They do not, however, make enough money to get a bank loan to repair their homes. Therefore, they just do minor repairs as they have funds. Over time, they often can’t keep up with the decay of the home. It is a big problem in our city! Dave always felt that housing is something in which our church should have an interest. We are involved in Family Promise (where we house the homeless), the Memphis Family Shelter, The Memphis Union Mission, and other housing-related ministries. Perhaps now is the time for us to take another look at what we can do to help with the housing problem in Memphis.

When our church built its last series of buildings, we put away about $200,000 for local missions. We have spent a part of that money, but we have a good bit left. One thing we’ve been trying figure out is a way to make a difference in Cordova and Arlington. Recently, Dan Eubanks, who leads up our Christian Life Center,  made a trip to Joplin, Missouri to look at one ministry that could help the Cordova area. This project would give us a way of sharing information about what can be done to help today certain kinds of people. It would enable all the congregations in our ministry area to do a better job of administering the help that we give out to the needy.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that he will judge us by whether we helped the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those in prison. He asks us not to pass by and ignore their problems. Nehemiah was the kind of person who did not ignore or pass by the suffering of others. Instead, he helped them as best he could and set a good example of what it means to be a compassionate leader. Perhaps we can do the same.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

Rebuilding our Culture: Dealing with Opposition

This morning, as I finalized this blog, I learned of the terror incident in Florida. The point made near the end of the sermon is important for Christians: We must not think that violence is compatible with the Gospel of Peace. The slaughter of other human beings is not the way to bring about a Kingdom of Peace. We need a national and international “politics of reason,” and Christians ought to oppose the politics of violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

One of Kathy’s favorite movies is called “Amazing Grace.” [1] Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was born in 1759, the son of a wealthy businessman. In 1780, he was elected to Parliament. Five years later, he became an evangelical Christian. Two years after he became a Christian, he became involved with the British anti-slavery movement.

imgres-5From that time until his death in 1833, Wilberforce was involved in the attempt to outlaw the slave trade and then to eliminate slavery from the British Empire. He died only three days after he learned that his life’s work had been successful.

Powerful interests in Great Britain opposed Wilberforce and those who wanted to eliminate the slave trade. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain was the most powerful trading nation in the world. Its most important trade route involved purchasing slaves in Africa (mostly trading European goods), selling them in the West Indies, purchasing sugar tobacco and cotton and other New World commodities in the West Indies, and then transporting those goods to Europe, where the entire process began again. This amounted to about 80 percent of Great Britain’s foreign income at the time.

In other words, there were a lot of people, companies and businesses that directly and indirectly benefited from the slave trade. Not surprisingly, overtly and covertly, they were able to delay the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain for almost half a century. Wilberforce was threatened and vilified. Many supporters grew weary of the campaign. Nevertheless, he and others kept up their opposition to slavery. Today, Wilberforce is remembered as a Christian who put his faith into practice in a way to change the world.

It would be nice if everyone agreed with our ideas concerning how to improve and rebuild our nation’s culture. However, we need to be realistic: Not everyone will agree. Therefore, Christians must learn to deal with opposition as we seek to renew and improve our nation.

Opposition to Nehemiah.

Our text for this blog is from the fourth chapter of Nehemiah, which is devoted to the opposition Nehemiah incurred as he sought to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

imgres-6When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”

Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart (Nehemiah 4:1-6).

Prayer: God of Every Good Work, please be with us as we seek to learn how to be forces for renewal of our culture. Today, we especially ask that we learn how to face opposition in a Christian way. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Various Kinds of Opposition.

For the past several weeks we’ve been looking at Nehemiah. If you’ve read the book, you are familiar with the names “Sanballat the Horonite” and “Tobiah the Ammonite.” [2] When Nehemiah began his renewal efforts, he realized that not everyone would agree with his project. In particular, he knew that the enemies of Israel might very well oppose what he was doing. Early in Nehemiah, two individuals emerge as particularly opposed to what God’s chosen leader was doing: Sabballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. [3]

It appears that Sanballat was an “Ephriamite.” This means, that he was a descendent of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. If you remember, when the Kingdom of David split apart after the reign of Solomon, ten tribes, led by the tribe of Ephriam, split off and formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Eventually, they were conquered by the Assyrian Empire (722 B.C.) and forcibly intermarried with the Assyrian conquerors. Their religion was not the same as Israel’s. For example, they did not worship God in Jerusalem but on their own mountain, Geranium (see, John 4:19-24). These are the people that by Jesus’s day were called the “Samaritans.” Today, Samaria is part of the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Tobiah the Ammonite was also not Jewish. The Ammonites generally controlled an area south and east of Jerusalem. Tobiah appears to be the ruler of what in Nehemiah’s day was called, “TransJordan,” meaning on the east side of the Jordan River. Today, this would be part of the nation we call “Jordan.”

These two individuals were not just powerful in their own areas, but also in Judea where Jerusalem is located. Jerusalem, if you will remember, was in Judea which consisted of the tribal areas belonging to the tribe of Judah and Benjamin. It had been conquered by the Babylonians (586 B.C.). By Nehemiah’s day, this little area was all that was left of David’s Kingdom. Today, that area would be roughly the area surrounding the city of Jerusalem and its suburbs. It was surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors.

Sanballat had a daughter who was married into the family of the High Priest. He seems to have been influential in Jewish affairs, and some of the nobles probably supported him rather than Nehemiah! In Nehemiah 13, we find that Tobiah actually had a room in the temple area from which Nehemiah ejected him (See, Nehemiah 13).

Basically, Sanballat and Tobiah were overt enemies of Israel. The nobles of the Jews tried to play both sides of the fence and sometimes covertly harmed the project (3:5). They had farms and wealth. They had learned to get along with the enemies of Israel, and while they were willing to support Nehemiah as an emissary of Artaxerxes, they were not wholly committed to the cause. They supported whoever was in power at the moment—and they knew Nehemiah might fail. In that case, they wanted to be on the winning side. Their motto was sometimes, “Get along and get ahead.”

The final kind of opposition that Nehemiah faced was that natural human opposition to any project that comes when people get tired and lethargic and begin to lose hope. We’re told in chapter 4 that people began to complain about the work as they became exhausted (v. 10). These people complained that the work was too hard and the progress to slow. They were losing hope because the job was hard and taking longer than they hoped.

As we seek to renew our society we cannot expect everyone to agree with us or to share our passion for renewal. For example, a lot of money is made in America selling pornography. If Christians oppose pornography, as we should, powerful economic interests will not agree. They will be our Sanballat’s and Tobiah’s.

If we seek to renew the media in order to  to eliminate some of its raunchier aspects, the people that make money off those raunchy aspects, will not agree. Those people that have business and social relationships with people who do not agree also may not agree. They are the “nobles” of our culture.

We can expect that a lot of people are going to get tired along the way, just as the Jews got tired of building the wall. Renewal is hard work. People by nature do like to work hard over long periods of time. Perhaps the greatest opposition Christians may face in the long work of renewing our culture will come from those who simply get tired of the good work and the pressures and sacrifices involved.

Our nation has decayed over a period of more than a half century, and the roots of our decay go back  much further. We cannot expect a quick, easy victory over embedded ways of thinking and behaving. The task of renewing our culture will take a lot longer than most of us think.

Responding to Opposition.

images-2Nehemiah’s response to opposition can give us clues concerning how we might react when our attempts to renew our culture meet with opposition. Here are five:

First,  Nehemiah prayed. Nehemiah frequently prayed when under pressure (Nehemiah 1:5-11;2:4; 6:9; 4:4-5). One of the most important things we can do is to remember to pray when we face opposition in attempting to rebuild our nation and culture.

Second, Nehemiah was vigilant. No sooner did Nehemiah learn that his enemies were plotting against the Jews than he began to form those who were building the wall into teams. Some built and some were  guards who kept a lookout for an attack (4:9, 13, 16, 21).

Third, the people of Israel were diligent in rebuilding the wall. On more than one occasion, the people were threatened or tired, or in danger. They did not allow this opposition to stop them from rebuilding the wall. Instead, under Nehemiah’s leadership they continued to rebuild the wall (vv. 6, 16, 21).

Fourth, the people of Israel and Nehemiah were courageous. Both Nehemiah and the Jewish people continued to work despite the danger of attack.imgres-9 I’m a worrier by nature, and I think a lot of people worry about what will happen if we begin to take stands in order to renew our culture. It’s important to be wise and to not provoke attack; however, we cannot allow opposition to silence us. There is an old saying that there is nothing more likely to allow evil to triumph than for good men to do nothing. [4] This is true. Renewal takes courage.

Finally, Nehemiah was wise and shrewd in how he responded to plots. On several occasions Nehemiah’s enemies attempted to trick him. First, they tried to get him to meet them in secret so that they might harm or kill him (6:1-5). Next, they spread false rumors that Nehemiah was planning a revolt against the Persian Empire (vv. 6-8). Then, they attempted to get him to seek sanctuary in the Temple, trying to make him seem to be a coward (vv. 10-13). In each of these situations, Nehemiah saw through the schemes and strategies of his enemies. As we try to renew our culture, there will be those who attempt to trick us into saying or doing things that are unwise. We must be prepared to respond with wisdom, insight, and restraint.

Remember Who You Are.

As Christians attempt to internalize Old Testament teachings, it is important that we view the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. The Apostle Paul faced many of the same problems Nehemiah faced. He faced opposition, physical danger, and trickery (See 2 Corinthians 11:16-33). By the end of his ministry, he had learned to see those who opposed him in the light of Christ. Here is what he wrote to the Ephesians:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:11-17, Emphasis Added).

By now, everyone is aware that I believe one of the worst aspects of our contemporary politics is the constant personalization of political disagreements. We have talked about negative politics before. Paul seems to be aware that Christians  were, and, and will be tempted to to personalize our opponents. He reminds us that we have been placed here to love people, all people. Our battle is not against other human beings. Instead, our battleis against bad ideas, programs that won’t work, morals that will destroy human lives, a lack of respect for other people, lust for power, violence, and all the other evils that infect our politics and culture.

Our real enemies, and the real threats to renewal of our culture, are not people. To fight the battle the way Jesus would have us fight the battle requires devotion to truth, willingness to live in a moral way, commitment to peace, faith, and assurance of our salvation. Most of all, we need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ so that what we say and what we do advances God’s kingdom of love.

Blessed Are You….

Rebuild-TitleJesus reminds us in the Beatitudes that we are blessed when people insult us and persecute us because of our devotion to what is right (Matthew 5:11-12). Several years ago, we were sitting next to James Quillin at a meeting. James was the pastor of Highland Heights Presbyterian Church, a statesman in two Presbyterian denominations, and a good friend. During the course of the meeting, several people attacked us  for things we were saying and doing related to the renewal of our then denomination. James, at one point, looked over at me and said: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:11). Then he just smiled.

The fact is if we want to renew our culture we must face opposition. The key is learning to face it with the wisdom and courage of Nehemiah and grace  Jesus showed when he faced those who opposed him.

Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stephen Knight, wr. Amazing Grace dr. Michael Apted (Four Boys Films, 2006). The writer Eric Metaxes has also written a book about Wilberforce. See, Eric Metaxes, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007).

[2] As always, I am dependant upon more than one source for the historical details. See, “Sanballat and “Tobiah” in Ronald F. Youngblood, ed, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986, 1995).

[3] Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite early appear as opponents of what Nehemiah was doing (See, Nehemiah 2:10-11, 19-20, 4:1-3, 6:1-9). There is one other figure mentioned, Geshem the Arab (Nehemiah 2:10, 19; 6:1-14). I have not mentioned Geshem in the sermon or in this blog, preferring to concentrate on the two most prominent opponents of Nehemiah’s efforts.

[4] This quote is attributed to the British statesman, Edmund Burke, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing (www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ edmundburk377528.html).

Getting Started Rebuilding the Walls of our Culture

This week we are looking at Nehemiah 3:1-2. At this juncture, Nehemiah begins the work to which God has called him.

As some of you may know, for four long summers beginning in 1968 or 1969, I laid track for the Frisco Railroad. Our day began about 7:00 a.m. when we met in small shack about 200 yards east of the main building housing the management and civil engineers of the Frisco. (The year before Mom died, Tim and I went down to see if we could find that shack. It had been torn down. I was very disappointed to lose this memory of my youth.) I was never early for work, so that by the time I got to work there was coffee ready to drink. Eight or so of us would sit around until about 7:30. Eventually, the phone would ring and the boss at the main building would tell us where we were going for the day. Most of the time we were replacing a crossing, correcting some problem with a line of tract, or working around the yard on a switch. By eight o’clock, had packed our tools onto the truck and were on our way. The easy part of the day was over.

images-3When we arrived at the work site, we would yank out existing railroad ties, take out the existing tie plates and rails, dig a new foundation, put in gravel or other materials, replace the ties and rails, and perhaps cover what we had done with new blacktop. Every piece of rail we lifted weighed over 600 pounds. That means that four people would be lifting about 125 pounds each. Nearly every tie weighed between 200 and 300 pounds, often requiring two people to free from the soil. I weighed about 118 pounds at the time. It was really miserable work. Every day.

We would take a half an hour or so for lunch and work again until the job was done. I often felt fortunate because frequently we could not get the job done in eight hours, and so I often got an hour or so of overtime. That came in helpful when I returned to college. What I most remember about those days is how tired and sore I was, every single day. It was misery, three months of misery—and I now regard it as some of the best and happiest days of my life! I also remember with pride some of the work we did.

The Work Begins.

            Nehemiah began his work with an extended time of mourning, praying, fasting, thinking, and planning how to rebuild the Jerusalem wall. This was important. It’s good to remember, however, that at some point there’s work to be done, and work is hard. This morning we’re thinking about beginning of the building the walls of Jerusalem.

Our text is from Nehemiah 3.

Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place, building as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel. The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zakkur son of Imri built next to them. The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs. The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors (Nehemiah 3:1-5).

 Eternal God who we are told created the world in seven days of hard work before resting, we come to you today asking that you would allow us to consecrate ourselves to the hard, long work of rebuilding our nation and our culture. In Jesus name, Amen.

How the Work was Done.

Nehemiah 3 describes the beginning of the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and how the work was accomplished. If we were to read the entire chapter, we would see that the pattern set by the first five verses is repeated over and over again. Basically, people in the same profession, families, people from surrounding communities, and residents near certain portions of the wall, took responsibility for rebuilding a particular portion of the wall.

imgresNehemiah was a shrewd organizer. He also was good judge character and of how people best work together. He knew that people who already knew, respected, and had worked together in the past would find it easier to undertake an unfamiliar task, like rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. Therefore, he relied upon pre-existing relationships in building work teams. In other words, the priests already knew one another and had worked together in the past. The men of Jericho and Takoa knew one another and had already worked together. Basically, Nehemiah built on existing relationships in organizing the work.

It’s as if we wanted to do something that would involve the citizens of Tennessee and North Mississippi to rebuild a part of Memphis. Instead of recruiting people from all over and putting them into new work teams that would have to get used to one another over time, we might let all the citizens of Memphis who wanted to work together, work together. The citizens of Brownsville or Horn Lake who wanted to work together, would work together. The airline pilots for Federal Express who wanted to work together, would work together. The teachers from the Shelby County school system might work together. Work done by people who are  already familiar with one another and know how to work together goes faster and better. This was wise.

Second, I bet Nehemiah took advantage of the natural rivalries that might exist between various groups. I’m from Texas, and if you wanted to build a wall around Houston, one really good idea would be to give half the wall to the graduates of the University of Texas at Austin and half to graduates of Texas A&M. It would not be long before the A&M graduates would be trying to prove to everyone that were the best engineers and the best builders. In response, the University of Texas graduates would be trying to prove that they were the best engineers and builders.

I imagine that the citizens of Jericho, Takoa and other communities had a little friendly rivalry going, each one trying to prove they were the best. You can bet that the priests were trying to prove that they were not a bunch of softies. You get the idea—the way Nehemiah organized the task took advantage of human nature and made sure that the work went along as fast and as organized as possible.

Finally, many people were working on sections of the wall close to their homes. If you took me to Chickasaw Gardens (a Memphis subdivision) and asked me to build a wall around Chickasaw Gardens to help keep people safe, being a good person I would probably do the job. On the other hand, if you asked me to help build a wall around Riverwood Farms, where I live, I would certainly work even harder! By placing people near their homes, Nehemiah assured himself that the work would go faster, and the wall would be better built!

This has a practical value to each of us. Each of us should probably work to rebuild our culture in ways we are familiar with. For example, it would not make much sense for me to work in the area of renewing the musical culture of America. David Shotsberger (our music director) would be a far better choice. David chould better recruit the choir, the praise band, and local musicians to help because he knows them. Each of us has a talent or ability of some kind. The challenge is to use our talent and ability and our friends and colleagues to make our nation and world a better place.

The People Who Did It.

This brings me to the subject of people. I’m sure you that noticed there were a lot of unpronounceable names in the passage for today. If we were to read the entire chapter, we would find many, many unpronounceable names. We don’t like to read these names out loud because they’re hard to pronounce, but they are important. Sometimes, we make statements like, “the Jewish people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.” This masks the fact that it wasn’t an anonymous group of people who rebuild the wall; it was a group of very specific people who rebuilt the wall—and they need to honored and remembered.

Last Sunday night, Kathy and I watched the national Memorial Day concert that is held each year near the capital in Washington DC. images-4This year, on several occasions, the performers honored our Vietnam veterans. Naturally, the cameras would pan off to show the audience the Vietnam War Memorial whenever the Vietnam War was mentioned. For those who have not been there, the memorial consists of black slabs of granite upon which 58,195 names have been inscribed. The Vietnam War was not fought by nameless entities which we call the “United States Armed Forces.” It was fought by real human beings, 58,195 of whom gave their lives for our country. They need to be remembered and honored.

This reminds us that, if we want to renew our country, we can’t rely upon other people to do our work for us. Individual Americans, just like you and me, have to make a decision to make things better. I kind of like visiting war memorials. My father is buried in the Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri. It’s moving to walk down row after row reading names and ranks, the service they were in, and a little information about them. Of course, I never go without seeing Dad and his best friend, Robert Schmidt. I see other names I recognize from my youth. I don’t want to forget Dad, Bob, and the others in that cemetery. Their names and what they did are important.

I read a lot of military history. As fun as it is to read about admirals and generals, the work of war is done by many nameless men and women whose names are known primarily by those who loved them. The work of renewing our culture will produce some famous names; however, the work will be done by many people, most of them people like you and me. We may not be famous or remembered–but our families will know what we did and hopefully follow our example. The best place for each one of us to help to rebuild our society is by using the interests, abilities, talents, gifts, and relationships we already have and can further develop. Every little bit of work, every stone in the wall, matters.

The Building We Need to Build.

Last week, I spoke about capital campaigns. Churches need somewhere to meet. Therefore, there will always be a need for church buildings. However, some pastors spend too much time building buildings. Sometimes, I think it’s true of me. When I think I may not be doing the right things, I am reminded of the passage from the apostle Paul. We read a part of it earlier. In First Corinthians 3, Paul says this:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder wiimagesll suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (I Cor. 3:10-15).

Paul’s words remind us that we are all building a Christian life. Our work is not done when the foundation is laid. Becoming a Christian is not the end of the Christian life; it’s the beginning. All of us are building on the foundation of our faith every single day. It matters what we do with our time and talents.

Paul indicates that the quality of our workmanship and the quality of the materials we put to work matter. On the Judgment Day it will matter whether our life is made of gold or straw. It’s not a matter of salvation. Paul indicates that believers will be saved. However, when we come before the throne of Jesus, we may not be happy with what we’ve done with our lives. When we get to heaven, we may wish we had been a little less selfish.

Renewing our culture is really a matter of getting out of our selfishness and self-centered desires, and putting our talents to work for Christ. It means getting out of our imaginations, our foolish pride, our mistaken ideas, and taking a good look at who we really are and what we are doing with the talents God has given us. Then, we need to put those talents to work as best we can.

I don’t want to over complicate what it means to renew America. Every time a parent shares their faith and sings a bedtime song with a child, they are renewing a culture in which many parents never put their children to bed or read them a song. Every time we treat a coworker with wisdom and love, we are making America a better place. Every time we reach out to share our faith with others, we are making America a better place. Of course, there are big jobs to be done; but, first we just need to repair the wall next to our house.

We may  not think that these small efforts at personal renewal, family renewal, neighborhood renewal, and the like, matter much. But, they do. imagesConsider Jesus. No one has made a bigger difference in the renewal of the world than Jesus. What did he do? He did not lead an army, run for office, manage a big business, write a lot of books, or anything big at all. He loved people, healed those he could, trained twelve disciples, and died on the cross. In the end, however, he changed the world forever. We can do the same if we are willing to be like Jesus.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Nehemiah’s Midnight Ride

This week we are meditating on Nehemiah 2:11-18. In a way, I am sorry that this blog is about the condition of our cultural walls and is being shared on Memorial Day weekend. On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifice made by the soldiers of our nation for our freedoms. In a way, however, there is no better honor we can give our fallen soldiers than to confront the reality that our culture needs all of our sacrifices to maintain our freedom and way of life.images-3

Most pastors don’t miss building programs in retirement. Since I was elected a deacon almost forty years ago I have participated in six or so building programs. They are always stressful. On the other hand, building programs do teach you a few things. One thing I’ve learned is how important plans are. In every building program since I came to Advent we have used a company known as “Barnes and Brower.” Jeff Barnes is a member of our church. When we have a building program, we have meetings between the building committee, the architect, and the builder. Jeff always emphasizes that the detail of plans is important. If plans are too vague, construction workers don’t know exactly what to do. If the plans are detailed, it’s easier to build a project because the builder knows exactly what is needed and the foremen and construction workers understand what they’re supposed to do. The better the plan, the better the building.

This morning, we are talking about how important planning is in rebuilding our culture. As a young person, I wasn’t particularly interested in planning. In my thirties, I was often engaged in projects that went on for a number of months and had many steps. One of the most enjoyable and important tasks was developing a long list of of the various stages needed to complete the transaction and what exactly needed to be done. For example, if you’re going to buy a company, there are many stages beginning with a letter of intent, then due diligence, negotiating a contract, getting any regulatory approvals, arranging financing, and finally closing the transaction. Sometimes there are hundreds of steps. I found it was kind of fun thinking things through.

No plan is ever entirely accurate. Something always goes wrong. You always forget something and things change. Nevertheless, knowing where you’re headed is important. General Eisenhower once said that before the battle planning is everything, but once the battle is engaged no plan is worth anything. That doesn’t make planning unimportant—planning gives you a place to start thinking through what to do next no matter what happens.

The Midnight Ride of Nehemiah.

Our text is from Nehemiah 2:

I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.  images-2By night I went out through the Valley Gate, toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then, I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” (Nehemiah 2:11-20).

Prayer: God of Order and Reason: We confess that too often we forget to plan our lives carefully. Help us to learn that to renew our society and rebuild its institutions will take planning.

The Right Beginning.

Today, we are studying one of the most famous incidents in Nehemiah. Two weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah as he learned about the condition of the walls of Jerusalem, mourned for his people, fasted, and prayed to God for wisdom. Last week, we spoke about Nehemiah’s courageous faith as he stepped out and asked King Artaxerxes for permission to return to his ancestral home in Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. This week, we’re going to build on last week and talk more about planning. If we want to renew our society, it will take a lot of planning.

Last week, I introduced a five-step process needed to renew our culture consisting of prayer, thought, faith. courage, and action. Last week, we learned that, as Nehemiah prayed through the project he had in mind, he also thought about what was needed to complete it. He realized he would need letters of safe conduct, lumber, and other items to be successful. However, he wasn’t finished planning. This week, we are going to think again about the way Nehemiah planned the work.

Rest, Reflection and Review.

This has been a hectic week. Sometimes when I’m busy, I actually try to do too much. Psychologists call this “over-functioning.” I don’t fully understand the concept; but basically it means that, if you try to do too much too fast under too much pressure, you make mistakes. One frequently quoted piece of advice that almost all leaders ignore is the need for rest and reflection.

Nehemiah was a good leader. He had made a long trip (over 600 miles) through sometimes dangerous territory. By the time he got to Jerusalem he was tired. In addition, although we know that he had family in Jerusalem, he probably didn’t know a lot of people. Our text notes that he waited three days before he did anything. What do you suppose he did during those three days? I suspect he slept, visited with family, walked around Jerusalem, looked at the walls from inside the city, introduced himself to people, and rested. I would bet you money that as he walked around Jerusalem  and rested, he reflected upon the job he had committed to do. He thought about what was going to be required. He contemplated the people of Jerusalem and how he might appeal to them. He wasn’t ready to begin the job. He was getting ready. Rest and reflection are part of getting ready.

After three days, he went out one night and rode around the city. Nehemiah left the city at about the place where many tourist buses enter the city today. It is near the current Temple Mount. He then rode counterclockwise around the city, through the Kidron Valley, around the north side of Jerusalem, and then back to the gate through which he left. For part of the time, and especially in the Kidron Valley, he was riding over pretty rough ground.

Nehemiah specifically indicates that he did this at night. Why do you suppose that was? Obviously, he could have made a closer inspection during the day. On the other hand, while he would have been able to see better during the day, other people would have been able to see him. Perhaps he didn’t want to raise expectations until he was ready. Perhaps he didn’t want the enemies of Israel to see him. In any case, he was trying to be wise.

It is necessary to plan and think carefully before acting in order to renew an organization or nation. Americans are fond of action. The media and the Internet have made us even more fond of immediate reaction. Often we react emotionally as Nehemiah reacted when he heard the condition of his people, but we don’t take time to think and plan as in Nehemiah thought and planned. A good plan takes a lot of time and thought.

On our communion table during this series, I have placed a large stone. The stone came from one of our walls during a prior building program. It was too big to be placed back in the wall, so it was laid back by the forest. It took both David Shotsberger and me just to lift this stone! Guess what? The stones in the city walls of Jerusalem were much, much larger and much, much heavier than the stone on our Communion Table. It was going to take a lot of people in order to rebuild that wall. It was going to take a lot of hard labor to rebuild that wall. Nehemiah had some idea of how hard it would be before he arrived in Jerusalem. However, he needed to ride around that wall to be sure it was possible to rebuild it and to sense how many people and how long it would take!

Our Broken Walls.

Before renewing our society, we need to take a long look at the walls. If we took a ride around our society, we would find that there are a lot of “cultural foundation stones” lying on the ground. This week I thought about some of the problems our culture faces. You might come up with a different list. However, I’ll bet each one of us would come up with a pretty long list.

  1. First, Personal Brokenness. If you talk to older pastors, everyone believes far more people today have emotional problems and have difficulty navigating through what used to be pretty ordinary life situations than forty or seventy years ago. My mother died in 2014. She had been an Elder and Deacon in our home church for many years. She and I talked about the difference between ministry in her church in the years before she died and in the years around 1960.
  2. Second, Family Brokenness. In 1960, more than 70 percent of children grew up in two parent households. Today, the number is much lower. Today, most children in America will experience living in a single parent household at some point in their upbringing, Not only is divorce more frequent, but birth out of wedlock has become much more frequent. in 1930, less than 10 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Today, that number is over 40 percent. Our families are in trouble.
  3. Third, Community Brokenness. Many American cities have become infected with drugs, gangs, domestic violence, and other social ills. In Memphis, large areas of our city are blighted in a way that was not common seventy years ago. All over America cities and communities need to be rebuilt.
  4. Fourth, Economic Brokenness. Over the last few years, the income disparity between the richest one percent of Americans and everyone else has grown. In particular, the middle class and lower middle class have seen their standard of living fall. Our economy is not producing enough quality, full-time jobs to fully employ all Americans. In addition, the education we are giving our children is not necessarily aligned with the jobs being created around the world.
  5. Finally, Political Brokenness. Increasingly, our political system does not work for ordinary people. This week I read an article about the way in which members of Congress are lobbied by businesses and other organizations, how wives and children are often employed by such organizations or other organizations active in politics, and how the procurement system in many government agencies breeds corruption. The way in which advertising and media has become central to our politics means that vast amounts of money are needed to run for office and incumbents are rarely defeated. Money is a factor in politics like never before. This is not healthy.

These are only some of the cultural walls that are broken in our society.

The Hour of Decision.

When Nehemiah ended his ride, he concluded that the wall could be rebuilt. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, so he called together the leaders of the people and gave them a word of encouragement:

“You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.”

 So much of our political leadership today involves talking a lot but actually avoiding problems. We need leaders who are knowledgeable and solve problems. Nehemiah did not mislead the people. He didn’t say these are the greatest days of Jerusalem. He acknowledged that there was a problem. He acknowledged that the city was in disgrace. Having acknowledged the problem,  he motivated the people and they responded by saying, “Let’s get started building” (v. 18). Good leaders do not avoid problems, minimize problems, ignore problems, or blame others for problems. Good leaders solve problems.

I put two posts on Facebook this week about the importance of planning. For whatever reason, Americans are not particularly good planners. For example, most Americans reach retirement age without a plan for being retired. Many people enter times in their life when one can expect medical bills without planning for their medical needs. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve counseled over the last twenty-five years who bought houses or cars without considering whether or not they can afford them.

Planning is important. A strategy to solve problem that  is based on prejudice or emotion won’t work. We face serious problems, and we need leaders with the willingness, skill, and capacity to think through problems and find a realistic solution. As Christians, we need learn from the  example of Nehemiah and think deeply and plan carefully concerning how we’re going to solve our personal and national problems. America needs our sorrow, our prayers, our faith, and our willingness to think and plan as never before.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Courage to Begin

More than twenty-five years ago, Kathy and I moved from our home in Houston, Texas to Richmond, Virginia. We did not just wake up one morning and decide to move. In fact, for a number of years I knew that I had a call to the gospel ministry, but I didn’t have the courage to leave the practice of law, our home, Kathy’s family, our friends, and our church. imgresKathy felt the same way. Then, in the late 1980s, through a series of circumstances, I felt called, really compelled, to go to seminary. Even then, it was unbelievably hard and scary.

In the months, and even years, before we left Houston, we prayed about this a lot. We didn’t always pray together. In fact, we rarely prayed together, but each of us, in his or her own way, prayed about our future. In the meantime, we thought about the future. How would we afford it? How long would it take? Could Kathy work with four small children?  Where would we live? There were a lot of questions to be answered. In the end, however, the hardest thing was to trust God and have the courage to step out in faith. There is an old Chinese proverb that the longest journey begins with a single step. [1] It is true. The hardest thing for us to do is to take the first step.

imagesDo any of you suffer from procrastination? It’s been my experience that every tough decision in life is hard to make, and scary at the moment you make it. This is where faith comes in. Hebrews tells us that faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Today, we’re going to talk about faith and the importance of faith as we seek to rebuild our culture.

The Courage to Act.

Last week, we began our study of Nehemiah. We learned that Nehemiah was a Jewish official in the court of the king of Persia around the year 450 B.C. Because of the visit of a relative, he became aware that the walls and the gates of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As a result, his people were suffering. He mourned and prayed for many days. He prayed a beautiful prayer that we studied last week, and that we hope all our members will pray as a prayer for our country. This morning, we pick up at the beginning of chapter 2:

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” (Nehemiah 2:1-4).

Prayer: Eternal God, God of History, please come into our hearts this morning so that the story of Nehemiah can become our story and so that we can become little Nehemiah’s to a culture. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray, Amen

From Mourning To Action.

Last week, we began our look at the life of Nehemiah by studying the prayerful way in which he began his attempt to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem.images When Nehemiah learned that his people were in desperate need, he did not get angry. He mourned. We too need to mourn for our country. As Nehemiah mourned, he fasted and prayed. We also need to fast and pray for our country. Nehemiah confessed his own sins as well as the sins of his people. We also need to confess our sins and the sins of our nation. Finally, Nehemiah asked for God to help. We also need to pray for God to help us.

Nehemiah was in a unique position. He was the Cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia. I want to stop here and allow us to reflect on that fact for just a few seconds. All over America, including in Memphis, there are Christians. We all have a unique position. We all have spiritual gifts, relationships, talents, and abilities. Most of us do not have a position as important as Nehemiah’s. However, we do have some position. What God required of Nehemiah is not what God requires of us. Nevertheless, God asks that we have the same kind of faith that Nehemiah possessed, and step out and serve our nation as Nehemiah did.

King Artaxerxes was king of Persia from about 458 BC until about 425 B.C. Certain facts about his reign are important to understanding our story. Artaxerxes came to power under tragic circumstances. His father was King Xerxes. King Xerxes was murdered in around 465 B.C., by one of his advisers. The advisor, in order to gain power, blamed Artaxerxes. A power struggle ensued until finally Artaxerxes won.

This particular power struggle is important because in the early years of his reign, Artaxerxes had to consolidate his power. It was during this period of time that Ezra returned to Judah and was restoring Israel. Jealous advisors came to the King and asked that the building of Jerusalem be stopped. Artaxerxes, insecure in his power, granted their request (Ezra 4:23). This is probably why the walls of the city were in such disrepair and the gates fallen. [2]

By the time of Nehemiah, these events were twenty years in the past. Artaxerxes was no longer insecure. Instead, he had built a reputation as a very fine king! History records that he was a wise king who generally refrained from violence when possible. He seems he seems to have been kindly. In today’s text, we find Artaxerxes concerned about his servant Nehemiah. Nehemiah had never been sad before when entering to serve the king, but on this occasion his sorrow was evident. The king, concerned about Nehemiah, asked what was wrong.

A Reasonable Discussion.

As we try to renew our nation, it’s useful to think about the relationship between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king. Every day, the king’s life was in Nehemiah’s hands. Artaxerxes trusted Nehemiah. Over the years, they had come to respect each other. When we set out to renew our nation, relationships and trust are important.

We live in a culture in which politics is often seen as a kind of war. In particular, politicians have learned that it is a lot easier to convince the voters to hate someone else than to like you. Instead of political decisions being built upon trust, mutual respect, and fair dealing, our political decisions are often made on the basis of a kind of “winner take all” negative politics. The result is, we make bad decisions. images-1Nehemiah acted the way he did because he saw himself as a servant of the king. As we try to renew our culture, we Christians need to begin by understanding that we are servants of our culture and our fellow citizens. We need to serve them in love, as much as possible respecting even those with whom we violently disagree.

Once Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah to explain what was wrong, the door was open for Nehemiah to say what was on his mind. He explained to the king that he was a Jew and that his home city, Jerusalem, was in ruins (Nehemiah 2:5). It had been many years since Artaxerxes had stopped the building of the walls of Jerusalem, and it appears he was immediately somewhat favorable to the idea. Instead of saying, “Why would you do a thing like that?” he asked, “How long will it take? (v. 6). In response Nehemiah gave him a time. You see, the king respected Nehemiah, needed his advice and counsel, relied upon him for his very life, and did want him to be gone too long. On the other hand, Artaxerxes wanted to help a trusted friend and advisor.

Nehemiah then asked the king for a few favors. The journey from Persia to Jerusalem was long and in some ways dangerous. He needed letters of safe conduct (v. 7). Nehemiah also needed a letter that would allow him to get from the king’s forest the timber he would need in rebuilding the walls and gate (v. 8). The king graciously agreed to everything Nehemiah asked.

There is a lot to learn in these verses. Here are a few things to think about:

  • First of all, not all improvements are possible at any given point in time. If Nehemiah had come to the King eighteen years earlier, the answer might have been, “No.” It so happens that Nehemiah was the right person at the right place at the right time. We need to know that rebuilding our culture requires timing and wisdom. There may be improvements we want to make today; however, it made God’s will that they be made over a long period of time.
  • Second, it’s important that we think through not just the improvement we want to make but the best way to approach our leadership and the best plan to present. Often, on the right and left of our society, people make unrealistic proposals to solve problems. We Americans are addicted to big, complicated, and hopefully quick solutions to problems. Most big problems can’t be solved that way. They must be solved over time.
  • Finally, our plan needs to take account of dangers, difficulties, and opposition along the way.

Expect Problems and Have Courage.

Do you remember that Nehemiah asked for letters of safe conduct? Letters of Safe Conduct were important. The journey to Jerusalem would often go through dangerous territories.  The other nations living near Jerusalem would not want the walls rebuilt. They wanted Israel to be weak and defenseless. At the end of our text today we learn that the officials in Transjordan, were in fact opposed to the rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah anticipated their opposition.  He thought about what to do and planned ahead.

It would be nice if everyone would agree with our solutions to the political and cultural problems of our nation. They will not. Therefore, we need to expect opposition. We need to anticipate what objections will be made and try to answer reasonable questions. In addition, more than anything else, we will need courage. When I was in seminary, I wrote an article for a Presbyterian magazine concerning a particular social issue. I received a lot of hate mail. One letter, was actually threatening! I went to see a professor, who I knew had also written on the same subject. She took a look at me and said, “Chris I have a file draw of threatening letters.” Just do what you think is right. Unfortunately, doing the right thing almost always results in opposition. Courage is grace in the face of that opposition. [3]

Conclusion.

This week in our church, we recognized our “Salt and Light” graduates. [4] Salt and light is a twenty-four week program that trains people how to share their faith in a non-offensive way. When we discuss why it is more Christians don’t share their faith, the first answer is almost always the same: “Fear.” The second most common reason is: “I don’t know what to say.” The first and foremost thing Christians do to renew our culture is to proclaim our faith and bring others into God’s community of truth, beauty, justice, and love. It takes prayer, planning, preparation and courage.

Rebuild-TitleNehemiah overcame his fears during his four months of fasting and prayer. By the time he approached King Artaxerxes, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. In addition, his months of fasting and praying gave him plenty of time to think about what  he wanted to say and do. He had time to think about his plans and the king’s possible reaction to his plans. He had time to adjust his plans to reality. For example, early on he probably realized that the king would not want him to be gone for too long. Therefore, he carefully estimated how long it would take. When the king answered the expected question, he had an answer. Nehemiah also had time to think about what he would need in order to be successful. Rebuilding the walls of the city takes a lot of time, energy, money, and materials. When the time came, Nehemiah was ready.

Going back to the beginning of our lesson today, faith is the assurance that God will bless our undertaking and the courage to trust God and get started. It’s true, the longest journey begins with a single step. Often, that first step is the most important step of all. This past week our Organizational Task force had a meeting. That task force is almost finished with its work. There only remains one question to be answered. However, it’s the hardest question of all! During part of the discussion someone said, “There are some decisions that once you have made them you have already decided whether you will succeed or fail.” As we step out in faith to renew our culture, we need to take time, a long time, to fast and pray—then we need to step out in faith.

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64, See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Booksurge Publishing, 2011, 2014), 128.

[2] There are multiple sources for the historical portion of this sermon. See, See, Mark A. Throntvelt, “Ezra-Nehemiah” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992). James Hamilton, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra & Nehemiah (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2014), and Mervin Breneman, “Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esher” in The New American Commentary Series (Broadman & Holman Printers, 1993). It is important to note that, while Artaxerxes was a good king and not violent by the standards of his own day, he was bloodthirsty by our standards today.

[3] This is a reference to Earnest Hemmingway’s famous definition of courage as “grace under pressure.”

[4] Salt & Light is a twenty-four week evangelism and discipleship program written by Chris and Kathy Scruggs. We hope that it will be publically available to churches by the fall of 2016.