How to Build Community

The third chapter of Nehemiah has the phrase “next to” twenty-one times.  This chapter describes in detail the families and locations that they were responsible for in rebuilding the wall.  That is a powerful phrase when you are in a difficult situation: next to.  It is a source of courage and solace to know that you have help at your side in the face of adversity and struggle.  It is a blessing to be next to others as they face the struggles of rebuilding what has been broken.

Families should be about that phrase.  They should be next to each other in facing this life.  They should be next to each other in overcoming obstacles and facing challenges.  They should be next to each other when the world is against them.  The strength and solidity of community begins at home.  If we learn to be next to one another in our families, it prepares and equips us to be next to our extended family in the church.

Our children need be the kind of people who stand next to others, who face challenges with others.  They can learn so much from seeing the space next to others as a place of privilege and blessing instead a place of burden duty.  For Nehemiah it wasn’t just about rebuilding the wall, it was about rebuilding his people, God’s people.  He wanted those community ties to be reconnected and tied even tighter.  Every day they worked on the wall, the families of Israel were reminded that they could not do it alone.

We should not be in this alone.  We need to have others come and stand next to us when the walls are crumbling and the enemy is threatening to attack.  Let’s be families that are next to others in the life of God’s people.

Lord, help me to be a man that is next to my wife and children.  Help me lead my children into an understanding of the privilege and blessing of living our lives next to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

Cup-bearer to the King

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before,  so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”

I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

The king said to me, “What is it you want?”

Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”

Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.

I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah?  And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.  So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. – Nehemiah 2:1-9

Our God is the God of perfect timing.  He places where we need to be, when we need to be, around the people we need to be around.  He doesn’t miss anything or make mistakes in this regard.  However, we can and do miss these opportunities.  Our focus is on something else, or we move the other direction out of fear, but we miss the appointment He has set for us.  Nehemiah made his appointment.

Cupbearer to the king was a trusted position in the court.  He was responsible for protecting the king from poisoning and had unparalleled access to the king and his family.  Very often cupbearers were chosen for their attractive qualities, both physical and mental.  In other words, Nehemiah had a lot going for him.  His position and the manner in which he filled it gained him the concern of a very powerful king.  And yet, by Nehemiah’s own words was “very much afraid.”  It was Nehemiah’s willingness to overcome fear that allowed him to say the right thing at the right time to the right person.  God had moved things in such a way to place Nehemiah in that circumstance and Nehemiah completed the equation.

Parenting requires us to not only pay attention to the appointments God has for us, but the appointments He sets for our children.  We need to have open eyes and attentive ears to take in all that God is putting out there for us to see and hear.  We need to be in tune with Him so He can use us as instruments of His will and work in our children’s lives.  We will need to overcome our fears to keep our eyes on Jesus and not the potential risks of raising children.  And God will meet us every step of the way.

Lord, help me have the courage of Nehemiah to be in the right place at the right time with the right heart for my children.  Give me eyes to see and ears to hear when You are moving in the lives of my children.  Let me be an instrument in Your hands to draw them toward You. Amen.

A Good Confession

“I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.  From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.” – Ezra 9: 6-7

Ezra is heartbroken in this passage.  His return to Jerusalem, the land of his forefathers, becomes a tragedy instead of a victory.  After all the time the people spent rebuilding the city God had delivered them to, they had fallen short in obeying His commands.  It is this tension between being God’s people and acting as God’s people that has Ezra tied up in knots.  He clearly sees that there are consequences to disobeying God, and is upset that his current generation is moving in that direction.  His confession speaks volumes about how we face sin in ourselves and in those around us.

First, Ezra includes himself in the confession even though he had not participated in the actual disobedience in question.  He sees himself as part of the problem, because it happened on his watch.  Parents have the same burden to carry with their children.  When we challenge our children over their behavior, part of our process needs to be a sense of ownership because we are responsible for them.  Ezra doesn’t look for ways to excuse the behavior or punish the behavior, he just recognizes it and owns his responsibility in the transgression.

Second, Ezra ties action to consequence.  Teaching our children that there are consequences for their actions has become more difficult because our culture is trying to remove fault and place it anywhere else but the individual.  It is the parent’s fault, or society’s or environment or TV, but it isn’t the individual’s fault.  Ezra blames no one, but those who broke the law.  Confession helps our children take responsibility for their actions and helps them face the consequences.  And confession is the doorway to repentance.  This is where Ezra is heading the people of Israel, but he begins with confession.

It is one thing to help your children deal with the sin in their lives, but it is an entirely different discipline to own the sins of our children.  We can blame the world and make excuses about the influences of society, but if the Son of God can take on our sin, it is not too much for us to take on the sins of our children.  We can’t pay for their sin, but we can pave the way through it to confession and repentance.  If we have a high priest who sympathizes with us, we can sympathize with our children even in their worst moments.

Lord, help me to take the burden of my children’s sin and walk them through confession and repentance.  Grow in me the compassion, mercy and humility I need to lead my children through the consequences of disobedience.  Make my heart more like Yours every day. Amen.

Opposing Forces

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.  They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. – Ezra 4:4-5 (NIV)

It is hard to be a good neighbor when your neighbor hates you and wants to see you fail.  It is difficult to stay in hostile territory, especially when you have no other friendly place to go.  This has been the problem of God’s people throughout their history; firstIsraeland now the body of Christ.  We are unwanted by the world.  We stand opposed to the humanized view of our place in the cosmos and preach a gospel that rejects the relativism of the world’s morality.  Some have responded to this dilemma by becoming isolated communities, others have bought into a more militant approach, but either one gets us stuck without any ability to handle the other.

Israelwas isolated, but not because they chose to be.  They were isolated because the chose to follow God and the nations around them decided that wasn’t going to go well for them.  When isolation didn’t work, the nations became combative.  What is interesting is thatIsraelwas prepared for either situation as long as they were obeying God and doing the work He wanted them to be about.  WhenIsraelwas successful, it was because they were keeping in line with what God wanted for them.

This is a hard lesson to learn, but we cannot live our lives reacting to the world.  We have to live our lives in obedience to God and trust that He will take us where we need to go, whether that is into isolation or confrontation.  We don’t need to run away from a fight or run into it, we just need to follow the one who is worth fighting for and shelters those He calls His own.  Teaching our children to be peacemakers and warriors for God at the same time is challenging, but possible if we keep them focused on seeking the heart of God.

Lord, help me live a life that is balanced by Your will and not imbalanced by my emotions and passions.  Teach me to know when to fight for Your purposes and when to sow peace.  Grant my children the hearts and minds to pursue You above all else. Amen.

Pagan Kings and the Will of God

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.  Anyone of his people among you–may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.  And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'” – Ezra 1:2-4 (NIV)

I think there is an assumption among Christians that the only place our kids can get shaped by God is in and by the church.  We can work towards insulating them in a cocoon of church activities and groups because we think that will protect them from sin.  This view, however, makes God less powerful and providential than His omnipotence would suggest.  God used numerous situations to shape His people that were outside the community of faith.  In the passage above, God is using a pagan king to replant His people in the promised land.  A pagan king.

The world is a scary, treacherous and sometimes dangerous place, but it is small compared to God.  If He chooses to work through a pagan king to bring His children home, who are we to question?  When I consider the different choices that face our family, I have to remind myself that fear is not a factor.  We are His children and He will bring us safely to His side, but we don’t get to decide who or what He uses to get us there.

I want my children to be safe.  I want them to be protected, but more than that, I want them to walk the road that God has set before them.  This is going to be a challenge, because I may have to trust people and situations that seem “unsafe” for my children.  I don’t relish those moments of decision where God is calling my child to be in a worldly place under worldly people.  I pray that I will be ready when those moments come.  I hope that I will see God’s hand at work in those situations and trust in His will and wisdom rather than my own.

Lord, help me to trust You with my children.  Give me the strength to let them go into the world, trusting that you can use even the things of this world to shape them for Your glory and honor.  Remind me of Your faithfulness and mercy when those moments arise.  Amen.

Even Heroes Need God

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”  Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”  He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.  The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, themountainofGod. – 1 Kings 19:1-8 (NIV)

Taking on hundreds of false prophets, running faster than a chariot and challenging a powerful and evil king are things a hero does, and Elijah is definitely a hero.  Scripture doesn’t tell superhero stories, just stories.  No embellishments or edits to avoid embarrassment.  As heroic as Elijah had been, he was a real person with real fears.  He still needed God.

One of the worst things we can do to our children is only let them see us win.  God lets us in on Elijah’s low points.  He doesn’t try to cover them up or wash them over to make Elijah out to be someone he’s not.  If all our children ever see or hear about us is the successes or victories, we are not preparing them for the low points.  Even Elijah had to regroup and overcome his fears, and God met him in that moment and provided what Elijah needed.

Life will overwhelm us from time to time.  We will be faced with a situation that will challenge our limitations and put us on the ropes.  We need to be confident in those moments that God is with us and to allow our children to walk through those moments by our side.  They need to see us at our wounded worst and watch us get pulled to our feet by the grace and mercy of God.  They need to know that there is a way forward from failure and a path from brokenness to wholeness.   Elijah’s life took him from a faceoff with false prophets to huddling in fear under a broom tree, but God did not leave him there, and He won’t leave us in our brokenness either.

Lord, help me to live honestly before my children.  May I find the courage to let my children see my weakness and in the process discover Your strength.  Give me strength for each day to face my fears and lead my children toward courage. Amen.

Staying Ahead of the Chariot

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.”  So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.  “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”  The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'”  Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.  The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. – 1 Kings 18:41-46 (NIV)

Went God set Elijah against Ahab, I don’t think Ahab was too worried at first.  Elijah was literally the only prophet of God left to challenge Ahab, so the odds were with Ahab, or at least that is what he thought.  But numbers are meaningless to an infinitely powerful God and His obedient servant.  I think Ahab’s first real wake-up call was when the prophet beat him on foot back to his own home.  Can you imagine holding the reins of the chariot, the wind whipping in your face, the horses galloping ahead when Elijah runs past you with a wave and a nod?  That is not going to be your best day if you are Ahab.

There are plenty of Ahabs around today.  Little kings of little kingdoms that want to rule us.  They are ideologies, philosophies and cultures that prop themselves up with catch phrases and sound bites.  They are pundits, politicians, and prophets of the religion of me.  They are dead set on having their way with us and our children, but they do not have God on their side.  They may have chariots, but we can outrun them.  They may have numbers, but God’s math always works in our favor.

If we want to run like Elijah and stay ahead of our enemies when they pursue us, we have to walk like Elijah in the midst of our enemies when they accuse us.  We need to be ready for fight or flight at God’s behest.  How can we expect our children to do what we ask if we are not willing to do the same for God?  How can we show our children the way to victory if we aren’t even in the fight?  Peter Marshall, the Senate Chaplain during the late 1940’s, once said in a prayer, “Give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for – because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.”  Elijah had a clear vision of where to stand and who to stand for and so can we.

Lord, help me have the faith and wisdom to hear Your voice and follow Your commands.  Help me to be a man who stands for truth and righteousness.  Give me power in its proper time to stay ahead of the chariot.  Give me the words and the deeds to speak and act before those who stand against You.  May I live a life empowered by You before my children that they might seek You and know You. Amen.

The Challenge of Elijah

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire–he is God.”

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” – 1 Kings 18:22-24 (NIV)

If this kind of showdown happened today, it would be covered by some reality TV station with a title like Ultimate Altar Showdown and color commentary by Bobby Flay and Bob Costas.  The technology has changed and so has the way we learn about the world around us, but the confrontation between truth and falsehood is still in full swing.  The world still needs Elijah’s.

Here was a man of God living among false prophets and depraved citizens, preaching the words God put in his mouth.  He faced them with faith in God and the certainty of His promises.  Elijah was courageous, obedient and steadfast in the face of great opposition.  Elijah stood firmly in the gap between the world God desired for His people and the world they were living in and spoke truth.  He is a shining example of unflinching confidence in God.

It is easy for us to think that we are lucky things are different today – that we don’t have to worry about false prophets and imitation gods who require abominable sacrifices – but the tension still exists.  The prophets where different clothes and use different words, but they still speak against the will of God; the idols don’t stand as statues on hills, but they still require abominable sacrifices.  Our children are introduced to these deceptive influences through their contact with the world and we need to give them eyes to see and minds to understand.  We need to be their Elijah.

When we here them say something or see them doing something that doesn’t reflect the will of God, we have to stand in the gap of who God wants them to be and who they are and speak the truth.  We need to stand against the false prophets of false Gods with the truth of scripture with unflinching confidence.  We need to show our children the powerlessness of false teachings and the power of God’s truth.  God calls us to lead our children from the will of the world and their own fallen will into His will with courage, obedience and steadfast faith.

In order to fulfill this calling our lives as parents, we need to be people immersed in the Word, engaged in His work and transformed by His will.  We cannot call our children to something we don’t understand ourselves.  We cannot lead the way if we are not on the Way.  If we want to be like Elijah for our children, we need to press on in our life with God.  Elijah had a lot of reasons not to continue his ministry, but the one reason he had to continue was good enough: because God had called him to do it.

Lord, help me answer the call of Elijah for the sake of my children.  Through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, show me the false prophets that are speaking into my life and silence them.  May I be a man of courage, obedience and steadfast faith and lead my children into Your will each day. Amen.

It’s Hard to Be A Nathan

But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” – 2 Samuel 12:1-6 (NRSV)

Confronting someone in their sin can be a difficult thing.  To just come out and call someone an adulterer or a liar or a cheat can create a combative atmosphere.  If you try to rationalize why they might have transgressed, you run the risk of them not owning the fullness of their disobedience.  There is also the problem of our plank getting in the way of seeing their speck.  However, this is something that cannot be avoided as a parent.

We are the Nathan’s for our children.  We not only bring their sin to light, but we have a responsibility to help them understand the truth that what they did was wrong.  Nathan walks David through a scenario that leads him to the truth of his sin and then opens his eyes to his responsibility for his sin. This is the hard, but fruitful way of confronting sin.

It is too easy to become spiritual bullies to our children, using Scripture as a club instead of allowing Scripture to mold and shape us into a tool for our children’s benefit.  We can become manipulative, trying to get what we want from our children, rather than seeking what God wants for our children.  For some of us, confrontation is terrifying and we would rather ignore the situation or try to get around it somehow.  We don’t like getting angry and may even have been taught that anger is a sin, but this gives our children license where they shouldn’t.  Anger, however, is not the problem.

If we love our children and desire righteousness for them, anger is just another tool in our hands and is tempered by mercy and humility.  If we love ourselves more than our children and desire recognition from man for what we have “produced,” anger uses us to damage and destroy, fueled by pride and selfishness.  Nathan’s anger was rooted in his love for God and David.  David’s anger was rooted in pride.  It is easy to see which one God used for good.

Parenting will call us to difficult confrontations with our children, asking us to take hold of anger with loving hands.  God has placed us in a position of incredible responsibility and asks us to be a “Nathan” to our children, speaking the truth about sin without apology or ulterior motive.  It is not easy, but our children will be better for it and God will be pleased.

Lord, help me be a tool in your hands to combat the sin in my children’s lives.  Search me for any sinfulness and pride and humble me for this task.  May I be a voice calling my children to righteousness and obedience for Your sake. Amen.

The Wrong Armor

Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head.  David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.

“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. – I Samuel 17:37b-40

Saul was Saul and David was David, but David was the only one aware of this.  When Saul tries to have David fight Goliath, he wants David to wear his armor and use his weapons.  While David is obedient to His king, it is the armor God provides that ruled the day.  The end result is a shepherd approaching the field of battle with a shepherd’s weapon.  With a sling and a rock, David felled the giant and glorified God.

David knew two things that day that made victory possible; he knew himself and – more importantly – he knew God.  David did not need to be anything more than what God had created him to be; a shepherd protecting the flock.  God didn’t need a warrior that day, decked out in the proper garb and arsenal, He needed a trusting servant.  The question for us is, “As parents, are we preparing our children to be like David?”

It is easy to treat our children the same way that Saul treated David, trying to force them into armor that neither fits their purpose or potential.  We need to see our children the same way that God saw David – full of promise and potential.   Our eyes need to stay focused on who are children are becoming rather than all we want them to be.  God has given us the privilege of caring for his people and our children, so that they grow up to be all God intends them to be.

Lord, help me to see past my own to see the amazing potential my children have.  May they grow to know who God created them to be and may they learn to sling stones to kill the giants in their lives. Amen.