Running out of wood can be a good thing
Proverbs 26: When you run out of wood, the fire goes out; when the gossip ends, the quarrel dies down.
As a pastor I have a pretty strong influence on what happens at church. There is, I suppose, always the chance that someone will attempt to take control of a church service but that’s unlikely. I have the main say concerning the order of worship and, of course, what is said in the sermon. However, what happens “out there” during the week is out of my control. Because of that, all the efforts on Sunday to create a loving, supportive family of God can be derailed if that same crowd spends the week fanning the flames of division. Knowing this is humbling to me and it reminds me that I’m not nearly as influential in my own church as I think I am. However, it also reminds me that my greatest resource is not my leadership ability. Instead, my greatest Resource is the One I serve. It’s my desire that the Lord will help me to love people even when they’re behaving in ways that cause pain. I want to personally set an example of how a sanctified Christian conducts himself, to help people who tend to gossip understand that there’s an underlying spiritual issue, and to pray that the Lord will exhaust their supply of “wood” sooner and not later that the church might be united in love for Christ and one another.
Take Away: Some issues will simply die out and go away if we stop fanning the flames.
Leadership, not dictatorship
Proverbs 16: A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit.
Solomon knows a lot about leadership. He’s watched his father, David, lead Israel for many years. Then when he becomes King he asks God for wisdom that he might lead His people. In all this he comes to understand leadership dynamics as well as anyone who ever lived. In the passage before me today I get just a taste of his philosophy of leadership. The guy who says these things isn’t some pastor with an all-volunteer staff of church people who might just walk off if they don’t like the way things are going. Rather, he’s King of Israel. He has “off with their heads” authority. In other words, if he wants he can order the direction and everyone has to follow. However, Solomon has learned that dictatorship isn’t leadership. He says his job is to motivate people to move together in positive directions. He says he isn’t supposed to promise what can’t be delivered and he isn’t to get people to do what he wants just to get something for himself. Honesty, unselfishness, persuasiveness — these are leadership qualities Solomon brings to my attention today.
Take Away: Dictatorship isn’t leadership.
Follow the leader
Proverbs 14: The mark of a good leader is loyal followers; leadership is nothing without a following.
There’s no such thing as a leader without followers. The Bible has several stories of leadership. Moses led for 40 years. David led not only in military and affairs of government but in worship as well. His son Solomon led to prosperity. Here are three things that come to mind when I read about these leaders. First, each of these men is not only a leader, but is also a follower who accepts the authority of the Lord and spends time with him getting his marching orders. Second, these men know how to share leadership and to train leaders. They don’t try to do everything themselves and surround themselves with capable people to help carry the leadership load. Third, they lead people to meaningful goals. These men have God given visions that gives their leadership real purpose. People believe in them and they believe the goal set out for them is worth their sacrifice. Leaders such as these have no problem attracting followers.
Take Away: God-called leaders lead with purpose in a God-chosen direction.
God and me
Proverbs 11: The more wise counsel you follow, the better your chances.
Western culture exalts the individual. In the words of the song, “best of all, I did it my way.” We like our independence. It’s true even in our religion. We Protestants don’t have a pope and we don’t even want the church to tell us what to believe. Instead, we prefer “us and God” — an approach that can often be more truthfully stated, “Me.” We don’t have a pope, but when we’re honest with ourselves, we like it when we can be our own pope: “I’ll get my Bible and decide for myself what it says.” Now, I know that there are some positive aspects to this. After all, the “protestors” who became the “Protestants” did have something to protest about. Still, doing religion “my way” isn’t necessarily an improvement. Doing it “my way” leads to aberrations of doctrine. Walking down the “me” road isn’t the road to God. In fact, it’s the original path away from God that’s described in the opening pages of our Bibles. Learning to listen to others and even being willing to submit to the authority of those who the larger body of believers has recognized to be uniquely prepared and gifted to lead will, in the words of the proverb “better your chances” of staying on the right road to God.
Take Away: “Me and God” quite often is really just “me.”
A failure of leadership
Nehemiah 13: I was angry, really angry.
Having accomplished his mission of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and having had a unanimous agreement from the Jews there to live according to God’s Law, it’s time for Nehemiah to return to Babylon. He leaves things in the hands of those who are to keep things organized and on track. However, Nehemiah’s heart is now in Jerusalem, so he once again asks Artaxerxes for permission to return there. When he arrives he’s greeted with all kinds of bad news. One man has made a deal with one of the old enemies of the Jews, Tobiah, who he’s allowed to use the Temple storerooms. The worship leaders were left unpaid and have had to leave the Temple to earn a living. The civic leaders have forgotten the Sabbath and are allowing that day to be a time when business as usual is being conducted. And, the Jews are again intermarrying with the idol worshipping people of the area. Nehemiah is “really angry” about all this and immediately goes to work repairing all this damage. I can’t help but wonder where all those declaration signers are, or even more, where Ezra the priest of God is at this time. That’s a mystery the Bible doesn’t solve for us. However, the rest of it is pretty easy to understand. Nehemiah’s a strong leader and when he leaves it creates a void that no one steps in to fill. One of the dynamics of the human race is that people, even well-meaning people, need leaders who not only cast a vision and oversee the pursuit of that vision, but, even after the fact, provide a compass that keeps things moving in the right direction. This doesn’t excuse those civic and other leaders for their failure, in fact, they should have provided some of that “God-centered” energy themselves. Reading this story is a real life lesson in leadership. It also reminds me of the importance of my staying focused, even when the biggest part of the project has already been done.
Take Away: Even when the biggest part of the work is done there remains the danger of losing focus and giving up gains that have been made.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.
Nehemiah 5: What you’re doing is wrong.
The work Nehemiah and his team is doing is physically challenging and time consuming. Not only are they working very hard, but they’re working with defense against an attack in mind so there’s also mental fatigue. Meanwhile, life goes on. These men have families to feed and bills to pay. The work on wall is vitally important but there’s no income from it. To make ends meet, they go to the local business men for loans. In spite of the fact that the restoration of the wall is to everyone’s benefit the loan sharks take advantage of the problem faced by the workers. When Nehemiah learns what’s happening he’s furious. He calls for a meeting and reads the riot act to these financial predators. Both the fear of the Lord and fear of Nehemiah takes hold and the gouging of the workmen stops immediately. What a situation! The workers face the challenging task of rebuilding, the threats of their enemies, and the greedy business practices of their fellow Jews. In some ways, this is the unkindest cut of all. Yet it often happens, even within the church. As many pull together to accomplish some worthy goal there are those who can’t see the big picture because they’re blinded by their own agenda. When that happens those doing the real work are distracted or discouraged from their task. Nehemiah dealt with this problem head on. Our tendency is to just try to work through stuff like this. Sometimes that’s probably best, but not always. I pray that the Lord will give us wisdom to know when Nehemiah’s course of action is necessary and then help us to follow it.
Take Away: If we ignore some problems they will go away, but not always. Sometimes leaders have to deal with issues head on.
2 Chronicles 35: The king…solemnly committed himself to the covenant.
When a campfire is fully ablaze, the individual flames are generally unnoticed. However, as the fire burns down to embers, an individual blade of fire may seem to light up the entire campsite for a moment. That’s the feeling I get as I read the story of the waning days of Judah. Most everything’s bad. Kings rise to power and then fall and almost seem to be in a competition to see who can be the most ungodly. However, along the way we meet some courageous men who, almost single handedly, lift the entire nation to their shoulders and craft, at least temporarily, a return to God. Such a man is Josiah. When the word of the Lord is discovered in the Temple he publicly vows to live according to the ancient covenant. He seeks God’s direction and receives it. Because of his desire for God, an entire generation is stopped from the march to destruction that it has been on. As I look at my own society and see the journey we’re on I nearly surrender to despair. We’re so godless, so lost in the darkness of our own making. Still, I’m reminded that even in a dying campfire just one flame can light the night. I pray that the Lord will give such a leader to my generation.
Take Away: Lord, have mercy on us.
The very best at doing good
2 Chronicles 31: Everything he took up…he did well in a spirit of prayerful worship.
Hezekiah gets considerable mention in the Chronicles version of the history of God’s people, and with good reason. He’s said to be the “very best” at doing what is “good, right, and true” before God. This isn’t some national leader who does whatever is politically expedient and then tips his hat to the Almighty when it’s convenient. Instead, this is a man who makes every decision based on his desire to please God. That’s exactly how he approaches his religious life. If a decision has to do with worship he makes that decision prayerfully. He also prayerfully builds his life and Kingdom around carrying out God’s Laws and Commandments. Judah is a blessed nation because it has a national leader who turns to God in everything he does. The result is that he’s a “great success” and is commended by God as one who is “good, right, and true.” I pray that the Lord will give my nation and all the nations of the earth such leadership. Also, in my much smaller leadership role, I desire to follow his excellent example.
Take Away: Leading, in itself, can be good or bad; depending on the direction the leader is going. A leader who leads people to righteousness is worth celebrating.
The chief cheerleader
2 Chronicles 30: Hezekiah commended the Levites for the superb way in which they had led the people in the worship of God.
The religious reform under Hezekiah rivals the great events of David and Solomon’s reigns. The newly refurbished Temple and the eager and capable work of those who serve there make for an impressive and satisfying worship experience for all that come. When the big celebration ends, Hezekiah makes it a point to go to the Levites and commend them for their superb work. In this, I see Hezekiah not only leading in vision and agenda but in thanks and appreciation as well. Good leaders do that. I do note that Hezekiah calls their work “superb” because that’s what it is. He isn’t some cheerleader who shouts out “We’re number one” when the team’s behind by 30 points. I’m reminded though that even when the work doesn’t reach the superb level there’s probably something positive that can be said. Once the leader establishes good will the way may be opened for some constructive comments on improving things next time. So, I see in this passage that leaders should lead in words and acts of appreciation for work well done. Also, I remember that while a leader isn’t to give false praise that genuine support can lead the way to opportunities to help others grow in their service of the Lord.
Take Away: Good leaders know how to lead the way in showing appreciation for work well done.