“Nothing Beats the Real Thing”: Buster Keaton, the Art of the Gag, and How It Helps Our Sermonizing

I am a Buster Keaton fan.  Some of you know who he is, but many of you may not. His heyday was during the silent picture era of the 1910s and 1920s.  If you watch the video above, courtesy of Every Frame a Painting, you see how they dissect Keaton’s movies and, as the video title gives away, the art of the gag.

When it comes to the art of preaching, we do not equate this with the art of the gag–except when it comes to execution. Pulling off ways to effectively communicate what you wish to communicate, believe it or not, has certain overlaps between preaching and Keaton’s art on the cinema screen.  Let’s interact with the narrator.

Tell your story through action.  Tony, the narrator, observes that Keaton’s writing and film making are about communicating through action.  Few storyboards are used, as was so common in silent films, in an effort to keep the audience apprised of the story itself.  Keaton used as few as possible, letting the action propel the story.

As preachers, we are governed by the Word of God.  Did you see that important word in that previous sentence?  “Word.”  But preaching is about action, movement, drama, conflict, and conclusions, all of which are found in these Keaton shorts and feature films later on.  As preachers of the Word, we recognize the redemptive action God works in every line of Scripture, moving toward the person of Christ.  Drama?  Yes, given the grave disobedience of God’s people and the movement of God’s enemies.  But it all comes to a conclusion:  come to Me, repent, confess, believe, trust!

Placement of the camera.  When you change the angle, you change the gag (as you saw in the video above).  Camera placement is crucial for the gag.  Framing is critical.  So what does this say for preaching?

Where is our angle?  If our angle is simply about moralistic therapeutic deistic philosophy that permeates our pulpits profusely, we simply believe the Bible is about doing good (moralism) so we feel better about ourselves (therapeutic) and move about as if God isn’t active in the world or our lives (deism).

But if our angle is a Christocentric lens of Scripture, then our angle will see that in Christ we were made, we sinned bringing a curse into God’s perfect world, and are in need of rescue–to which the Scripture moves from copy and type and shadow to the real thing–Christ.  And, as the last line of that clip above shows, “Nothing beats the real thing.”

What are the rules of this particular world?  Keaton had a stringent view of what the rules of this particular world of his movies would entail–reality!  The ‘impossible gags’ he called cartoonish and were abandoned in the feature films.  So the more real, the better–and often to his peril, and our terror as we watch.

The rules of the world of preaching are simply the reality of the text.  We preach what the text says so that the people listening will heed what the text says.  The text tells us the indicatives of who we are, and the imperatives of what we as children of God must do.  The text as quickened by the Spirit governs this world.  Anything else would be ‘cartoonish’ from the preacher and for the listeners.

“Nothing beats the real thing!”  As you watched this clip, what’s your thoughts on the matter?  Do you see any other parallels from Keaton to the pulpit?  Let’s hear from you!

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From Pleasureville to Denver: Lessons I’ve Learned in My Seasons of Ministry

On  December 1st, I will celebrate (yes, celebrate) four years as lead pastor at Arapahoe Road Baptist Church.  This time of year always gets me thinking about where God has taken me in ministry.  When God called me into the ministry in 1992 (I was 20 1/2), I had no idea where that call would take me, but it sure came in interesting—often painful—stages to get me to where He’d have me.  The biggest place he’d have me venture is the path from significant pride to continued humbling.  It took a while to find God’s place for me—but if we humbly present ourselves to God, He will show us the ministry He’s called us to fulfill.

I learned painful but positive lessons over the years, mostly about myself.  Regardless of what arises in churches and in life, I have found that I am often my own worst enemy.  But thankfully, God is still working in me, saying to me as He said to Archippus, “Fulfill your ministry” (Colossians 4:17).
A little history, if you will.

My Pleasureville Years.  From 1995-1998, I was a full-time seminary student at Southern Seminary and a part-time music minister at Pleasureville Baptist Church in Henry County, Kentucky.  I was a mostly-city boy in a farming community.  I’d learn Bach, Vivaldi, and Chopin by day, then try to lead worship and children’s choir on the weekends.  The conservatory-model training I had in college and seminary made the connection tough—I just didn’t know how to be non-academic in how I talked and led.  I was just about to get the hang of it by the time I left in March 1998.  I learned I had to speak the language of the people, not of academics. Fulfill your ministry by being clear and talking to your people, not at or over them. 

My Clewiston Years (1998-2001):  After I left seminary, I was called as Minister of Music and Youth at First Baptist Church, Clewiston, Florida.  This were pivotal, wonderful years for me.  We had a great mix of older and younger demographics.  I was 26, not only leading worship, but direction youth, adult, and senior adult choirs, overseeing preschool and children’s choirs, all the while being their youth pastor.

My first six to nine months were some growing pains.  They were used to musicals, and I had never directed a musical.  My predecessor, Joe Glass, was very skilled at these things, and set the bar very high.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  It was then that God brought along Sean Scheffler, who knew how to direct dramas (and to throw a killer lock-in, by the way), so he began to direct while I directed the music—and it was a wonderful partnership.  It was there I learned that I didn’t have all the answers, but God would provide others in the church to help advance the Kingdom—thus helping them fulfill their ministry as well.

Halfway through my tenure there, God called me into the preaching ministry.  Having seen what struggles pastors went through, I did not embrace this.  Sure, I loved preaching (as green as I was), but I knew preaching wasn’t pastoring.  Could I lead and connect and love people—even those who disagreed with me?  It was there I realized that when God calls you to fulfill a ministry, he will relentlessly pursue you until you surrender.  So, in 2001 I surrendered.  I announced it with tears to my church that I adored in April 2001 with my last Sunday being  in June.

My Cox’s Creek Year (2001-2002).  I served for seven months at a church back in Kentucky that was just a poor fit.  And sometimes, you just don’t know until you’re there.  I followed a youth pastor that was a rah-rah guy who had 70 kids at this little church on Wednesday nights.  I was just a rah guy.  When he left, most of them left.  They had expectations, I didn’t fulfill them.  But, remember, God called me to preach.  I ran, he pursued.  I was at that church, again, as a music and youth guy.  That wasn’t what God called me to do.   I realized that being outside of what God calls you to do is not obeying His call to fulfill ministry.

My Highview Baptist Spring (2002).  After leaving that little church, I went and played piano at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville for a few months.  Had God called me into music ministry, this was a dream.  A band, 12 piece orchestra, 50 voice choir, and serving under a veteran music minister named Bob Johnson—it was wonderful.  It paid little, but it paid while I was looking for another ministry—but what?  As much as I loved it there and as much as I loved listening to Kevin Ezell and Hershael York preach, I was restless until I fulfill the ministry God laid on me.  I soon took another church.

My English Year.  At 30 years old, back at seminary finishing my MDiv, I took a church in Breckinridge County, Kentucky:  English Baptist Church.  A tiny, 25-30 member Baptist church surrounded by Mennonites.  What a great group of believers!  Our family of three drove 100 miles one way to preach and minister at that church over the weekends.  We conducted the first VBS there in four years; we had our first baptism there in at least three; we met a Lottie Moon goal of $500 with $575!  You might say like others did, “They could find a preacher anywhere—why should you go there?”  This was the ministry God called me to fulfill, and God had humbled me enough to say, “OK, Lord—where?  Here?  Yes, Lord—I will follow!” 

My Boone’s Creek Years (2003-2011):  This church, Boone’s Creek Baptist Church outside of Lexington, Kentucky, that’s 229 years old was the first church God called me to as a full-time pastor.  I was 31—a month shy of 32.  A child!  A child leading people old enough to be my grandparents.  I understand why Paul told Timothy not to have a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7).  I listened to my first sermons there.  Hoo, boy.  In finding my voice, I would try to be funny like Driscoll (but that came off goofy), passionate like Piper (but folks told me I sounded angry), thick like MacArthur (but I’d lose them because, well, I’m not MacArthur).  It wasn’t until 2005 that God gave me the voice He had for me.

But all along the way, I tried to heed the advice of other pastors who said, “Preach the Word, love the people, don’t change much at the beginning.  Then they will trust you when change is needed down the road.”  And God gave me eight wonderful years.  We contributed to helping a church plant in Hazard, we took our first international missions trips—in this case, to Trinidad and Tobago.  But even more, I have friendships that will last a lifetime that I will always treasure.  When I left Boone’s Creek in 2011, I had a special called meeting with my deacons.  One of them named Leonard said something I’ll never forget:  “Bro. Matt, everything you did, you backed it up with the Word of God.  I’ll always be grateful and I’ll never forget.”  I realized that in fulfilling the ministry God gives, if you don’t love the people where they are and given them the Word where they are, you won’t be able to take them or the church where they need to be. 

My Colorado Years (2011-?): So, here I am at Arapahoe Road Baptist Church in South Denver.  All of those lessons I’ve learned in previous chapters have come into play.  But even here, God is stirring and making me sense that this chapter will look markedly different from the previous ones.  Serving with people that are more and more buying in to reaching our neighbors and turning ARBC into a Great Commission missions hub is a venture I love leading and loving them through.  I’m serving with very Kingdom minded men on staff, in our association, and with our state convention.  I dream of setting up groups in our communities through our Sunday School and long to plant a church in an area that needs a gospel witness here.  I trust God’s Word and His Spirit will stir the spirit of our people, as He’s always promised to do.  I’m learning all over to seek His face and to fulfill the gospel ministry He’s given me and us at ARBC in Denver. 

To be continued…

What Hath the Gettysburg Address to Do with Preaching?

If you’re a Civil War buff like I am, then you may know that today is the 152nd anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address by then President Abraham Lincoln.  He was invited to attend the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery give some brief remarks to commemorate the battle that took place just months before (July 1-3, 1863) where almost 30,000 Americans (Union and Confederate) gave their lives for their respective causes.  Though Edward Everett, a great orator of the time, served as the keynote speaker and spoke for over two hours, Lincoln’s speech took only ten sentences and landed shy of 300 words, Everett recognized that Lincoln captured the spirit of the times better in two minutes than he did in two hours.

Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

So why speak about this on a blog regarding ex the positional preaching?  Simply put, Lincoln engaged in exposition himself.  He sought to expose the meaning, not of Bible as we preachers aim  to do, but of the Declaration of Independence.  He started off, “Four score and seven years ago.”  This 87 year marker took the listeners back not to the Constitution’s ratification (1787–only 76 years prior), but to 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Lincoln sought to take the readers ‘ad fontes’–to the source of the nation that declared that all men were “created equal.”  This issue did not simply go toward the South, but to also the Northerners who struggled with the ethics and rationale behind the war.  Racism was not relegated to the Confederacy.  The issue of slavery was left untouched by the Founders and the foundational documents of our nation, but the idea of all men begin created equal had far reaching ramifications.

Expositors take our document (the Bible) and preach not simply to expose the Bible, but to expose the hearts that listen to the Bible.  For many, a disconnect exists between His Word and our world–just like the disconnect existed between the Declaration of Independence and the declaration of most citizens living under that document.  And it took a Civil War to bring these issues to a head.  Did “a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” really come to pass?

Lincoln in his exposition called for an invitation, if you will.  While he recognized that the purpose of the dedication was for the fallen soldiers on that battlefield, he turns this on his listeners  Though quoted above, let’s isolate this understanding:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought her have thus so far nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here  to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth dedicated of freedom.

Lincoln knew that if he left this as simply something they did as soldiers, it would be left in the dustbin of history.  But he put it to the people–they fought, will we?  Will we move forward in such a way that the cost they paid would be worth it?  Or would it be all for nothing.  It’s up to you.

Pastors, we must not preach the Scriptures as a historic artifact, but preach it in such a way that the price that Christ paid on the cross and His work in being raised from the dead is worth the price as He is raised in us (Romans 6:1-4).  The price that the martyrs paid will not be in vain.  The sacrifices made for the cause of Christ would not be in vain.

What hath the Gettysburg Address to do with exposition?  Lincoln exposed the meaning of the text (the Declaration of Independence) and exposed the worldview of the listeners’ hearts.  Will we, having the power of the Spirit to lead and aid, do no less with the inspired text of Scripture?

How Efficiency in Your Organization Helps Fulfill the Great Commandment

I just finished Matt Perman‘s book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things DoneThis stands as one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read on productivity. It’s building on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but putting a gospel-centered productivity aspect to this. I love how he showed that being productive is not just about doing things for you in a self-centered way, but is an act of loving your neighbor. That chimed with me, and may well be the final catalyst for being productive.  Below is a choice quote from the book (p. 303) about why being effective and productive is not for selfish ambition, but actually is about ‘loving your neighbor.’

How does individual effectiveness lead to the greater effectiveness of the organization? It’s not simply that by doing your work better everyone around you gets more done and thus the organization gets more done (though that is true).

It is also because personal effectiveness has an impact on the spirit and culture of an organization, creating an environment that calls forth the best from everyone. This raises the sights of everybody and creates an environment that calls forth their best. This is good for everyone individually and for the organization. As Drucker puts it, “As executives work toward becoming effective, they raise the performance level of the whole organization. They raise the sights of people —their own as well as others. As a result, the organization not only becomes capable of doing better. It becomes capable of doing different things and of aspiring to different goals” (Drucker, The Effective Executive, p. 170-71).

Thus, “executive effectiveness is our one best hope to make modern society productive economically and viable socially” (Drucker, 170).

This book will stay close by on my desk for the foreseeable future.  It provides concrete measures to help you sort through various actions and projects that will come your way.

I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough.  Blending the purpose of preaching, pastoring, and productivity is what this blog is all about–and will help all leaders lead their organization more joyfully and less stressfully.  Who knows?  We may spend some time going through this book chapter by chapter.

Pandora, Preaching, and the Glory of Sermon Preparation

I truly love Pandora.  If you’re not familiar with this site, it’s basically a radio station of sorts based on your favorite artists or genres.  Right now, as I type, I’m listening to a station called “Jazz Holidays.”  But I have also developed a Bluegrass station, Dave Brubeck, Classical Christmas, and a slew of other types over the years.

One of the truly interesting aspects of Pandora is that they somehow have it programmed what song or artist is coming up–but I have no idea what it would be.  If I like it, I can give it a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’–the latter being that I will not hear that song again in the rotation.

Expositional preaching prevents the Pandora effect.  How?

  1. If you preach expositionally, you won’t question at all what’s coming up.  In your preparation, you have committed to preaching the whole counsel of God, and therefore you know that God placed that text in the order its in for a sovereign and providential purpose.
  2. As an expositor, you may choose what book or genre to preach from, but you do not have the option of a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’  You know that all Scripture is inspired and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), and therefore will engage in a Spirit-prompted mining of that text to find the gospel-gripped profit of that text.   
  3. The free edition of Pandora has ads that come across every five or six songs or so, in order to pay for the service and keep it free.  The message that comes from Scripture, with no ads at all–because that message has been sealed and authorized by One who has already paid for our sins and secured eternal life for us.  

While I am grateful for Pandora, this service reminds me of the glory of expositional preparation and preaching.  I know what’s coming, that it’s all profitable to make us mature and equipped for every good work.  And I’m so very grateful for what God has provided in Christ and His Word.

Using Evernote Has Been a Gamechanger

I love using Evernote.  This productivity site syncs between online and apps to keep all of my ideas regarding sermons, strategy, leadership, and any other major actions or projects that are on the burner.  I’ve also started using this to organize tasks and set reminders.

And now, I see that Google Chrome includes an Evernote Web Clipper, which is similar to Pocket in that this is able to clip information from a web page and send it to Evernote for future reference.  You can watch the video.

Evernote has three levels to choose from: basic (free), Evernote Plus ($24.99/year) and Evernote Premium ($49.99/year).  You can read up on what each of these levels offer.

Do you use Evernote?  If so, what do you think of it?  What’s your favorite feature?  If not, what app or program do you use to capture information, provide reminders, or work on projects?

 

What to Do When You Get Preacher’s Block?

You’ve heard of writer’s block, right?  The blank page just stares back at him–and nothing.  The ideas have dried up.  Inspiration and motivation have taken a vacation.

Do preachers ever get preacher’s block?  Sadly, they do.  They look at the Scriptures from which they are to preach, and nothing comes.  Few things are more frightening or discouraging.  Even expositors, who know from which book and passage they shall preach, have those holy and inspired words look back at them and sense little movement, little excitement, little… anything!  What should a preacher do?  I’ll list off a few things.

First, take a spiritual inventory of your personal relationship with Christ.  Are you still communing with him in prayer and study of Scripture even if it’s not directly tied to your sermon?  Are you only in the Scriptures because you are compensated for doing so?  Jesus is not simply your job–He’s your Lord and Savior.  It’s good to take a spiritual inventory to (1) see if you are in Christ, and (2) evaluate your relationship and your engaging in the spiritual disciplines.

Two, once you’ve prayed, get away from distractions.  For the preacher and pastor, this may mean getting away from the office or getting out of the house.  “The office?  That’s where all my books and commentaries are.”  And… your point?  Go to a coffee shop, find a quiet spot, and clear your mind.  I go up to a local eatery called Corner Bakery here in town.  Other times, I find a small hidden room in the church.  Once a year, I check into a hotel for a couple days, leave the TV off, and just decompress.  I’m thankful for our Colorado Baptists that have a camp in Monument called Ponderosa.  Pastors can take a night or two free of charge to get away, either by themselves or with their family.  You may have some places like this near where you live.  Ask around.  You’d be surprised.  And your congregation would be grateful.

Thirdly, read meaty works on the subject or the passage from which you preach.  Tread lightly here.  You could find yourself standing behind the pulpit, preaching Edwards or Spurgeon or Keller or  Piper or Warren.  Some do go so far as to preach other people’s sermons, salving their conscience a bit by giving full attribution.  Fellow pastors, they called you as their pastor to feed the sheep.  We already have an Edwards, Spurgeon, Keller, Piper, or Warren.  Go and drink from the fountain of the Spirit, but recognize that the Spirit has given us theological and pastoral giants on whose shoulders we may stand.  They may shake out the scales from your homiletical eyes.

Fourthly, ask yourself if you’re trying to be too creative or clever.  Are you taking the Word and its power for granted?  Are you saying to yourself, “Yes, I know the Word is there, but if  I just had that zinger, that one-liner, that illustration, then this sermon would have power!”  While illustrations and the like are, as Spurgeon said, like windows that shed light on the Scripture, the true power lies in the Word, which will accomplish all that God seeks it to accomplish” (Isaiah 55:11-12).  Maybe you need to back off your cleverness and get back to the pure preaching of the Word.

Lastly, talk to another pastor about this.  He may be on staff with you, he may be a fellow pastor in the area, he may be a mentor from days gone by.  God has given us friends who have journeyed this path as well.  You’re not alone.  Pray together with them.  Share with them.  Ask their advice about a passage.  Or talk about something completely  unrelated.  You can overthink yourself into a corner.

What are some things you’ve done to break the preacher’s block?

Seven Ways to Tackle Sermons Over the Christmas Season

Yes, it’s time to think about Christmas.  It’s only six weeks away, but the time to think about this is now.  Many of you may plan Christmas-based sermons for the entire month of December like I do.  Others of you may plan missions sermons (especially if you’re SBC, which is the time for emphasizing international missions) and preach a Christmas sermon just twice.  Twice?

Usually, two services around this time really matter during Christmas time are the service the Sunday before Christmas, and the Christmas Eve Service.  I include the Christmas Eve service because in my 20+ years of ministry and almost 13 years as the preaching pastor of local churches, I’m always amazed at how well Christmas Eve services are attended.  People who come to these many times do not come to a regular worship gathering.  So preachers should prepare as well for the Christmas season, especially Christmas Eve service Sunday-before-Christmas service.

As expositors, what do we do?

First, resist the temptation to discard or disregard or discount exposition in your sermons.  Our conviction is to preach the whole counsel of God and bring out the Book.  We believe that God intends for His Word to be shown and searched.  That should not change.

However, second, conciseness would  suit the occasion better.  While the background of the Magi would be an interesting foray into biblical history, this may not  time.  While flexing the lexical muscles of your Greek and Hebrew prowess may impress on other Sundays, refrain on this one.

Thirdly, be concise and be clear.  Roll out the main point (or the Big Idea, for all you Haddon Robinson fans), and stay tethered to it for the duration of the sermon.  Get to it.  Clearly.  Repeatedly.  Make it pass the 3 AM test, where you could call your listeners up at 3:00 AM the following week and ask them what the point of the sermon was, and they  could answer!

Fourthly, be Christian.  ‘Be gooder, do better’ sermons need to go the way of the do-do.  Preach about not what your listeners should do, but drive home what Christ has done.  Don’t pour on more law, but slather your sermon in God’s mercy and grace.  Do we avoid the sticky subject of sin?  No, for Christ came to save His people from just such a thing (Matthew 1:21).  But by him coming is the epitome of his mercy and grace put into action, culminating at the bloody cross and the empty tomb.

Fifthly, encourage them to come, and keep coming.  The church is the Bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the pillar and ground of the truth, and puts on display the manifold wisdom of God.  This is a great place to be, a place where sinners can come to be with other sinners who have been rescued by Christ.  Help them to take that next step in their journey with Christ.  And ultimately, you want them to repent of their sins and come to Christ.

Sixthly, once they come, encourage them to connectChrist has set up his church and various local kingdom outposts for us to join and be accountable.  Through baptism, membership, connecting in a small group, connecting with another fellow member of the church for discipleship and accountability as well will provide that connection so many in our world long for, and the church provides in Christ.

Seventh,  encourage them to contribute.  Everyone wants to belong to something and Someone bigger than themselves.  As they connect, they grow and mature to the next step of leadership and contributing to the work as ambassadors of the Kingdom.  Again, help them to take that next step.

What else would you suggest as an expositor over Christmas?

The Five Points of Criticism–and How to Respond

The book of Nehemiah is a fascinating account of how God instills a vision for His glory and the good of His people, then how God works in Nehemiah and the surrounding circumstances to carry it out.

But challenges arose–significant challenges that could only be withstood by a man whose heart was gripped by God’s call on his life. Nehemiah’s task was to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, for the destruction of the city and its walls left it exposed to enemy threat and pilfering. When Nehemiah heard the account of Jerusalem from other Jews who had visited there, he wept and prayed (Nehemiah 1:1-11). Through this, God galvanized him in approaching the king, asking for materials and safe conduct to rebuild the wall, and to rally the troops to go help.

But those challenges. They came in the form of Five-Point Critics. How so? Nehemiah chapters 4 and 6 give a blueprint for us to spot out the Tobiahs and the Sanballats of our walk. Here’s how to spot the ungodly, selfish critics that may come our way.

The quality of the workers. When Sanballat saw that they were moving ahead and rebuilding the wall, he said, “What are these feeble Jews doing?” Critics will go after your qualifications, your experience, your supposed strengths. What fuels them? Envy, jealousy, power? For Sanballat, it was anger and rage. Who knows what lies in the heart of man, except that the heart is evil and desperately wicked above all things–who can know it (Jeremiah 17:9)? The end product is discouragement.

The quantity of the work. “Will they restore it themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that” (Neh. 4:2b)? Critics see the bigness of the task. Christ-followers see the bigness of Christ who calls to the task.

The quality of the work. Tobiah chimes in: “Yes, what they are building, a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall” (Neh. 4:3). Self-explanatory, yes, but we see that these critics discourage by questioning the structural soundness of this wall.

The quantity of the critics. Critics breed more critics–it’s a contagious disease, to be sure. “But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward… they were very angry … and they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and cause confusion in it” (Neh. 4:7-8). Critics come together like birds of a feather to work to undermine God’s work and will. When God continues to move regardless of their complaints, they recruit more critics to fight and confuse. They will do whatever it takes to get their way and slow down the process of the sanctifying momentum among God’s people.

The cruelty of the critics. Nehemiah shows an enemy warned by Shemaiah that they would come to kill Nehemiah, so he should lock himself up in the Temple for protection (Neh 6:10). If they cannot frustrate the plans, they will destroy the one executing the plans–even if those plans come from God himself.

How did they respond?

  • Nehemiah prayed (4:4-5). (“Hear, O our God, for we are despised… .”)
  • Nehemiah kept moving (4:6). (“So we built the wall.”)
  • Nehemiah left the fighting to God (4:20). (“Our God will fight for us.”)
  • Nehemiah remember the great work and wouldn’t come down (6:3). (“I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”)
  • Nehemiah held fast, even when death would possibly approach from his enemies (6:11). (“Should such a man as I run away?”)
  • Nehemiah did his homework on his enemies (6:12-13). (“And I understood and saw that God had not sent him.”)
    Nehemiah prayed again (and again, and again, and again)(6:14). (“Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things they did.”)
  • Nehemiah persevered until completion (6:15). (“So the wall was finished… .”)
  • Nehemiah used it as an opportunity to teach the people to give glory to God for His blessings (Neh 8-9). (“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave sense, so that the people understood the reading.”)
  • They praised God by dedicating the wall to Him–putting into practice what they had been taught: give glory to God for His amazing grace (Nehemiah 12). (“And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.”)

So much more could be said. Criticisms will come, dear Christian. God warns us about this–and gives us the prescription to respond. Praise Him for His kind providence in Christ Jesus.

[Addendum: I just noticed that 9 Marks had a blog post from a few years back on the Five Points of Criticism on how to engage in godly criticism–worth reading, I might add.]