Trust God, Dream Big and Stop Sinning (Nehemiah Wrap-up)

March 28, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

We just finished 2.5 months of Nehemiah.  Thanks for all the good feedback on the series.  Nehemiah is an incredible book that tells a powerful story of an incredible leader and a nation trying to restore its relationship with God and break the cycle of sin.

I just wanted to take a moment and review all the different pieces of the story and what we learned from Nehemiah.

We first meet Nehemiah and we see an influential leader in Persia being called by God to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem.  The plight of his people broke his heart and he had to take action.  Follow the passions that God put on your heart and believe that God will do incredible things through your life. Way too often we settle for ordinary with God, and don’t believe that God even wants to do great things in our lives.

In Nehemiah, we see a man who was devoted to prayer.  He knew that the only way anything significant was going to happen was if God moved.  God moves through prayer.  However, he was also a very deliberate planner.  He wasn’t just one or the other.  He prayed and planned.  I’ve often heard it said that we should pray like it depends only on God, and work like it depends completely on us.  I don’t know that I like that, because even in our planning there should be a built-in dependence on God. So, we should pray like it depends only on God, and plan like the God of the universe is calling you to do it.

In the actual building of the wall, we see a lot of different people playing a role.  The job could never depend on one person.  People were focused on building their one section of the wall.  No one did anything spectacular on their own, but together they did something incredible.  When we each believe that God wants to use us and we all work together, we see God do amazing things.

However, in the middle of all of this we see a ton of opposition from the outside and struggles within.  Anything worth doing for God will find opposition and skeptics. Our success will depend on who we listen to.  We need to listen to God’s call on our life more than we listen to critics. We also need to take care to not be divisive.  What God has called us to is too important and significant for us to fight over little things. How big the things are that divide us depends on what we compare them to.  If God has called us to reach the world, just about everything else becomes fairly small.

After they rebuilt the wall, we see the greater work of rebuilding the people begin.  It begins with Ezra reading the Law to the people.  They respond with great sadness for their sins.  However, first the leadership wants the people to take time to celebrate.  They have been reconciled and brought back. They must rejoice.  We have to take time to celebrate the fact that we have a relationship with the God of the universe. It is a very serious thing to walk with God, but serious doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate.  We must celebrate.

Next comes the time to repent.  Sin is a big deal, and the Israelites realize that it is their sin that has separated them from God and they rightly respond with repentance.  Although God is gracious to us, we must realize that sin hurts us and offends God, and we must repent. Saying “sorry” is one thing, being sorry and changing is another.

After the time of repentance we see the Israelites desiring to make commitments to try and break the cycle of sin.  Sin-sorry-forgiveness…sin-sorry-forgiveness…and on and on it went.  They wanted to break that cycle, and so they pledge to not intermarry, to honor the Sabbath and to give sacrificially.  It takes great sacrifice on our part to see God do incredible things among us in the long-term.

In Nehemiah, we have a great leader, and as he is wrapping up this task, we see his leadership skills and those of the leaders he is leaving behind.  We see leaders taking initiative, doing what others won’t. The leaders are the ones to move to the new rebuilt city.  We also see a great party to celebrate and dedicate the wall.  The people are inspired, because that’s what leaders do.  Leaders inspire people.

You really do wish that the story could have ended there, but it doesn’t.  Despite their desire to not fall back into the cycle of sin, they quickly do and Nehemiah has to rebuke and correct them when he comes back to check on the people.  Regret and feelings last a little while.  We need to be people that desire long-term repentance.  This doesn’t happen quickly.  This comes when in our hearts we commit to doing what it takes to be the men and women God has called us to be.  We become a part of a community.  We are committed to God’s word and prayer.  We often reflect on the power and love of God demonstrated in the Gospel.

There is much to be learned in Nehemiah.  I’d encourage you to read the book (again, I hope).  Listen again to some of the sermons on the chapters that you most need to apply.  Let’s allow this time in Nehemiah to impact us not just for now, but for years to come.

How Did We End Up Here? (Nehemiah 10 preview)

March 10, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

Have you ever asked that question?  “How did we end up here?” or “How did I end up here?”  This is not a post about how guys don’t ask for directions or women can’t read maps.  (Gender stereo-typing.  Fastest way to make friends) Although, I could make some quippy metaphors about needing directions, being lost, but I won’t. (Sure. We’ll see.)

We wake up one day and we don’t like where our life is.  At one point, things were great with you and God.  You were growing spiritually.  Your family was strong.  You felt like God had a great plan for your life and you were following it. Then…here you are.  How did you get here?

Typically what we can do is decide that we want to do better.  We’ll stop the bad habit.  We go back to church.  We pray more.  We make good solid decisions to improve our life, in the present.  But what about the future?  What will keep us from going back to the dark place we were in?  How do we prevent that?

The way to do that is to ask “How did I get here?”  What did I do to start this?  What started me on this path?  What kept me from turning around?

Making surface changes are good for the short-term.  We need to dig deeper and find out what causes us to fall away.  Change those things as well.

Through the first 9 chapters of Nehemiah, we have seen the people rally together and build a wall as a symbol of renewing themselves as God’s people.  Then they celebrate the Feast of Booths to celebrate God’s deliverance from their exile.  Then we see them repent of their sins.  Those are incredible action steps that help turn the people toward God.

But now they are asking what got them here and how can they prevent.  They got here through their sin and God’s judgment upon them.  Their ancestors refused to follow after God and chose their own path.  They followed other gods, they neglected God’s temple, they didn’t pass their faith on to their children, they refused to be a light to the nations around them.

We will see in Nehemiah chapter 10 doing more than being sorry and trying to be better.  We will see them take some steps to help insure a long-term following after God.

They aren’t just asking for directions, they are learning how to use a map.

World Record for Sermon Application (Nehemiah 6 Follow-up)

February 21, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

My normal sermon routine is this.  While I am prepping for a sermon, I put my points together that I want to make.  At some point during the  week, something happens to me that shows me that the someone needs to preach the message to me.  My sin seems to creep up on me during the week leading to a sermon.

This week was different.  Nothing in particular interesting happened.  Well, I take that back.  I got violently sick late Sunday night and spent most of the day on Monday and Tuesday in bed.  However, that would have been a great illustration for a completely different sermon.

Anywho, instead of a pre-sermon exposing of my sin, it was a post-sermon exposing.  It wasn’t long after the service was over, in fact.  I do believe that it may have been a world record for the amount of time it took for me to try and apply my own sermon.

You see, in Nehemiah 6, Nehemiah is dealing with critics.  What I said is that we need to brush aside critics and not let them distract us from what God has called to do.  The goal of the critic is to stop you.  When you obsess over their criticism, you have, in fact, stopped.  Easier said that done.

Enter the critic Sunday afternoon.  You know, I have grown accustomed over the years to people challenging something I said.  I have also grown accustomed to people not liking my style of ministry and teaching.  I can appreciate that my style is different and difficult for some.  That’s why I’m glad that there are so many churches.  However, this was not a sermon tweak or an “I don’t get you.”  This was..well it doesn’t really matter what it was.  I don’t want to talk about it, because I don’t want it to be interpreted as a pity party or a backhanded way of seeking attention or compliments.

Suffice to say, what the person said hurt, badly. I let it bother me, for quite a while in fact.  Part of it was exhaustion.  (Did I mention that I had been sick? Also, did you know this was play performance week for Maylee?  Long, tiring week.)  Regardless, I did the opposite of what I was encouraging others to do.

I ultimately shook it off, but I do find myself asking whether there were some practical things that I could have done differently to shake it off sooner or not let it bother me at all.

In no particular order:

1) Don’t beat yourself up that it hurt.  Hurtful things hurt.

2) Understand that most critical people are hurting and need compassion from us.

3) Ask yourself, “What is the truth from this that I could apply?”  There is probably a nugget of truth there, which is why it hurts.

4) Pray for them

5) Read verses that show you how much God loves you.

6) Call a friend/family member and ask for encouragement. (Don’t be afraid to act hurt and needy.  You know, since you are hurt and needy)

7) Did I mention pray for them?

I could list a whole bunch of don’ts, but you’re doing them already and you know you shouldn’t.  OK, I’ll put one.  Don’t play out “the next conversation” in your mind.  It’s not worth it.  It’s obsessive.

Why yes I am preaching to myself.  Why do you ask?

Honesty, Transparency and Other Things Christians Shouldn’t Do (Nehemiah 4)

February 7, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

I heard from a handful of people yesterday that they appreciated me being honest and transparent during my sermon yesterday.  Yesterday, we talked about dealing with discouragement.  During that sermon, I admitted some particular struggles that I was having in that regard last week.  I had a high level of anxiety and frustration about the old house won’t sell thing.  I openly talked about it.

Apparently, honesty about struggles and being transparent while teaching is a rare thing.  It is rare enough that when it happens, we notice it. Unfortunately, it is quite rare.  Way too often, Pastors feel the need to put up a front that says, “While you people may struggle with this, I’m living ‘in victory.’” (Great churchy phrase, that one is)  Pastors should stop.  You’re not fooling many people, and those that you are, you are discouraging because they feel all alone.

I digress, because is not blog for pastors.  Seriously, what pastor in his right mind would read this blog?  “Hmmm, where can I get some 2nd class jokes, inane ramblings and pointless pop-culture references to use in my sermon.  I know…”

The problem is that when pastors and leaders pretend to have it all together, we take our cues from them whether we know it or not.  We don’t think that they’re perfect (we are smarter than that).  However, we do mimic the behavior of pretending.  “If he pretends, so should I.”

Then what happens is that we don’t admit to anyone when we are discouraged, anxious or fearful.  We won’t admit it to people who can help us.  We won’t admit it to ourselves.  We won’t admit it to God, who would gladly give us peace, if we were to ask.

The first step toward dealing with trials and discouragement in our lives is to admit that they are happening.  Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?  However, if we never do that, we will never take the other steps we need to take–focusing on God, prayer, enlisting friends, etc.

If we fail to admit it, we could end up like this guy.  Come on.  Click it. You know you want to.

Sticks and Stones… (Nehemiah 4 Preview)

February 4, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I’m not sure where that ranks on the all-time childhood taunts, but I have it pretty high.  However, it’s definitely behind, “Nanny, nanny, boo-boo,” and “I’m rubber and you’re glue…”

Actually thinking about it, it really isn’t that great of a taunt, because it’s not remotely true. (Well I guess neither is “I’m rubber…” but as always, I digress.)

I have fallen and hurt myself many times, including onto sticks and stones.  I have even broken a bone.  You know what?  I really don’t remember what it felt like.  If I think about it, it doesn’t hurt me again.  On the other hand, there are things that people said to me over 30 years ago (including a sob story that I will tell on Sunday), that I still remember and still hurts when I think about it.

Sticks and stones break bones.  However bones heal much faster than feelings.  We will spend the bulk of our time on Sunday talking about how we deal with discouragement.  I wanted to take a little time here to look at it from the other side.  Don’t be a discourager.  I think that there are way too many Christians who fancy themselves as having the gift of “prophecy” or “exhortation” which is really just Christian-ese for I like to line people out and rebuke them and tell them what I don’t like about them.  You can say that you have a “prophet’s heart,” but prophets spoke from God.  Often we speak out of being annoyed or bothered personally.

Ask yourself this question before you say something that will hurtful.  Hold on, a good first step is to stop and think about whether or not it will be hurtful.  Then think twice before you say it.  Then ask yourself this question, “Will this encourage them to get better or discourage them to even try?” Then ask, “Am I doing this because I care about them or because I care about me?”

God wants us to be involved in each others’ lives and help each other get better, but far too often we are motivated out of our own hurt and frustration and a neck-rolling “I’m gonna tell them something.”

What if the discouraging hurtful thing you were going to say would stick with them 33 years later and it still stuck in their gut and hurt, would you still say it? (seriously, it’s a great story)

Laying Out a Fleece (and other bad ideas)

January 24, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

Have you ever heard of someone laying out a fleece?  It is perhaps the most insider church jargon of all time (well, maybe something about the balm in Gilead might beat it).  People often use that expression as if it is a common expression.  The expression comes from the story of Gideon. (Read here)  In the story, God clearly speaks to Gideon and tells him that Gideon will lead Israel in a victorious battle.  When I say speaks, what I mean is God speaks, you know like with talking and hearing.  This was no inner-prompting or assurance, like we deal with.

God clearly speaks but Gideon is not convinced that God will give him victory, so he puts out a fleece (think piece of wool, not light jacket) on the ground and asks God if God “really” wants him to do it, then only the fleece will be wet with dew the next morning, and not the ground around it.  God does it, graciously.  Then the next day, Gideon does it again but in reverse.  This time the fleece has to be dry but there is dew everywhere else.  God again meets the request, graciously.

So in Christian Jargonese, laying out a fleece has become a way of confirming God’s will.  However, that story should be thought of as a story of fear and a lack of trust in God.  God said it, with words, out loud.  What further confirmation was needed.

Compare this with our man, Nehemiah.  He believed that God wanted him to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, with no audible voice.  He prayed and then by faith seized the opportunity when it came.  Too often we are gripped with fear, not because we are not sure about what God wants, but because we are not sure we want what God wants.  “What if it doesn’t work?” “What if I look stupid trying to do this?”  “I need to KNOW that God is going to make this work.”

We need to stop kidding ourselves, it’s not confirmation that we need, it is trust to follow after God.

Am I being too tough?  Fine, we can start laying fleeces.  But do it in the opposite way of Gideon.  Don’t do it where God has to do a miracle if he wants you to take a risk, but he has to do the miracle if he doesn’t.

Here is the “fleece” you can use.  “God if you DON’T want me to do (crazy, faith-filled scheme) then bring a monkey to my front door carrying a rubber chicken, and have him tell me in Pig-Latin that you don’t want me to do it.  Otherwise I am going to (crazy, life-changing, fulfilling, best thing you’ve ever done faith-filled scheme).”

Or you can just trust God and go do it.

Why wait? (Nehemiah 2 Preview)

January 21, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

As we are getting ready for this Sunday, there is something that I want us all to think about–waiting.  Waiting patiently is, shall we say, not a strength of the modern American culture. No judgment here, few things irk me more than pulling up to a gas station only to discover that they don’t have pay at the pump.  What? You want me to walk all the way inside and pay someone.  What is that going to take, like 90 seconds or something?

Nonetheless, whether we like it or not, we always have to wait. If you live with three women, you know what I’m talking about. (Probably shouldn’t have said that) Let’s put this in a spiritual context.  What if God were to tell you that he wanted you to do something, how soon do you expect it to happen?  My guess is the honest answer is immediately, or at least as soon as possible.

What about our man Nehemiah?  It was four months.  They may not seem like a long time. Well, it doesn’t seem like a long time, if it’s someone else.  However, 120 days of waiting for God to do what you believe he said he would do is a long time.  We have no idea how many “crises of faith” he had.  We would probably have a lot.  We would question ourselves as to whether or not we “heard” right and question God as to whether or not he really would do what he said.

What is the point of waiting? Why doesn’t God just do it already?  What is God doing and why?

Welcome to Nehemiah chapter 2.  See you Sunday (or listen online after Sunday night here)

Where do I find it? (Nehemiah 1 follow up)

January 17, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

I will try (keyword: try) to post something every Monday after each week of the Nehemiah series.  Most of these topics that we will talk about on Sunday morning could be its own series.  There is so much that could be said, but no one wants to hang out there until 4.  So, I’ll drop a thought or two here.

We talked a lot about the passion and calling that Nehemiah had.  I believe that God has given each one of us a call.  This call comes from our strengths, skills, gifts and passions.  Some people wonder how they can find their calling.  How do you know?  Is it some supernatural moment?  Does it come from some internal tingling?  Will God send you a Twitter message?  “I’m serving and I enjoy it, but I don’t know if it rises to the level of ‘calling.’”

Here are some thoughts:

1) Don’t wait for some mystical confirmation or finding the ideal place to serve to start serving.  Maybe your passion is going to be children’s ministry, maybe it’s not.  You won’t find out by not serving or taking some gifting/passion inventory.  You will find out by serving in the children’s ministry.  Serve somewhere.  Serve in your church.  Respond to some ministry’s need in the community.  Go work with Habitat for a day.  Go feed the homeless.  Do something.  You aren’t going to think your way to your best fit.  You will serve your way there.

2) There is no such thing as a big call and a small call.  All calls come from God.  By definition, they are all big.  Better that someone respond to God’s call to a simple behind the scene’s ministry than feel like they have to do something.  Some people’s passion and calling is in the nursery with small babies.  These are tremendous servants who not only love precious babies but allow parents to worship freely and know that their baby is being loved on and cared for.  If god is the one leading and directing, that is not a downgrade from missionary in 3rd world country.

3) Serving is meant to be enjoyable.  Often we associate serving in the church with a workout.  “You know you did it right if you didn’t enjoy it and it hurts afterward.”  God has designed you to use your gifts.  When you do, God will bless you and you will be very glad that you did.”

4) Pressure + Guilt = Calling.  While that is the typical formula.  I disagree.  Passion + Gifts + Opportunity = Calling

Get out there.  Find a place where God can use you.  Pray.  Ask God to show you your passions and gifts.  Ask friends.

Expect God to do amazing things.

Old Testament History (In 20 minutes)

January 10, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership, Teaching

As we were preparing for a series in Nehemiah, we began to wonder how familiar people are with the book of Nehemiah and OT history.  We began to ask around and determined that there are a lot of people who aren’t familiar.  So we decided to take a week and intro the book by giving the history of the OT up to that point.  That was definitely a different kind of message for me, but I hope that it helped some people.

Sometimes I think that we are too embarassed to admit that we don’t know the Bible that well, because “we should already know it.”  How can we already know it, if we don’t teach it.  So, here it is.

Listen to that message here.