Archive for October 2016

Week of October 17, 2016

“There is no guarantee that doing work for God will be easy; if anything, there is a certainty that there will be difficulty in work (remember that God cursed the work of man when He confronted Adam in the Garden of Eden). We will encounter obstacles and we will face opposition. But if we are prepared, and if we respond in the right way, and if we trust God’s sovereignty, we can handle whatever comes our way.”

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 9)

Facing Obstacles and Opposition

In the summer right after I graduated from high school, I had the privilege of working for one of my uncles, who was a general contractor and owned a construction company.   During this particular summer, he was building an apartment complex, and I was there to do whatever manual labor he assigned me to do. My first day on the job, he informed me with a smile that I would be the “gopher” – “you know,” he said, “go for this, go for that, go for whatever I need you to get.” In reality, I spent that summer before college carrying lumber, operating a jackhammer, driving a forklift, sweeping floors, sanding walls, and running errands.

Toward the end of the summer, when much of the construction had been done and the finish work was in process, I was given the task of installing the air conditioning wall units in each of the apartments. In a space that had been left open in one of the outside walls of each apartment, my task was to insert the units, connect all the wires and lines, test them to make sure they worked properly, and then clean the area so that it looked neat and finished.

However, in one particular apartment, I ran into a problem. I could not get the unit to fit properly, no matter how I tried, and I began to get very frustrated. I was ready to give up when my aunt walked in and asked me how it was going. I told her, “I have a problem,” and explained what was happening, to which she replied, “Jeff, there are no such things as problems, only challenges to solve or overcome.”

The truth is, there will always be challenges. Since the fall of Adam and Eve and the introduction of sin, there have been difficulties, challenges, and conflict, and work has been hard. Therefore, until we are fully sanctified in heaven, we will always have adversaries that create difficulty. They may be obstacles that get in our way or they may be people who oppose us, but regardless, they will be challenges that must be overcome.

The Israelites showed us this, when they experienced great challenges in their efforts to rebuild the temple, described in Ezra 4, 5, and 6, This passage provides us with a picture of the types of attacks and hindrances they experienced, as well as their responses. Then, in chapter 8, we see also see a brief description of the danger of the potential obstacles a team could face. Together, these events give us a good idea of the challenges we also may face.

Ezra 4-6 fills in a major portion of the story of the rebuilding of the temple, which took place over many years. It wasn’t long after they had first initiated construction that people began to try to block their efforts, trying a variety of ways to interfere with the work. Eventually, those opposed to the building that was taking place wrote a letter to the king that painted the Israelites in a bad light. The letter contained half-truths, with biased and twisted information, which resulted in an order from the king to stop construction. It wasn’t until years later that the work began again, and once again, almost immediately, others tried to force them to stop, again writing a letter to the king. This time, Scripture tells us, nothing could get in the way of the work they were doing.

Ezra 8 provides a second glimpse into this issue, this time when Ezra himself was preparing to lead the spiritual leaders back to Jerusalem. As they made their preparations, Ezra crafted a plan that would ensure the greatest success, but he also appealed to God for guidance and for protection from the dangers and obstacles they would face on the road. After they arrived (safely) in Jerusalem, Ezra noted in verse 31 that “the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road,” pointing out that these were things that could have happened but didn’t, because of God’s protection. In combination, these two scenarios in chapters 4-6 and 8 show us the types of obstacles and opposition we will be up against.

Obstacles can come from anywhere, and could take the form of circumstances, events, or people, and can be both expected and unexpected. Ezra’s appeal to God taken together with his recognition of God’s protection points this out. In 8:22, Ezra foresaw the potential for danger and prayed to God for protection from the enemy, knowing that they would be embarking on their journey to Jerusalem. Then, as we have already seen, in 8:31 he gave credit to God for the protection he provided for them, “from the hand of the enemy and from ambush.”

We can draw from these verses that obstacles can come in a variety ways. They can be in the form of known enemies, but they could also be in the form of unknown enemies. They could be visible attacks that we can see coming, or they could be surprise attacks that come as an ambush.  They could be obstacles that we are anticipating (like a speed bump with a sign that warns us it is approaching), or they could be completely unforeseen (like a pothole that comes out of nowhere). The point is, obstacles can come in almost any form, from almost any direction, with or without warning.

Opposition tends to come directly from people, but we often forget that it can come from inside an organization just as much as it can come from outside. This is the picture with which we are presented in Ezra 4, after the Israelites have begun to rebuild the first time. In verses 1-2, we are told that “when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” They presented themselves as if they were on the same team, with the same values and the same goals. They tried to look like they were part of the same community, but in reality, they were intentionally trying to deceive, and their motives were destructive.

The same thing happens to us. People will try to assimilate themselves into our organization, or align themselves with us in order to be accepted, but with the motive of undermining our efforts or corrupting and changing the culture. Jude 4 talks about this, showing it to be a tactic of Satan, and reveals it as a pattern of allowing evil, then accepting evil, and finally rejecting good. This is the pattern that the opposition uses, claiming to be one of us but actually seeking to destroy.

Opposition can also come from outside, which is what we see a couple of verses later in chapter 4, in verses 4 and 5, when we read, “Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose.” Their opposition was obvious, clearly their intent was to frustrate and oppose the work, and their methods included physical and verbal attack, discouragement, interference and sabotage, and continual harassment.

This is no different from the opposition we will face. It may shock us to realize the extent to which people will go to hurt others (like the feeling of disbelief I remember having when our home was robbed, disbelief that someone would actually do that to another person), but we are in a world marred by sin, and people will oppose the work of God. Often their efforts will be intentional and planned, prepared with guidance and strategy, for the purpose of blocking, hindering, and stopping the work that we do. And when they have an opportunity, they will jump at that opportunity to cause us to fall (just look at verse 23, which describes how the opposition “went up in haste” as soon as king gave the order for the work to stop!).

The obstacles and opposition we face can be overwhelming and disheartening, and therefore we must be ready to handle it. Looking again at these passages, we can see a few things that help us to be ready; specifically, there are three action steps we can take. The first is to be pro-active, by planning for potential difficulties, like Ezra did in chapter 8 when he went to God for protection and prepared a strategic plan. The second is to be reactive, by responding in the right way regardless of how we are attacked. This is reflected in Ezra 5:11-13, in the Israelites’ response the second time that charges that were brought to the king against them. In their response, they told the truth, they put the burden on God, and they were unafraid to be bold about their faith. The third action step is to consciously and willingly submit all circumstances to God’s plan and timing. The passage from chapter 4, verse 23, through chapter 5, verse 5, show us this picture, revealing God’s intentional timing regarding when He wanted the work on the temple to be completed.

There is no guarantee that doing work for God will be easy; if anything, there is a certainty that there will be difficulty in work (remember that God cursed the work of man when He confronted Adam in the Garden of Eden). We will encounter obstacles and we will face opposition. But if we are prepared, and if we respond in the right way, and if we trust God’s sovereignty, we can handle whatever comes our way.

This is the ninth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

Week of October 10, 2016

“We are instruments in God’s plan; therefore, as we live out His purpose in our lives, we can trust His providence. We still have people to lead and a message to communicate, and we need to make sure that we are communicating His message and not our own, but if we are doing so, we can leave the results in His hands. In that message, we need to confront people with the need for change by providing contrast, but we also need to encourage them with the view of the future that creates a belief in its value.”

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 8)

Motivating Your Followers

For over twenty years, I lived my life in the same (over)weight range, always believing that I needed to lose some weight, but never really doing so. I tried a variety of diets and exercise regimens, but nothing ever moved me out of that range, nor did any of them ever become a long-term lifestyle. I finally convinced myself that I simply had a stocky build, and, in fact, I had developed a sense of pride about my larger size. And I believed that I was much healthier than I actually was. But then I was confronted with the realization that I was very overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, when my doctor found it necessary to prescribe medications to treat the effects of my poor health, and a family member confronted me on my overeating. I realized that I was endangering not only my own life, but also the care and well-being of my family.

It was then that I embarked on a journey that (literally) changed me into a different person. I changed some of my eating behaviors, incorporated several tools to help me maintain a daily awareness – most helpfully, an app on my phone – and gradually implemented moderate exercise. The results shocked me – I consistently lost several pounds a week, losing a total of 50 pounds in just under four months to reach my goal weight (and I have since maintained my healthier weight and lifestyle). My greatest moment of joy came when I was able to once again wear the leather bomber jacket that my wife had given me at our wedding 26 years earlier.

There were several valuable leadership lessons that I learned from this, but one of the key questions I wrestled with was that of motivation: why had I never been able to get myself to do this before? I had tried so many times, but could never seem to light that fire enough to follow through, and I could never seem to find the motivation that would drive me to change. But something was different this time, and I finally had found the discipline and desire to do it. I discovered the right motivation that worked.

I think this is a question that we all struggle with – how to motivate others, and how to motivate ourselves. There are plenty of theories and ideas about motivation, and I won’t claim to have the corner on an exclusive motivational secret, but I do think we can learn some valuable lessons about it from Ezra. Specifically, Ezra 4:23-5:5 provides us with a scenario that teaches us two important components of motivation.

This passage begins with the halt of the construction on the temple in Jerusalem, when those opposed to the work used the authority of the king to force the Israelites to cease their building. It wasn’t until sometime later, after a new king had come into power, that circumstances led to the restart of the construction. In between, Ezra 5:1 makes the statement that two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, “prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem,” which then prompted the Israelites to begin the rebuilding again (and this time, according to verse 5, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease”).

It seems that whatever it was that Haggai and Zechariah said, it motivated the Israelites to begin the work again, so we need to understand what they did, in order to learn the motivational lesson from their methods. To do this, we need to look at their respective books, Haggai and Zechariah, in which the first few verses of each book introduces the prophet and gives us the context of the messages they each shared. Haggai’s message came first, in the sixth month of the second year of King Darius’ reign (Hag. 1:1), and Zechariah’s message followed two months later (Zech. 1:1). I think that this order matters, because they had different messages that served different purposes. Therefore, it is helpful for us to see what those differences are so that we can learn from their example.

Haggai 1:1-15 provides Haggai’s message, which was one of exhortation, or challenge, in view of the present circumstances and need. In his message from God, he confronted the Israelites for saying that it was not the right time for them to rebuild the temple, and then contrasted the ruin of the temple to the nice homes in which the people were living (vv. 4-5, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: “Consider your ways!”). When Haggai spoke, he confronted the current culture, presented the need, and challenged the people to respond. His exhortation to them was that it was time to finish the temple; therefore the temple would need to be completed before God could bless their efforts (v. 4, 8).

Zechariah 1:1-6 provides Zechariah’s message, which was one of encouragement. In his message from God, he contrasted the past failure of the previous generations with the future hope for this generation, reminding them of their future reward and hope (v. 3, Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Return to Me,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord of hosts.). Zechariah encouraged the people with reminders of God’s promise and blessing, to keep the people moving forward. His encouragement was a reminder to them of Gods sovereignty, that He needed the temple, and so it would be built just as He had determined. Therefore his message reminded and focused on God’s future promise of His presence.

Understanding the messages of these two prophets provides us with two applicable lessons for our own leadership. The first is simply the steps – in this order – of exhortation, then encouragement. People first need to be confronted with the difference between where they are and where they need to be (and the implications of each of those two places; and sometimes – in Christian community – that confrontation needs to be a spiritual confrontation in response to a departure from God). Black and Gregersen talk about this same idea in the book Leading Strategic Change, when they identify the need to “create contrast” as the first step to changing people’s mental maps. Then, people need encouragement, to believe that they can do it and that it will be worth it. It is important that encouragement comes after confrontation, in order to lift spirits and inspire confidence, especially if, after the work has begun, people begin to get weary and worn (which often happens).

The second lesson for us is the clear reminder of God’ timing and plan. The context of Ezra 4:23-5:5 paints a picture of God allowing circumstances to carry out His ordained timing, in that the work was stopped until the specific time that God determined He was ready to start it up again. When that happened, nothing could get in the way or prevent it. And on top of that, Haggai 1:14 shows us that God intentionally moved in the hearts of the leaders and the followers at this point in time to begin the work again. Notice, however, that even though God was the one directing the timing, He chose to use men of God to share His message.

So for us, the example of these prophets can remind us that we are instruments in God’s plan; therefore, as we live out His purpose in our lives, we can trust His providence. We still have people to lead and a message to communicate, and we need to make sure that we are communicating His message and not our own, but if we are doing so, we can leave the results in His hands. In that message, we need to confront people with the need for change by providing contrast, but we also need to encourage them with the view of the future that creates a belief in its value. So, do you need motivation? Do you need to motivate others? Start with exhortation, follow it with encouragement, and keep your plan aligned with God’s.

This is the eighth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.