2 years ago, 4 months into my journey of workings as a salesman at Oracle, I detailed 8 ways in which being a pastor of a local church is basically the same as being a salesman for a large corporation. That was April 2013. We’re now April 2015, so I wanted to jot down a few more thoughts, this time 6 lessons that I have learned from living in 2 worlds which don’t normally collide.
Just to give you the background, Leanne and I, with Jacob and Annabelle moved to Dublin in September 2012 to build a whole new life (ideally with a job in the tech sector for me) and to start a church. 8 weeks after arriving I got an offer to work for Oracle as a Business Development Representative starting in January 2013. After 9 months there I moved to become a Channel Account Manager at HubSpot in September 2013. And then in October 2014 we launched Christ City Church so I have been living the tension of being a full time salesman who pastors a church. You can read about 11 lessons from 6 months of church planting in my previous post. Here I want to reflect more on the salesman side of things. Here are 6 reflections.
(1) I have grown
Working in business, I have grown in both skills and character. One of the great things about working for HubSpot is they place a huge emphasis on culture; we actually have our own culture code (which even quotes C.S Lewis – see slide 75!) and an acronym for what we look for in our people: HEART (humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, transparent). This week gone I had my annual performance review which had 2 sides to it – a sales target performance and a HEART performance. And my manager gave me some helpful feedback into my character, my communication skills and my general attitude around the office. But even aside from the official review, I have grown in character because learning the discipline of reporting regularly to someone, being accountable for targets, dealing with people from all different backgrounds, working hard, dealing with success and failure, receiving praise and constructive criticism, and working ultimately for God (Colossians 3:22-25) has been really good for me. As I say in this sermon, I want us to be a church that works for the good of the city and the glory of God.
Being in full-time Christian ministry was a real privilege and there are unique challenges and joys in that role. And maybe I’ll end up there again. But being thrust out into ‘the big wide world’, I got to see bits of my character I had never seen as a full-time Pastor, particularly when it came to temptations (more later). So I think I have grown as a disciple of Christ. I am more sensitive to different people and views (though still growing in this!) and certainly more appreciative of how the outside world views Jesus and Church.
On top of character growth, I have developed skills from being engrossed in the business world. Skills of discipline, sales, negotiations, organisation, communication and analysis, as well as developing a whole wealth of knowledge around sales, marketing, customer service and how business is conducted in different countries of EMEA.
All of this, both the character and skills development, has actually meant I have grown as a Pastor in many ways. Most particularly I have more of an eye on those who don’t know Jesus and think Christianity is crazy, dangerous, weird or untrue. This affects my preaching, my leading, my vision-casting, my 1-2-1 discipleship, my pastoral care and my empathy for certain situations people are facing in the workplace. I have a credibility in my preaching and discipleship when speaking about being salt and light in the everyday world of work because I am trying, and often failing, to do it myself.
(2) I respect the city more
Whilst I always had plenty of outlets to hang out with those who didn’t go to church when I was a Pastor, particularly from playing so much sport, I had never really engaged with the city in the way I do now. Maybe without realising it I lived in a little Christian ghetto and wasn’t aware of the influence, shape, dynamics and power of the city. Tim Keller, who has written extensively on cities, says:
In cities you have more Image of God per square inch than anywhere else in the world.
Because cities are crammed with people all striving together, we see more common grace at work than in any other place. Additionally, and Keller argues this, you also have more opposition and darkness in the cities for the same reason – more people crammed together whose hearts are all tainted in different ways. So the city can be a force for good and a force for evil. The job of the church is to spread the dynamics of the kingdom of God within the city and fight the kingdom of darkness within it.
So for me to have to cycle into the city and engage the full 5 senses in it has been great. I have “tasted and seen” the good and the bad of the city. I have met the rich and the poor. I have tasted some great, great food. I have smelled the Jameson hops. It’s been great. But I have also come to understand the power of the city to influence people and pull people in. Long hours, mentally exhausting jobs, lots of potential money to earn, plenty of drink to be drunk, great highs (we hit our targets) and deep lows at work (the new guy doesn’t pass probation), the smell of sex in the air and certainly in the jokes, the opportunity to progress, to prove yourself, to succeed, to people please, to conform. The business world has power to influence your character, affect your family life and shape your destiny in a way that I had never realised or appreciated.
(3) I have felt the power of money on my heart (like sex and power).
When you’re paid a Pastor’s salary, there is no opportunity to ‘make big money’. The areas I used to have to watch my heart for was around contentment, generosity, envy and trusting God to provide. Well, actually the same issues still prevail but from a different stand point. Right from the word go, in both my interviews at Oracle and HubSpot, the opportunity to ‘make big money’ was held as a carrot in front of me. And on top of commissions there are always extra incentives to be won and to shoot for. There is a danger that you get sucked in, either because you want to win or because you want to get rich, or both. The desire to get rich can seem so appealing because with money you can have fun, be secure, find great satisfaction and be more popular and maybe on the face of things and for a short while, that is true. But ultimately it is a lie. More on this later.
So up to the age of 30 I have never experienced the power of money on my heart as I have in the last 2 years. I had experienced the power of sex and seen the ugliness of lust. I had experienced the power of status and seen the ugliness of my craving for power/status. But I had never seen the ugliness of my heart to look to money and make it an idol until now. So again I have to watch my heart to check my identity and security come from Christ which will make me generous and content.
As an aside, the same temptations of proving my identity through performance occur in sales as in sports. In fact, many of the same attributes that make someone successful in sport make someone successful in sales, e.g. discipline, focus on a target, removing all other distractions, hard work and self-assurance.
In a sense I have grown in my character and learned to respect the city more, because working in business has taught me more about my heart.
(4) I still believe that “only Jesus satisfies”
I think there are two mistakes we often make as Christians. Either we despise the city, don’t see any of God’s grace within it and don’t enjoy the good gifts he has given us within it (food, drink, friends, work). Or we look to his gifts to fulfil us in a way that only he, the giver can. So we’re to give thanks and enjoy God’s gifts whilst ultimately giving him our allegiance and devotion. Working in business and seeing how people can ‘live for work’ or ‘live for money’ or ‘live for the boss’s approval’ or ‘live for the weekend’ has once again reminded me that only Jesus satisfies. Only he can give rest to our souls. Only he can shepherd us through life, and death. Only he can give us a joy worth giving up everything else for. To follow Christ means we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. For some that might mean giving up a lot of good gifts we enjoy, as part of our obedience to him and to show him that he really is our treasure and pearl of great price.
And whilst I enjoy work, in fact I really enjoy work, which Ecclesiastes tells me is a gift from God, and at times I can feel God’s pleasure as I work (to steal from Eric Liddels famous quote “God made me fast…and when I run I feel his pleasure.”), there is still something infinitely more wonderful about a moment of time spent in prayer and in the Scriptures or in corporate worship or breaking bread and sharing wine with other believers. As the Psalmist said 1500 years ago:
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God…Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
(5) I feel the inadequacy and importance of the church
The vision of Christ City Church is to make a positive difference spiritually, culturally and socially. We want to bless Dublin and work for its good. It’s a good and wholesome vision (I think). But when faced with the complexity, pace, size, density, variety and intensity of the city, we feel so pathetic and small. I can often think “are we doing any good? Are we even making the smallest dent?” So I also feel the inadequacy of the church. However, in these times I am reminded of two things.
Firstly, a verse that has been very important to me in the last two and a half years has been 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:
Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
God loves to choose a small weak vessel to defeat a big strong giant (think David and Goliath!) because in this he receives all the glory.
Secondly, it’s good to be reminded not only that “only Jesus satisfies” (point 5) but that our life is like mist which appears for a little while and then vanishes. Psalm 39:4-6 puts it brilliantly when it says:
Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure. Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.
In the end it’s not just that Jesus satisfies us in this life, but that he can bring us into the life to come. We all die. All our accomplishments will come to nothing. All the money we earn will be passed on. Naked we came and naked we go. And so we need to remember how fleeting our life is and that we’re made for another life. The church has a vital role in telling people about the death and resurrection of Christ and how this secures them life after death.
(6) I love the tension
When I went for my interview with HubSpot and the Managing Director asked me what my goals and ambitions were, I told him that after 10 years of living in the church world and having one foot firmly planted in there, I wanted to put a foot firmly in the world of work and build a career over the next 10 years in business. And my aim was to see what opportunities would come from having a foot firmly rooted in both worlds. In a sense I wanted to be a priest. A priest bridges two worlds, heaven and earth, and enables a relationship to exist with 2 parties that would otherwise be separated if it wasn’t for his mediation. I want to be a mediator between the two worlds of business and church. I want to take all the good from the business world and see how it can bless the church (the skills, leadership lessons, organisational ideas and discipline) and I want to take all the good from the church world (the values, the answers to life’s big questions, the power of God and the support of a community) to bless the business world. John Stott famously said that preaching was about bridging two worlds;
It is across this broad and deep divide of two thousand years of changing culture (more still in the case of the Old Testament) that Christian communicators have to throw bridges. Our task is to enable God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures into the lives of the men and women today.
Later he said that the task of the church is the task of double listening;
The phrase ‘double listening’ has always been significant for me. And it means that we’re called to listen both to the Word of God, and to today’s world, in order to relate the one to the other
So I hope that through living, tasting, smelling, touching and seeing both worlds I can listen better to the Word of God and to my heart, to what God is saying and what others are saying and I can act as a bridge, a mediator, a priest in connecting the two worlds.
That’s the theory at least. Ask my manager and the church about the reality!
Year 1: Planting Ourselves – Leanne and I moved to Dublin in September 2012 and in the first 12 months we planted ourselves. Do read about why we moved to Dublin and three updates from the initial stage. A lot of this was to do with house, schools, making friends, understanding the city/culture and getting a job – do read the 10 reasons why we love living in Dublin. Finding a job in the technology sector was a big priority and answer to prayer.
Year 2: Planting The Gospel – by that I mean we ran two Intro Courses with around 40-50 guests in attendance. We had gathered a team of around 15-20 people so we followed the Apostle Paul’s advice of “sharing not only the gospel but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8) and invested in those who were connected with us – whether they called themselves Christians or not. And we saw our first baptism.
Year 3: Planting The Church – in September 2014 we did a ‘soft launch’ of our church and then had our official launch on 12th October. So we’re coming up 6 months old and as we have just had a vision Sunday I thought I would jot down some lessons I have learnt over the last 2.5 years. Here are 11 things that came to mind, in no particular order.
- Time management and sleep are vital. People have asked me many times how I manage to do all I do (family, work, church and Gaelic Football being the 4 main things). The example of leadership from Nehemiah which I recently wrote about has been hugely helpful (he was as strategic and hard working as he was prayerful and pious) but also the example of Paul who “worked harder” than all the others, yet it was really God’s strength within him (1 Corinthians 15:10 and Colossians 1:29). God wired me to enjoy living at 100 miles an hour and moving from one thing to the next. However taking time out to sleep and rest and practice Sabbath is vital for living at 100 miles per hour (I also have a very gracious wife!).
- Tent-making has been essential on so many levels. I have been blessed to find a job, in HubSpot, that I enjoy and that pays the bills. I have found the Apostle Paul’s example of tent-making and planting a church in Acts 18 hugely helpful and my full time job has lead to financial stability, personal development, understanding my heart and the city better and networking opportunities (lessons 3-7). In fact Acts 16-18 have stayed very close to me during the last 2.5 years. Acts 16 is about finding the spiritually receptive in the city, Acts 17 is about understanding the idols and culture of the city and Acts 18 is about longer term investment in a city. These 3 chapters loosely map onto the first 3 years in Dublin for us.
- Financial stability is releasing. The biggest challenge in moving to a new city is financial survival and from speaking to other church planters, a lot of mental and emotional energy is put into ensuring they can support their families. Often lots of fundraising externally is needed. Having a job that ‘pays the bills’ has been a massive advantage. Although busy, it has meant we can concentrate on building the church rather than raising finances. However this is only one of many benefits I have reaped from the job.
- Contextualisation is non-negotiable. Having a full time job, and playing Gaelic Football, has not only been hugely rewarding and fun but has meant I have had 100s of conversations with people about the city, the culture, their beliefs and their views on church. I have been able to understand the city far better, and my hope is that this will mean that the gospel we preach and the way in which we are as a church resonates with the people of Dublin.
- Living the tension is good practice. I am soon to write another post where I share some more reflections on transitioning from full time ministry as a Church Pastor into full time ‘normal’ work as a salesman. My main take-away is that just as Jesus lived in the gap (between heaven and earth) and acted as a mediator, so for me to live in the gap, the cross-section between ‘the church’ and ‘the city’ has been invaluable. I have been stretched and I have learned masses. It is easy to live in a church bubble and it’s easy to live in a worldly bubble; living in both creates real tensions. I have learnt more about my heart and about the city because of this tension. My prayer is that I can remain in the gap and that many fruitful things come as a result…and my HubSpot employers know this is my goal and are supportive, which is incredible!
- Networking is a must. One of the character traits I re-discovered on coming to Dublin was my enjoyment of networking. But if you’re new to a city and are wanting to set up a new initiative and take root in the city you must meet hundreds of people. Some of whom you never meet again, some become friendly acquaintances and some become friends. And you listen and listen and ask questions and see if there is anyway that your story and their story can connect. One lesson I learnt early on (from failing to do it!) is that you have to give into the network, not just take from it (more on that later when I talk about love). In these two years I have made some great friends for which I am truly grateful.
- Inbound Marketing is genius. HubSpot invented Inbound Marketing (i.e. using your website as a way of growing your business, non-profit, educational institution…or even your church). Having learned so many lessons about online and digital marketing, we have been able to take some baby steps to putting them into practice. Our website and our social media presence has been a key part of us launching the church (thank you Caroline Anderson). I also think the church should practice inbound marketing on a deeper level which I explain here.
- Openness is key. This links back to the networking but is broader. Firstly I have had to have a go, make mistakes and learn…and learn quickly if I am to survive! I have needed to take advice off people in the city and allow God to shape me before I have been able to shape anything else. I have learnt to be open to God using all sorts of situations and people to help move the initiative forward. I have run up many rabbit holes and sometimes have felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall…but then suddenly a door opens and an opportunity appears. This leads me to my next point.
- Entrepreneurial resistance is needed. Starting something is very different from growing something and 100% different from maintaining something. The entrepreneurial-never-say-die-never-give-up-live-to-fight-another-day attitude is vital. I was once told that a Christian Minister has to have an infinite capacity for disappointment and I think that is true of anyone trying to start a new project and rally support. However, something else I have discovered about myself is that I thrive in new situations, thinking outside the box and trusting God for a way forward in the face of a huge mountain.
- Hiring a Children’s Worker was a brilliant idea. One church planting mentor (Al Barth) told me that typically city centre churches are money-rich and time-poor (I feel we are poor on all accounts!) and that to pay for people to do jobs can be a good way forward. With myself in full time employment, Leanne flat out during the week with the kids and both of us serving upfront on a Sunday we needed help with our children and the kids’ provision on a Sunday. So we hired a kids’ worker for 4 hours a week. She happens to be brilliant and this was just an inspired suggestion for us at our stage.
- Love triumphs over all. It may sound corny but it’s really true. I posted on this before we even left for Dublin, quoting Tim Keller and his advice to church planters. But love for God has to come above love for the church. Love for Leanne and the kids has to come above love for the church. And love for the people in the church and in Dublin in general has to come above ‘setting up the church’. As Jesus famously said, the first two commandments are to love God and love others…and guess what, he was right! When loves motivates and drives you, there is a lightness to the challenges, a joy in the endurance and a rising of faith in the face of obstacles. Let me finish with the quote from Tim Keller again:
You must have the gospel firmly in your heart so that you are not ministering out of a need to convince yourself of your competence or worth but out of love. Religion is “I obey and minister, therefore I am accepted.” The gospel is “I am accepted, therefore I obey and minister.” If you are operating out of the former matrix (i.e. basing your justification on your sanctification instead of the other way around), then two sets of problems will emerge:
- In your own ministry you will tend to overwork, deal poorly with criticism, worry too much about attendance, giving, and signs of success, and be less than a good and gracious model of a gospel-changed life
- In your preaching and teaching you will be creating a lot of “elder brothers” (cf. Luke 15), people who are very good and committed to serving God as way of procuring his blessing. This makes people (like the elder brother) very grumpy, condescending to “sinners,” and unforgiving. In other words, you will create a church that can’t win people to Christ.
I am sure there is more that could be said, but here were the first 11 things that came to mind. Thanks to all of you who have journeyed with us so far and supported us in many different ways.
Just over a week ago Stephen Fry caused a stir around the world as he voiced his opinions on what he would say to God if he were to meet him. Do check out the clip here if you missed it. In short, Fry doesn’t believe in God because of the terrible suffering he sees around him. If a God does exist, he must be a monster. And because of Fry’s eloquence and mastery of the English language this 5-6 minute clip is very powerful. Lots of important and good stuff has already been said by other people here, here and here and much of what I say is covered in these three posts. However, I have been thinking about the questions I would like to ask Fry in response if I got a chance to probe him further. Here are my five questions, which I am sure he’d have good answers to!
(1) Why do you think this world is as God wants it to be?
Fry talks as if God wanted or intended the world to be as it is. However the Bible tells a different story. The world was perfect (Creation: Genesis 1-2) but because of human sin and rebellion and God’s judgement on this world as a result (The Fall: Genesis 3), it has gone horribly wrong. Jesus entered this world, died on a cross and rose again (Redemption: The 4 Gospels) and is coming back to restore the world to be a place without pain, suffering, tears or sadness (Consummation: Revelation 21). This is a summary of the whole Bible story.
So whilst there are still questions about why God allowed the world to become so full of pain and suffering in the first place (divine foreknowledge) and why he allows the world to carry on as it is currently (divine forbearance), it is clear that this world is not the place God originally intended it to be, nor the place he will one day make it. This leads to question number 2.
As a side note, there are good arguments around freewill that philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have made to defend God’s existence in the presence of suffering.
(2) From where do you get your distinction of right and wrong/good and bad?
Fry says, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?”
But where does Fry get this distinction of injustice and pain from? If there is no God, if there is no moral law giver, if there is no objective standard of justice and goodness, then how can we talk sensibly about injustice and evil? C.S Lewis famously put it like this:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.”
If atheism is correct then there is no meaning, no justice, no good and no suffering. We’re all just here by random chance. It’s survival of the fittest and, in this worldview, those who are dealt a tough hand in life…well, tough luck. Richard Dawkins once put it like this:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
This leads me to my next question.
(3) Why is human life valuable at all?
Fry gives a graphic description of East African children whose eyes are eaten away from the inside out. This story is harrowing and as someone born in East Africa (Uganda) because my dad was working as a doctor in a rural hospital, it is not so far removed from my upbringing. However, just as with morality, so with human life, why are we so bothered about people dying? Isn’t death just a normal part of life according to evolutionary atheism? Isn’t in fact essential? Doesn’t it just show that those children were not the fittest and will not pass on their genetic code…which is a good thing for society in the end?
I once heard a debate between Christian apologist, William Lane Craig and Peter Atkins, another Oxford science professor and contemporary of Richard Dawkins at Manchester University. It was a fascinating evening. Like Dawkins, he follows through the logical conclusions of his atheistic beliefs and has said that human life is “just a bit of slime on a planet.” Or before him, Bertrand Russell said human life was “just a curious accident in a backwater.” If humans are not valuable, if we’re no different in our fundamental make-up than a tree or a rock, why is Fry so worried about whether we suffer? According to the atheistic worldview, human life, in the end, doesn’t have any meaning or value. When we die we rot, we are hoovered up and forgotten forever. Death is natural and not something to worry about.
As I understand things, unless there is an objective law-giver who can tell us what is right and wrong, and unless there is a God who makes people in his image and therefore gives them value and dignity, I am not sure there is a clear explanation to Fry’s rage. His atheism should not give him such problems or anger.
This leads me to my next question.
(4) Do you think God can handle your rage?
Fry is clearly angry, though as pointed out in questions 1-3, I think his anger only makes sense within a theistic worldview. However, we should stop to think about this anger for a moment. When you read the Bible you find that many of the greatest and strongest believers wrestled with God; they got angry at God and they questioned God’s goodness, power, wisdom and love. This starts with Abraham back in Genesis 18, is most powerfully shown in the fullest treatment of suffering from the ancient world in the book of Job, and is seen repeatedly in the Psalms. Then there is Jesus himself who quakes with anger and weeps at the death of Lazarus (John 11). Finally, on the cross, quoting Psalm 22, Jesus cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he was beaten and rejected. True believers get angry at the injustice and evil and weep at the sadness and suffering they see.
Why do I raise all this? I think many people think God can’t handle our rage at the injustice in the world. He can’t handle our questions, our doubts, our weeping and our anger. But what we see repeatedly is that when people feel like this and cry out, they are often closer to God than they imagine. They are actually starting to connect with God’s heart and with reality. In a marriage, one spouse may get angry at the other because they feel they have trusted someone deeply and have felt betrayed or hurt, mistreated or taken for granted. As a result they feel angry. The more you love and trust someone, the more you feel angry when that love/trust is broken. But as you can see, the anger only reveals a relationship of love and trust and so it is with God. Because we have trusted him and it feels he has let us down, our anger is enormous.
So in one sense Fry’s anger seems to reveal to me that, underneath it all, he does believe in God and he is angry at him and in my view, that isn’t all that bad. God can handle that. Clearly Fry is not in any kind of relationship with this God, but God is big enough to deal with it if he were to start talking to God directly.
(5) What do you do with Jesus, the suffering God?
I have heard many people say “the God Fry doesn’t believe in, is a God I don’t believe in” and I think this is absolutely true. There is one very clear reason that the god Fry describes is not the God of the Bible and it is that God who created the world, entered the pain and suffering. He shared in it. He comforts us in it. He died to defeat it and will one day return to fully restore us to a world without pain and suffering. John Stott has put it brilliantly when he said,
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross….in the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs cross, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth. A remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away.
And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nailed through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged into God-forsaken darkness.
That is the God for me, he laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our suffering becomes more manageable in light of his.
There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolises divine suffering. The cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in a world such as ours”
I am sure Fry would destroy me in a one-on-one debate on this matter; he has a brain the size of a planet. However, these would be five questions I’d like to explore if I had a chance.
If you’re interested in looking into this more I suggest Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I have just finished it and it is brilliant from an anthropological, philosophical and pastoral perspective. Or do join us on our next Intro Course where we spend a whole evening looking at the question of suffering and evil.
In preparation for my talk I did a small survey, predominantly with my colleagues at HubSpot, to get some honest feedback about what they thought of church. I told them they could only use three words. So they could either go for three separate words (e.g brilliant, amazing, exciting) or three connected words (e.g load of rubbish). Out of the 21 people asked, mostly from HubSpot, I got 16 answers and nearly everyone abided by my three word rule!
- Cult, Liars, Criminals
- Relevant, Community, Calming
- Go …… Yourself
- Not needed to believe, Institution, Harmful
- Powerful, Unaccountable, Can do good
- Reflection, Spirituality, Old
- Community, Accountability, Nourishing
- Community, Humble, Faith
- Community, Warm, Crying
- Big, Cold, Old
- Struggling, Faith, Tradition
- Reflection, Hope, Sadness
- Antiquated, Religious, Non-innovative
- Beautiful buildings, Peaceful, Quiet
- Outdated , Conservative, Judging
- Disconnected, Outdated, In-transition
A fascinating list. I wonder what three words you would use? Here are three reflections I have from this small survey
(1) Church has power. I think everyone agrees with this, the only question is, will it be a powerful force for good or evil? On the one hand people can see schools, hospitals, soup-runs, community projects and a whole lot more that were started by churches. On the other hand people know the stories of sexual abuse, financial abuse and emotional abuse from the church (as the film Calvary so well portrays).
(2) Church: Community vs Institution. It is interesting how many of the words directly or indirectly refer to the idea of the church as a community or an institution. The references to community seem to be positive (nourishing, warm etc) and the references to institution are, on the whole, negative (conservative, disconnected etc). On the whole, people have disconnected from the established institutional church with its power structures and hierarchy, but seem to be warm to the idea of church as a community. The exception to this rule is people’s continued appreciation for church buildings and the peace found in the silence within them. Now whilst the church that Jesus established was to be an institution with leaders, sound doctrine and even church discipline, the primary way church is portrayed in the New Testament is as a community…so maybe this is not a bad thing!
(3) Church has lost relevance – Whether community or institution, most people viewed the church as increasingly irrelevant. This would fit with the nation-wide statistics that church attendance is in rapid decline, particularly among the 18-35 generation. I would be interested to do another survey that asked for three words for ‘God’ as I imagine that a larger number of people would assent to belief in some kind of God, even though they are not church-goers.
As someone who has recently started a church in Dublin, this survey helps me realise that, if we are to do church in such a way as to connect with the people or Dublin, it needs to have a focus on community and servant-leadership, be accepting of different views even if you disagree, look to answer the real questions people are asking and must be seen to be doing good to society at large. I would say Jesus would be happy for his church to be marked by these five things and they certainly are things we want to be doing in Christ City Church.
This Sunday we will finish our series “New Year: New You” which has been based out of the book of Colossians – do have a listen to all the talks if you’re interested. The aim of the series is to get our foundation and motivation right as we start 2015 so if things go according to our plans we will be able to thank God and not get proud, and if things don’t go according to plan we’ll be able to trust God and not get depressed. One of the most important topics to consider when it comes to a ‘new year’ and a ‘new you’ is the subject of work and I think we all fall into one of two categories:
- Work is too important to us (it is an idol that rules us) – in the long run this leads to symptoms like anxiety, overwork, neglect of other areas of our lives, pride and exhaustion.
- Work is not important to us (it is a necessary evil to endure) – in the long run this leads to symptoms like boredom, laziness, a begrudging attitude, envy, moaning and grumbling.
In this post I outline my sermon from Sunday and also give some discussion questions if you want to go deeper in City Groups. Do watch this brilliant video from Tim Keller and his book Every Good Endeavour is required reading for anyone serious about faith and work (I quote from him liberally below, often without reference). By the way, when I say “work”, I am talking about paid work and unpaid work, work in the home and work in the office and I am also talking about work at university and school (i.e studies).
There is one more thing to say by way of introduction. The topic of faith and work is of huge importance for us as a church looking to bless Dublin and play our part in bringing cultural change. People from all over Ireland and, with the tech bubble that now exists in Dublin, people from all over the world come to Ireland for jobs. So if we want to be a church that exists for the good of the city, we need to equip people to bring God’s love to the city through their work. Here is a great quote by Mark Greene from Thank God It’s Monday that captures what I mean;
“The impact of Christians effectively robbing their work of spiritual and ministry value is to produce a sense of guilt. The working Christian comes home at the end of a fifty-hour week and thinks:
“I haven’t done any evangelism. I haven’t done any ministry. I’m not serving God. I must make time outside of work to do all these things”
The result can simply be exhaustion and discouragement. Exhaustion because too much is being attempted, discouragement….because there is a sneaking suspicion that the thing we spend thirty, forty, fifty hours a week doing is of no intrinsic value to God”.
So let’s look at the subject of faith and work under 2 headings.
(1) Your Work Matters To God (The Biblical Overview)
Let’s piece together the 4 parts of the biblical story.
1. Creation: Work is Good.
In the beginning God worked. God got his hands dirty. He brought order out of chaos and beauty out of darkness. He took what was formless and filled it and made it wonderful. And at the end of each day of work he said “it was good.” He enjoyed his work. He got satisfaction out of his work. And what we’ll see is this continues throughout the rest of the Bible…God is always working, getting his hands dirty.
- In creation God is a gardener.
- In Jesus God comes not as a philosopher or army general but as a carpenter.
- In the resurrection God comes back and starts helping his disciples to fish.
- In the consummation, at the end of time, God is cleaning up after a great battle and building a magnificent city.
From start to finish, God is a worker. Work was not a necessary evil that came into the picture later, or something human beings were created to do but that was beneath the great God himself. No, God worked for the sheer joy of it. Work could not have a more exalted place in our world, the creator is a worker, a designer, a gardener, a carpenter, a fisherman and a city planner. And God’s call to the first humans (Genesis 1:27-28 and Genesis 2:15) was to image him by working and continuing the work he had begun, to join him in the work! God is saying: “Just as I am a gardener, so you need to garden, just as I take care of the world, so you need to care of the world, just as I am king over this earth, so I call you to be vice-regents with me.”
This gives our work so much dignity. If you look at all other ancient world-views and religions and how they saw work, it never had this kind of dignity and status. Only the Jewish and Hebrew thought was so positive about work. Work is a vocation. Work is a calling. Work is a task given us by God himself. Work is not a necessary evil or an afterthought. The garden was perfect, there was nothing wrong with it, it was paradise…and yet God calls us to work. We are to bring order out of chaos, beauty into the blackness and fill what is empty.
Tim Keller says this about the view of work given in Genesis 1-2:
Work is taking the raw material of creation and developing it for the sake of others. Musicians take the raw material of sound and bring the meaning of art into our lives. Farmers take the raw material of soil and seed and bring food into our lives. This means we are God’s ministers in our work not only when we are witnessing or talking directly about Jesus, but when we are simply doing our work. A musician is serving God when she makes great music, not solely when she is singing about coming to Jesus.
2. The Fall: Work is Broken
After Adam and Eve sin, God says: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…” What was once liberating has become toil. What was once enjoyable and satisfying is very often futile. What brought rest to our lives now often brings exhaustion. Subduing, ordering, filling and beautifying our world is now not an easy task. Work is broken and twisted and this manifests itself in 4 main ways.
- Unemployment – This wasn’t God’s intention. Some people choose not to work to do other things, and that is fine. But others want work and can’t get it and that is not what God wants. When you are unemployed you start with a sense of anxiety about the future and about money and how you’re going to survive. But it often leads to a place of boredom, despair, loneliness, isolation and depression. When I helped on a job seekers course a few years ago, the biggest challenge for people was morale. They doubted themselves and their ability. They felt worthless. They had lost hope. They felt rejected. They couldn’t see a way out. Work is such an important part of what it means to made in the image of God, to be out of work is to experience one of the greatest curses of living in a fallen world. Read on for more details.
- Boredom. Work is pointless and doesn’t bring joy. The book of Ecclesiastes talks a lot of about this.
- Anxiety. Work is full of pressure and you often feel like a failure.
- Overwork. Work becomes an idol and becomes our whole identity. We now work not to serve God and others, but ourselves, for money or for status. Keller says:
If the point of work is to serve and exalt ourselves, then our work inevitably becomes less about the work and more about us. Our aggressiveness will eventually become abuse, our drive will become burnout, and our self-sufficiency will become self-loathing.
But if the purpose of work is to serve and exalt something beyond ourselves, then we actually have a better reason to deploy our talent, ambition, and entrepreneurial vigour- and we are more likely to be successful in the long run, even by the world’s definition.
3. Redemption: Work is restored
When God comes to restore our world he comes in physical form, as a carpenter, to restore our physical universe. He did not come to save our souls out of this universe; he came to save our souls and body FOR this universe. He wants to give us the foundation and motivation, the power and identity, with which to bring redemption to our workplaces. He wants us to be so secure and confident in him, to have all our identity and status in him and his provision, that we don’t look at work purely for money and status, but look at work as a way to serve him and bring justice, peace, beauty, healing and goodness to world. We’re to make society as good as it can be. We are to once again see work as a calling, as a vocation, as a way to image our creator and bring his creative power into the world.
4. Consummation: A physical world of work
God saved us, that we might be restored to our original task, though what was a garden in Genesis will become a city in the new heaven and the new earth. Whilst we’re still to rule with God, some jobs will no longer exist:
- We won’t need doctors, because there will be no sickness.
- We won’t need search and rescue teams as no-one will be lost
- We won’t need the police, because justice will roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream
- We won’t need any church pastors, because we will all know God perfectly and live in his presence
But we’ll still work and work will be satisfying and good. It will bring joy to us, joy to our creator and joy to one another. We’ll make more magnificent civilisations and cities and buildings than anything this world could ever dream of. We’ll compose better music, create better artwork, play better sport, develop better high tech businesses and eat better food than anything this world has to offer.
(2) God matters to your work (Colossians 3:16, 22-4:2)
There are 3 things that we need to learn to help us find the ‘redemptive edge’ to our work. They all come under the heading of seeing work as a calling.
1. See work as a calling – do it first and foremost for him
This is the main trust in the passage from Colossians. God is our boss. God is our only audience. So even when our boss is not there, we don’t cut corners and see what we can get away with, we do it for him. We’re not trying to impress our boss, we’re trying to impress God. Mark Greene tells a story of a minister who asked a young girl, who served as a domestic in one of his families what evidence she could give of having become a Christian, and she meekly answered, “I now sweep under the mats.” Her motivation had changed, she was serving Jesus, she was living in the presence of God. Work is a calling. Work is a vocation. Work is for God and that brings an integrity and sincerity to your work.
2. See work as a calling – do it to serve others
Keller picks up on Psalms 145-147 where it talks about how God is loving towards all he has made and how he cares and provides for, protects and satisfies his creation. He feeds every living thing. He loves every living thing. People have often asked how God provides for his creation and the answer is through you and me. God chooses to love his creation through you and me. We’re still God’s ambassadors on earth. The baker, the farmer, the mother, the milk-maid, are all God in disguise – God with masks on. God is loving, providing, caring and feeding you through them. When you marry and bear children, it’s a calling of God, it’s God in disguise. It’s God’s way of creating and distributing his gifts. When the farmer farms and the baker bakes, it’s God in disguise, it’s God’s way of feeding you. When you set up high-tech businesses in Dublin to make software and help people bring order and efficiency to our world and you provide jobs and money for people, it’s God in disguise. It’s God’s way of providing for you.
Keller goes on to apply this to those looking for work and says that the functional reason you should have a job is because it helps others. You shouldn’t do a job for the status or money; you should look to see whether it’s useful for other people. Don’t be a drain on society, be an investor. So don’t get a job that makes money, but doesn’t help people. Hopefully you can find a job that does both! Work that’s good work helps people and promotes the common good. Work that’s good work may not be well paid or specialist but it is an expression of love. He says:
“We are not to choose jobs and conduct our work to fulfill ourselves and accrue power, for being called by God to do something is empowering enough. We are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor, and so we should both choose and conduct our work in accordance with that purpose. The question regarding our choice of work is no longer ‘What will make me the most money and give me the most status?’ The question must now be ‘How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and human need?”
2. See work as a calling – do it with excellence
Paul says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart.” If you’re raising children, do it to the best of your abilities. If you’re studying, do it to the best of your ability. If you’re stacking shelves, do it to the best of your ability. If you’re arranging financial transactions, helping people find careers, caring for people in hospitals, selling software, building software, playing rugby, teaching kids…whatever it is, do it to the best of your ability. Work at it with all your heart. Why? Because this is worship to God and loving to others.
But there is another reason. Even if you’re doing a job you don’t like or you find it too menial or too hard or too boring (or whatever!), if you (a) see that job as a calling to serve God and love others and (b) do it to the best of your ability, you’ll have greater joy in that job. You’ll be able to give thanks for that job. It will make the ‘non-ideal job’ manageable and doable – maybe even enjoyable at times – until a more ideal job that suits your talents, gifting, experience and qualifications comes along.
To work with excellence and to work in the service of God and others is to have the right attitude and will mean you moan less, cut corners less, grumble less and stop thinking that the grass is greener on the other side. That is what the book of Ecclesiastes says, which talks so much about the toil and futility of work – if you can learn to give thanks for it and do it with the right attitude, that is a gift from God and will help you find meaning in what is often a meaningless world.
Even the simplest, most basic jobs which the world thinks are pathetic, have dignity and worth before God. He was not above the station of a gardener or a carpenter. He got his hands dirty, he worked with all his heart. He blessed others and it gave him personal satisfaction. Work with excellence. Work with gratitude. Work to serve others. Work to serve God.
The Agony of Unemployment
So let me finish by making four simple points of application to those who are unemployed. Please do read this earlier blog post from October 2012 about when I seeking work in Dublin myself.
- Stay Grateful – see how God is providing for you through the city and the live register. Gives thanks to God for the benefits you receive, the food you receive, the help you receive, all free of charge.
- Take the next step – take the necessary steps you can to seek work, whether through FAS or a back-to-work scheme or through starting at the bottom of the ladder in a more menial job and treating that as launching pad for something else in the future. Don’t pass over work because you’re above it. And sign up for a FAS community employment scheme or a course at Jobcare.
- Take Support – Whether from your family, friend or the church family. Speak to your City Group leaders. We can give you emotional and practical support. The church is called to be a family that looks out for one another.
- Read Matthew 6:25-33 a lot – learn to trust God as a father who will provide for you and remain committed to seeking first his kingdom. At lean times in our marriage, these verses have been very important to Leanne and myself. He is a good father who cares for you and he will give you everything you need. He may not give you everything you want but he’ll give you everything you need. Hold on to that promise.
Reflection and Application
Here are some questions for you to think through with a friend or in City Group:
- Is work too important for you or not important enough? Why?
- In your opinion, why is work robbed of ‘ministerial value’ in the church (see Mark Greene quote)?
- Does our church assume a hierarchy where those in church leadership are the most important and those with ‘normal jobs’ are less important? If so, how can we combat this?
- What is the biggest joy and greatest stress for you at work right now?
- Which bit of the biblical overview was new to your thinking? How does this inspire or motivate you in your work?
- Which of the three applications with regards to seeing work as a calling is most challenging to you? Why?
- How can we help those in our church family who are unemployed?
- What unanswered questions do you have with regards to faith and work?
So it’s been a while since I have posted and do you know why? We launched our church and we’re now one month old! Do check out the facebook photos of our launch to get a feel for what we’re doing.
This Sunday we have our first Connect Night so I thought it might be worth posting something on our vision and values by summarising a series of posts I did on the Christ City Church blog in September and October.
The church is supposed to provoke questions and awaken desires within people’s lives. Instead of ‘bashing people with the Bible’ we’re to understand and apply the gospel to our lives in such a way that we start to look, act and talk more like Jesus. And it’s when people see Jesus in us that we’ll provoke questions and make a difference in Dublin. Our vision is to make a positive difference to the city of Dublin spiritually, culturally and socially.
For some reason (called religion!) the church can become stagnant, irrelevant and boring. This is such a tragedy as the church is God’s number one means of bringing his love and healing to the world which is certainly not boring; in fact it is an adventure. And that is what mission is all about, being caught up on God’s adventure and finding your place in it. Once you understand mission like that, it becomes way more fun.
Just as God doesn’t want the church to become stagnant, he doesn’t want any of us individually to become stagnant either. He wants us to grow and change and mature and grow up! He wants us to become more obedient to Jesus, more saturated in his Word and more filled with his Holy Spirit so that we start looking more and more like Christ.
Jesus famously said that the way we love one another will be the greatest sign that we are his disciples (John 13:34-35). This is a scary statement as we so often fail and the disunity in the church becomes a reason why people don’t become Christians. We want to be a community that cries, celebrates, confesses and chills (four cheesy Cs I know!).
Leaders are hard to come by and when you find one, you’ll find that there are people trying to cut them down (i.e. tall poppy syndrome). We are committed to raising leaders by developing people in three areas – character, theology and gifting. We want Christ City Church to be a place where leaders are found, nurtured, trained and released.
What would it mean to be a church not for ourselves? I think it would mean two things. Firstly, we’d become a church that is for those in Dublin who don’t go to church, hate church, laugh at church, have fallen out with church, don’t understand church or any combination of the above. Secondly, we’d be less concerned about building a great church and more concerned about playing our part to make Dublin the greatest city it can be. And that’s our vision, to make a positive difference to the city of Dublin spiritually, culturally and socially.
If you were going to read only one of the six posts above, read the last one. It’s my favourite and the one I feel most passionate about…and there is a cool picture of a skeptic! NOTE: Vision and values are always aspirational; the big challenge is to make them a reality. May God help us!
Since January 2012 when Leanne and I decided to come to Dublin, the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah have been some of my closest companions. For many people these books are unread and under-emphasised. However, they contain two great stories about God bringing his people back from exile in Babylon, restoring national confidence and rebuilding not just the temple and the city walls but Jerusalem as a city that radiated God’s love. Since Jesus’ coming, Jerusalem has been replaced by the church, God’s people, and so the application of these books today is about renewing (or starting) churches that seek the peace and prosperity of the cities they inhabit (see Matthew 5:14-16 and 1 Peter 2:9-12).
So not surprisingly, these two books captured my heart and imagination as we came to Dublin with the set purpose of creating a community of Jesus-followers who would bring hope, love, confidence and the message of Jesus to Dublin. In preparation for the launch of our church we have been studied Nehemiah for 6 weeks in April-May, relaying heavily on John White’s brilliant little book: Excellence In Leadership: The Pattern Of Nehemiah. Here are just a few thoughts and a few quotes that I have taken away from my most recent journeying in Nehemiah.
I have one over-arching lesson from Nehemiah’s leadership which I break into seven points. Each point will have one simple application question to help you reflect on the content. (Warning: this is a long blog post!)
(1) Balance in Leadership
The most striking aspect of Nehemiah is his balance. John White says (p.55)
Thus prayer, administration, on-site supervision, physical labour – all were part of a whole.
Nehemiah is as prayerful as he is strategic, as hard-working as he is dependent on God, as organised as he is personable, as courageous as he is humble. The five points below will elaborate on each of these. What a challenge to all of us leaders to not rely on our natural strengths but to develop a godly character which compensates and makes up for our weaknesses. As Tim Keller has insightfully said (in his paper Ministry and Character):
Godly character covers the gaps in our giftedness.
He goes to on say:
You may be rather ineloquent, but if you are very godly, there will be a wisdom and insight that is attractive to others. You may lack the temperament and skills to be an effective counselor, but if you are very godly, there will be a sympathy and love that shines through and proves effective. You may be very disorganized and not very dynamic in your personality, but if you are very godly, there will be a humility about you that will command people’s respect. In other words, your godly character fills in the gaps left by a lack of giftedness. In fact, people who are multi-gifted are at a disadvantage in that people usually think they are more spiritually mature than they really are. This is because it is their talent, not their holiness, that is covering all the bases in their ministry.
Nehemiah certainly shows godly character and an ability to get on with whatever needs doing. His love for God and the city of Jerusalem shine through in his servanthood, hard work and love for the people.
APPLICATION – which area of leadership do you need to be ‘covered’ by godliness?
So let’s have a look at the various things that make him an excellent leader.
What is the first thing you think of when you think of a great leader? Or, what is the first characteristic that is important for someone considering leadership in the future? In the Bible, all the great leaders have been people of prayer. Think of Abraham in Genesis 18 pleading with God for Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob in Genesis 32 wrestling with God for a blessing, Moses in Exodus 32-33 pleading with God not to destroy his people, David in the Psalms wrestling with God about sin, sickness, enemies, doubts and lots more. The list continues with Daniel, Hannah, Paul, Epaphras and many others and includes our Lord himself who knew intimate fellowship with his Father in heaven. Jesus often withdrew to places of solitude to pray and escape the crowds (Luke 4:42). Whenever he had big decisions to make, he made time for prayer (Luke 6:12). Before his trial and temptation he asked for his disciples to help him in prayer (Luke 22:39). Even on the cross, his leadership is marked by prayer (Luke 23:46).
And so it is with Nehemiah. Our first encounter with the leader is in prayer (Nehemiah 1:4-11), as he claims the promises of God. He hears news that Jerusalem is in great trouble and his first reaction is to mourn, fast and pray. It seems he did this for four months, taking into account the dates we are given in 1:1 and 2:1. John White says this about Nehemiah’s prayer:
There are three prerequisites of pleadings: jealousy for God’s reputation, love for one’s fellows and indifference to one’s own life and destiny. If these are true of us, we will plead as Moses and as Nehemiah…. When and where appropriate, there is nothing that delights God more than to takes his promises seriously. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith under such circumstances….For God’s promise is his extended hand. And when we reach out we are startled to find we have touched life and power. We have grasped the mountain moving hand.
From chapter 2 onwards, we see a man of action and much of the narrative is fast-paced and furious. But, before all the action is a man in prayer; listening to God and allowing God to form the desires of his heart. As he brings before God the situation, his passion and courage grow and his fears and doubts are dealt with. As we’ll see (from chapter 2), he starts all his planning on his knees (a point White continues to reinforce); asking God for guidance and inspiration as he considers taking a remnant from the Citadel of Suza and travelling 800 miles to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and once again establish Jerusalem for the praise of the Lord. Maybe more than anything else, his time in prayer allows him to “count his life worth nothing to him, if only he might finish the task set before him” (Acts 20:24). God moulds him into who he needs to be, in order for him to rebuild the city walls. Please don’t think prayer goes out of the window once he gets going. In addition to this opening prayer, we will hear him speak eight further short arrow prayers to God in times of pressure. Again, this shows his reliance on God for everything.
John White says this:
Prayer needs leisure. It must never be hurried. We need time to worship, time for confession, time for the Spirit of God to change our perspective and enlarge our vision. The more time the committee spends in prayer, the less its members will need to spend in futile discussion and more its discussion will count for the Kingdom
APPLICATION – do you have set periods of time set aside each month for praying? Maybe a morning a week or a day a month?
If in chapter 1 we meet Jeremiah in prayer, in chapter 2 we get a glimpse into his brilliant brain as he masterminds one of the greatest tasks of urban renewal in the history of the world. He plans every single detail, from his reassignment under Artaxerxes king of Persia (from his initial role as cupbearer to become the Governor of Jerusalem – see 1:11 and 5:14), to the letters of safe-passage for the journey, to the timber for rebuilding the walls and the house in which he will stay. Once he arrives, his first move is to do a secret, night-time reconnaissance and investigation of the city walls to fully understand the situation and the task ahead.
White says this:
The organisation took place in the presence of God….[Nehemiah] illustrates a principle in godly planning – the principle of anticipating difficulties and bringing them into God’s presence. Prayer is where planning starts.
Some people hold the motto: “let go and let God”; making spontaneity and inspiration spiritual whilst assuming that those who plan ahead are acting out of worldly leadership models. Others are so keen to map out every detail that they never spend time giving their plans to God, allowing God to change their plans and ultimately trusting in God for the success of all they do. Psalm 127 says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.” We must trust in God and rely in his strength but we must also build and plan and work hard (see Paul in Colossians 1:29 and 1 Corinthians 15:10).
White puts it well when he says:
It does not matter how trivial or how ambitious the projects may be. Facts will be needed, buildings will need to be inspected, problems anticipated, needed resources calculated. To build a tower, you first count the cost. To go to war, you first do intelligence works and find out your chances of winning.
As an aside, Nehemiah had obviously already proved himself as someone who was good at planning, had a keen mind and was good with the details. In his role as cupbearer to the King of Persia, Nehemiah was the equivalent to the chief security officer for the most powerful man on the planet (like Obama’s top bodyguard). God has used the years of working in the secular work place, with all the pressures and training that Nehemiah would have lived through, to prepare him for this great task.
APPLICATION – do you have an extensive period of time set aside each month (1-2 days) for planning?
(4) Mobilising Others
At the end of chapter 2, after months of prayer, planning and investigation, the time comes for him to mobilise the troops. This is a two step process. Firstly, he casts vision and secondly, he delegates.
With regards to his vision casting (2:17-19), White points out four elements:
- A pervasive sense of identification (He is a leader who gets involved)
- An acknowledgement of the seriousness of Jerusalem’s plight (He is realistic and faces the facts; he doesn’t shy away from reality)
- An appeal to specific action (Let’s start rebuilding)
- A personal testimony (God’s hand has been upon me…let me tell you how he has provided so far)
Nehemiah then manages to mobilise 39 different groups (chapter 3) from all walks of life: priests, levites, temple servants, goldsmiths, merchants, officials, private individuals, masters, servants, men and women and even perfume makers (vs8). They are all given different roles around the circumference of the wall and Nehemiah worked with them.
The depressed population of Jerusalem had listened with wonder to the way in which a heathen king had supplied Nehemiah with timber and with letters. They were presented in the flesh with a leader who had trusted God, had brought the timber to Jerusalem and who now stood before them, knowing what the problems were, but still ready to go on with the building. His confidence was infectious. And the people were encouraged..
…the pattern has repeated itself endlessly during the history of God’s people – the fear and fascination of a God-given vision, one man or woman’s willingness to follow that vision, to boldly acknowledge the risks and costs, to share that vision and then challenge God’s people to follow.
APPLICATION – Do you need to step back and envision your people? Who else could you involve who is not currently active?
(5) Hard Work
I recently heard a quote from Thomas Edison which said: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Nehemiah understood what was needed. White says:
Nehemiah shared hardship with the workers. His beard would be clogged with grit, his eyes red with dust while sweat would probably leave streaks down his cheeks. Spirituality is no substitute for sweat. Nehemiah’s organising ability, his coolness under stress and his prayer would have been wasted had he not worked. Prayer may move mountains. But prayer and elbow grease are wonderful allies.
The Apostle Paul himself would say “I worked harder than them, yet not I but the grace of God that was in me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
APPLICATION – Are you working efficiently? Are you working hard?
From the outset of his mission, Nehemiah faced opposition and it came at different times and in different guises. The timing of the opposition is uncanny and warns us to expect spiritual attack at the most unhelpful time. The devil and his demons are clever and organised! I have detected six forms of attack that Nehemiah faces:
- Ridicule (2:10/19, 4:1-3) – Discouragement and doubt, so you give up.
- Physical attack (4:7-12) – Fear to paralyse the workers.
- Murder plot (6:1-3) – Fear to make you run.
- Lies (6:5-8) – To provoke an ungodly reaction to discredit and entangle you.
- False prophet (6:10-13) – Deception to side-track you.
- Internal strife over money (5:1-19) – A temptation to divide the people and kill the work (see too, Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5)
Behind each of these acts, there was one source (the devil) and one aim (to stop the work). Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes aggresive. Sometimes he plays on the leader’s weakness and insecurities; sometimes he goes after the people. The New Testament continually exhorts us to be on our guard against the devil’s schemes for our fight is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:10ff, 1 Peter 5:9, James 4:7 and 2 Corinthians 10:3-4). How should we fight spiritual attack? In three ways: (1) prayer, (2) God’s word and (3) common sense. Nehemiah does that on each occasion and ultimately triumphs.
John White talks about the ‘School of Courage’ which Nehemiah was trained in for this and he says:
It’s a tough school. Thousands of leaders down the ages have taken the course. There are practical classes in opposition, in difficult circumstances, in loneliness, misunderstanding and tribulation. Some students quit because classes are so rough, not realising their value. There are no entrance qualifications. Any Christian may apply for training. And the Principal himself is available for interviews with every prospective student, at any hour of the day. You have only to knock and you will be admitted into his office.
APPLICATION – How is the enemy trying to attack you right now? Which of the 6 ways speaks most accurately to your current situation?
(7) Leading by Example
It goes without saying, from all that we have seen above, that Nehemiah led by example. He was servant-hearted, he was obedient to God’s law, he acted with integrity in every situation (particularly with regards to money) and he was willing to die for the sake of the people and God’s city. It is clear to see Nehemiah as a foreshadow of Jesus – the greatest and mightiest leader of all time who came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:40-45), was obedient to God in every situation and loved his people so much he ultimately died on a cross. In Nehemiah, we begin to understand more fully all that Jesus did in reclaiming his people in order to be a light to the nations.
So let me end this (very long!) blog post with two of my favourite quotes from White. He says at the end of his chapter on the leader and personal attacks:
There has always been a true elite of God’s leaders. They are the meek who inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). They weep and pray in secret, and defy earth and hell in public. They tremble when faced with danger, but die in their tracks sooner than turn back. They are like a shepherd defending his sheep or a mother protecting her young. They sacrifice without grumbling, give without calculating, suffer without groaning. To those in their charge they say “we live if you do well”. Their price is above rubies. They are the salt of the earth. And Nehemiah was one of them.
And he ends the book by saying:
Nehemiah was human. We need not speculate on his weaknesses for we have our own. Rather, we must be grateful for what we have learned from him. The fact that he was shaped from ordinary clay to become the leader he was should surely encourage us.
He has shown us the worthiness of waiting on God in prayer and that all real planning begins in God’s presence. His example has made it clear that true leadership must be consistent with an ongoing servant-hood. We have seen that his concern for God’s priorities and for the people of Jerusalem detemined his leadership style. He taught us the value of keeping ultimate goals always in mind and rebuked us with his attitude to money. We have watched him move from stress to stress and from strength to strength as he walks through the doors of fear to ultimate triumph.
And finally we have seen that he continued to run as well in the closing laps of the race as he had in the opening. The same faith and obedience that led him to take huge risks in the presence of King Artaxerxes continued to motivate him toward the close of his life.
APPLICATION – Where are you currently shirking the call of sacrifice, servant-hood and integrity in your daily life and ministry to others?