I am thankful to say that Solutionists seems to be striking a chord with the people of Good Shepherd. Here’s what one friend posted about yesterday’s message:
Exactly what I needed to hear. I didn’t realize it until it made me cry.
Another friend put it this way: You were speaking directly to me and my professional life today. Wow.
Those kind of responses are only possible through the Holy Spirit.
So here’s the message in written form. Entitled “Let’s Do This,” it has this as the bottom line:
You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to.
I bet this happens in your life because I know it happens in mine. Somewhere in your house or your workplace or your car – and for me, it’s the garage – stuff collects. In my case, it’s little slips of paper – receipts, notes, cards – that somehow fall out of the car and onto the floor of the garage. And the first couple of times I see it, I’m in a hurry or cold or trying to evade the cat and I’m like “well, I just get that later.” And then later turns into never and you know what happens, don’t you? I stop seeing it altogether. I get used to it. The dirt, the paper, the mess simple becomes part of the garage scenery and I stop noticing what shouldn’t be there and come to regard it as part of what should. Looks like this (AV hoarder garage!) And I so know that I’m not the only one. It’s why you have piles of useless stuff in your house, why your workspace is out of alignment, why your car doubles as a closet, and why even the tidiest, most OCD of you have a place somewhere in your life that is cluttered, crumbling, messy. Because you’ve gotten used to it.
But it’s more than décor, more than garage. It’s life. One of the saddest things for me to observe as pastor is the degree to which people settle, to which they get used to having stuff in their selves or their relationships that they should actually never tolerate. Because as Anthony Abbot said, life stops hurting so much when you give up dreaming it could be any different. Like I’m quite sure that a few of you here have gotten used to the abuse that happens in your house – verbal, psychological, even physical or sexual. Some of you have gotten used to being abused while others have become accustomed to doling the abuse out. You’ve gotten used to taking in the unnecessary vitriol of others or you’ve gotten used to expressing your vitriol much too freely. No filter between your thoughts and your words. Others here have gotten used to addictive behavior in your family. Either as the one who indulges in it (just a little!) or the one who enables it. It’s just easier to co-exist than to deal with it, so all in all you’ve gotten used to it. On the personal level, some of you have gotten used to a level of ill-health, losing your temper (Well, I’ve GOT this temper so I might as well USE it!), or even hopping from relationship to relationship.
Professionally, some of you who lead at work have gotten used to low-performers and have settled into an equilibrium in which it is easier to co-exist. In my own world, I know that until about eight years ago I had settled on a method of sermon design that was simple but had become stale. Actually, whole churches get used to all kinds of stuff that they shouldn’t. I remember in Monroe, early on in my tenure there, an apparently trusted, wise leader took me aside and gave me a little history lesson. He told how in 1984 he’d had to arrange for that pastor to leave. And then how in 1988 he’d had to do the same to the next pastor, a guy who happened to be extraordinarily well loved in that church. Then, the same scenario earlier in 1990. Now it was me and we were fine. I tucked that info away and thought, “ok, history noted, but of course I’ll be different and he’ll ALWAYS love me!” Nope! Six years later he told me it was time for me to leave that church (because Jesus only stayed on earth 3 ½ years & then his humanity started to “show out”; that’s why UMC pastors should move every 3-4 years!). I stayed two extra years just to show him he didn’t have that clout. But you know what the people in the church said about him? “Oh, that’s just _____. We’re used to it.” (Like just get used to that malignant tumor in choking your heart!) You know why that’s on my mind now? Because what do I hear this spring? That he’s at it again! 25 years later! He changed churches, but not patterns, and is in leadership at another church & trying to fire their pastor? Why? Because that guy is trying to make his church just like GS! And another church has gotten used to something that should have never been allowed in the first place.
Which brings us to Nehemiah. As in, the book of Nehemiah. As in, since the bible is a library, Nehemiah is in the memoir section. Here’s the scenario: it’s 445 BC, he is living in the lap of luxury in Persia (Iran), serving the pagan King Ataxerxes although he himself is a Jew. He’s really got it made if you value things like comfort and wealth and don’t put much weight on integrity and history. Anyway, Nehemiah gets a report that Jerusalem, the city of his people and his ancestry, a place he has most likely never visited, is now a city of ruins. It’s been this way ever since the Babylonians ransacked it 150 years earlier. Most particularly, its protective wall is broken and its gates are burned. And for some reason, immediately upon receiving the report, Nehemiah knows what he must do: go to Jerusalem ASAP. Look at 2:3-5:
3 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?”
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 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.”
Ancestors. History. Part of the people of God and since the city of God is in ruins, the name of God is in disgrace.
So after working up all kinds of divine courage (via breath prayers!), he gets his boss King Ataxerxes to grant him FMLA leave so that he can take a four month journey from Persia (Iran) to Jerusualem. Four months just to get there! (He ends up staying 12 years, but I doubt Ataxerxes thought the FMLA was gonna last that long!) Upon his arrival in Jerusalem – remember, a place of his ancestry but a place he himself has never laid eyes on before – look at what he does:
11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.
Secrecy. Because if any of his reconnaissance, any hint that he wanted to repair and rebuild what had been crumbled for so long – that would have started all kinds of trouble before he started any kind of repair. And after catching his breath for a few days, upon shoring up his physical and emotional reserves with Sabbath, Nehemiah gives the most interesting account in his memoir of what he does next in 2:13-15:
13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal[a] Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate.
Now: can we acknowledge that examining the “Dung” Gate doesn’t sound very appealing? And we also know there was a Hinnom Gate, which was the gate to the city dump, Gehenna, which is where we get the term “hell.” So: Dung Gate and Hell Gate. And we thought we had a problem with Watergate!
Not a great job! But circle that word “examine” in vv. 13 & 15. Other translations use the word “inspect.” But he is so meticulous! Surveying, cataloging the damage to the once-strong gate and once-strong city. Taking the time to see and to record what others have gotten used to. His fresh eyes record what the people of Jerusalem had become numb to! And when I see that part of the memoir, I realize: the Jews living in the midst of their clutter and failure had given up dreaming that life could be any different. They’d settled. They had gotten used to their mess and you never get rid of what you get used to. Whether it’s a garage on Hatton Cross Dr in 2015 or a wall in Jerusalem in 445 BC, the truth is the same: you don’t get rid of what you get used to. Nehemiah’s reconnaissance was the fresh eyes the people of Israel needed to point out what they could no longer tolerate.
Because look at 2:17:
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”
The best word there? We. As in I’m one of you. Remember: he’d been in that place for about five days after growing up 1000 miles north and east! And yet because of ancestry, because of history, because of divinity, it only takes him five days to become a Jerusalemite. His inspection opened not only his eyes but theirs as well, enabled them to see the damage they’d gotten used to. And I love the response in 2:18b:
They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.
LET’S DO THIS!! They’re on board! We see it now! We’ll stop tolerating! We’re gonna get rid of what we had gotten used to! And the rest of the memoir is exactly that story, how Nehemiah mobilizes (not monopolizes) the people for ministry and productivity. Because here’s what all us modern day solutionists need from our very first one: You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to.
I can hardly tell you how much I believe this – or how vital I think it is in both individual and organizational lives. Know why? I’ve lived it. In 2010 we’d been plateauing for a few yearshere and we brought in fresh eyes. Didn’t know it at the time, but he was our modern day Nehemiah! Told us things like we were “branding the bullet but not the gun”; meaning, our series were killer but the church had no direction. He showed us pictures like this: EMPTY GREETING and EMPTY EXTERIOR WALL SPACE and UNWELCOME PARKIGN SIGN. Opened our eyes to what we’d gotten used to. And now? Well, I happen to think our series still aren’t half bad but none of them are more important than Inviting All People Into A Living Relationship With Jesus Christ. Gun is branded, bullets support. And look what we’ve done with the wall: COME TO LIFE BANNER AV. Thank God we (spent the money) and had Nehemiah open our eyes to stuff we’d gotten used to. You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to.
Our recovery friends have a marvelous step that goes like this: we took a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. I love that. It’s really a way of saying that as part of addiction recovery, you take a merciless magnifying glass to look at your own stuff. What about you have you gotten used to? Smoking? Laziness? Cutting off your mind via video entertainment? Selfishness? What in your relationships have you gotten used to? Husbands: inattentive? Wives: complaining? Parents: ignoring? Singles: insecurity? Where have you settled? You know what the opposite of love is? Hate? No! Indifference. You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to.
Even in your living relationship with Jesus Christ, what have you gotten used to? Bible ignorance? Prayerlessness? Living in isolation rather than community? Listen: Jesus longs to be wanted. You take a spiritual, personal inventory of yourself and then gauge how much are you wanting, pursuing, longing after Jesus. He is simply waiting for you to want all of him. My prayer for this message has been that all kinds of eyes would open throughout this room and people examine their own lives as carefully as Nehemiah examined that wall. And you’ll stop settling. You’ll refuse to get used to that which you need to get rid of.
And can I give a word to bosses here? I’m not sure exactly how many of you there are, but I know of several. It’s for sure the hardest role I have – preaching’s easy, bossing is heard. Anyway, you likely need a Nehemiah to come and inspect your walls. Fresh eyes. Yes, I mean consultants. An outside look. There are things, systems in your organization that you are used to but that you likely need to be remorseless in furrowing out. You’re probably not doing anyone there any favors – either the people you are enabling to continue to underperform nor the others who are being held back. You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to.
And look at 2:18a:
I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.
So great. Nehemiah is able to be so ruthless in seeing what’s true because he knows he is operating under the favor of God. In that sense, Nehemiah is like a pro wrestler. (AV) Huh? Newsflash: the outcome of a pro wrestling match is never in doubt. Sorry to disappoint you. It’s staged, it’s arranged, the winner is pre-determined. You can’t bet on a pro wrestling match. You don’t go to your bookie — not that any of the people of GS have a bookie! — and put down money on tonight’s MMA. Get this: a pro wrestler doesn’t fight for victory; he fights from victory. That changes how you go about your business in the ring (or with the chair!). And Nehemiah’s connection to and faith in God was so deep, so sure, so rooted in history and ancestry, that he knew the results before they ever came to pass. Good Shepherd: you’re not fighting for victory; you’re fighting from victory! Your victory was won on the cross and sealed at the resurrection! So as you undertake the difficult personal, professional, and even congregational transition to You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to, may it be so here as well.