Millions of Americans find themselves facing the greatest struggles of their lives today, squeezed financially by rising energy costs, rising unemployment rates, fears of a national recession – or even a depression. The housing market has changed dramatically, dramatic stock market losses have taken huge bites out of once-healthy retirement accounts, and credit that was once easily obtained is suddenly in a lock-down mode. In addition, a new presidential administration means more change is on the way, and no one is certain where the change will lead. It adds up to a shocking new way of life: These are "Lean Times."
Naturally, "lean times" might apply to some other areas of life, too. Relationships can hit hard times, grief can leave a person in emotional ruins, and disease can attack with the fury of an armed enemy. The faith challenge is simple. If you face "lean times," you'd better have a good foundation on which you can "lean." The miracle? By leaning on your relationship with Jesus, a person won't just survive lean times. He'll thrive in tough times. She'll find victory, even in an atmosphere of loss.
Ezra and Nehemiah provide the biblical background, for they led a people facing far more difficult circumstances to a point of great success – in their work, in their national identity, and in their new understanding of faith.
In the winter of 1940-1941, before Pearl Harbor brought America into what would become World War II, mail arrived on the desk of a United States Senator detailing waste and profiteering at a new military camp going up in the Senator's home state.
The Senator was Harry Truman. In the first few months of his work, Truman was commonly known not as the Senator from Missouri, but the "Senator from Pendergast" - T.J. Pendergast being the corrupt Kansas City politician whose political machine first selected Truman for public office.
Had Senator Truman been the "go-along, get-along" politician most Washington insiders had taken him for, he would have let the disturbing letters go. But T.J. Pendergast - who would go to jail for tax evasion and later gamble away his ill-gotten fortune - had given Truman probably the best advice ever spoken to a newly elected Senator: "Work hard, keep your mouth shut, and answer your mail."
Truman did all three, and he learned more and more about widespread waste and corruption in America's build-up in what President Roosevelt called an "Arsenal of Democracy." At the time, the country was working to supply England in its desperate battle with Germany.
Incensed by what he read, Truman decided to investigate the matter for himself. He got in a car and drove around the country, alone. He drove an estimated 10,000 miles on the trip, taking two-lane roads as far south as Florida, through the Midwest and on into Michigan, visiting plants and military installations, taking notes on what he saw with his own eyes. He took no aides, he hired no planes, he visited no golf courses and he stayed in no first-rate hotels.
What Truman saw was even worse than the letters had described. Contractors were paid cost-plus to build plants and warehouse - and so they not only inflated their costs, but they built things badly. Surplus equipment was left out in the snow, to rust, owing to no controls and no accountability. Surplus workers with nothing to do were getting paid to sit around playing cards and smoking.
Truman came back to Washington and reported his findings to President Roosevelt, but no action was taken. So the Senator from Missouri made his own report to the Senate, reporting what he'd seen with his own eyes on a 10,000-mile road trip. It was a bombshell, and it changed everything, not only for Truman but for the country as a whole. It was a road trip that truly changed our nation.
The Senate established what became known as The Truman Committee to look into waste and excess in the war boom. The Truman Committee produced 50 reports over time, exposing flaws and suggesting steps to shore up the American war effort. Truman's work saved the country some $15 billion, and more importantly, untold thousands of lives of the men who would soon be using the machines of war after America soon joined World War II.
And one other thing. Harry Truman isn't known today as the Senator from Pendergrast, or even the Senator from Missouri. Instead, he is known as one of the greatest Presidents America has ever known.
(Harry Truman's Drive, taken from "Jeff Matthews is not making this up" blog. Also from "Truman," the biography of the president by David McCullough.)
It didn't take Nehemiah nearly as long to ride around Jerusalem, but he did, indeed ride around his city. With a Harry-Truman-like determination, Nehemiah road a horse around the ruins of his beloved city, at night, alone, and took notes. When he came back, he made his report. He took hold of the problem, cast a vision, and started a great process of change. Like Harry Truman's road trip, Nehemiah's shorter journey changed his nation, too.
In addition to sparking the rebirth of a great city, Nehemiah landed a place in God's history as one of the heroes of the Bible. In other words, he thrived in the midst of difficult times. While all around him seemed to be satisfied with surviving, Nehemiah excelled. He thrived. He was the Bible's version of Harry Truman, you might say, but thankfully, the buck didn't stop there. It continues on, right to this moment, and you and I have the same opportunity to thrive in lean times.
Perhaps this message is geared toward the person dealing with an important financial decision, or a career move. Or a high school senior deciding on a plan for the future. Maybe it's about a key medical decision, or even a struggle of whether or not to get married. Most of those decisions don't sound like tough times . . . but they are tough decisions. Lean times just make those decisions even more important. These decisions are too important to make a mistake.
Facing lean times? Want to thrive . . . right now?
I. Proceed slowly
Wait upon the Lord. This is not some kind of spiritual procrastination . . . rather, it's a careful study of the situation, and of what needs to happen, and most importantly, to see where God is going to lead. And it's so much against our tendencies!
If you know the psychological make-up about men and women, by and large, men want to fix things, and women want to talk about them. So maybe you've got a tough situation at home. Maybe it's about the economy, about lean times. Or maybe it's about something else . . . a major career move, for instance. First tendencies? Men want to fix the problem. "Let's DO something!" And women want to talk about it . . . want to get their emotions around it.
But in the Bible? The first instruction is to be silent . . . and to do nothing at all.
1:4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Psalm 33:20 We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.
Jesus once said it this way: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish'" (Luke 14:28-30).
But again, this is not about procrastination. It's about proceeding, about making progress . . . but doing so in a careful way. A surgeon and his or her team doesn't go slowly through a procedure because they're intent on wasting time . . . they go slowly because so much is at stake! And aren't we glad! Don't ever go to a surgeon who brags on the number of patients she's operated on . . . check out to see how they're doing! Haste makes waste, as the old saying goes, and the leaner the times, the more important it is to make correct decisions.
When lean times come it's critically important to make the right moves. You don't rush into decisions. You don't take, necessarily, the first option offered you. You make carefully thought-out decisions and lean hard on your own wisdom, and the wisdom of others.
Most importantly, you lean hard on the wisdom of God.
In data collected from over 20,000 Christians in 139 countries (though mostly in America) and between the ages of 15 and 88, The Obstacles to Growth Survey found that, on average, more than 4 in 10 Christians around the world say they "often" or "always" rush from task to task. About 6 in 10 Christians say that it's "often" or "always" true that "the busyness of life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God." Christians most likely to agree were from North America, Africa, and Europe.
While busyness afflicts both men and women, the distraction from God was more likely to affect men than women in every surveyed continent except North America, where 62 percent of women and 61 percent of men reported busyness as interfering with their relationship with God.
By profession, pastors were most likely to say they rush from task to task (54 percent), which adversely affects their relationship with God (65 percent).
"It's tragic and ironic: the very people who could best help us escape the bondage of busyness are themselves in chains," said Dr. Michael Zigarelli, who conducted the study at the Charleston Southern University School of Business.
Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky; source: "Survey: Christians Worldwide Too Busy For God," www.christianpost.com
In lean times, reading the Bible becomes more important than ever. And if you've been reading the Bible for years, all of that investment is going to come roaring back, giving you wisdom, giving you encouragement, helping you to proceed slowly . . . but yes . . . to make progress.
Part of that slower process is rather obvious. You've got to hear from God. That leads us to this:
Illustration: The story is told of an elderly couple who lived together in a nursing home. Though they had been married for 60 years, their relationship was filled with constant arguments, disagreements, and shouting contests. The fights didn't stop even in the nursing home. In fact, the couple argued and squabbled from the time they got up in the morning until they fell in bed at night.
It became so bad that the nursing home threatened to throw them out if they didn't change their ways. Even then, the couple couldn't agree on what to do.
Finally, the wife said to her husband: "I'll tell you what, Joe, let's pray that one of us dies. And after the funeral is over, I'll go live with my sister."
Let me tell you something about lean times and prayer. You can do a lot of things after you pray, but you shouldn't do anything before you pray. And watch the way the Nehemiah prayed. It's a combination of waiting, of proceeding carefully, and praying, all at the same time. At the beginning of his story, he says he prayed and fasted "for some days." (1:4) A little later on, when he's with the king, he actually prays as he talks!
2:4-5 The king said to me, "What is it you want?" Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king . . .
At this point, Nehemiah isn't proceeding slowly. He's past that point. He's past the fasting and the waiting and the listening to God. At this point, he's in the thick of a God-moment. The king has seen Nehemiah's downcast mood, and asked a question. No wonder Nehemiah prayed. This was his window of opportunity to save Jerusalem!
It's not a unique idea. To the believers in Thessalonica, Paul had written, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Pray continually. Pray all the time.
So when you're nervous right before the big presentation, or the phone call, or the visit, or whatever it might be . . . pray. Breathe a prayer before you proceed, and even as you proceed.
But take no short cuts. You can't go with an "instant-prayer, instant-answer" philosophy. You're not in control of answered prayers. God is. So honor God first by praying in the "proceed slowly" mode. Honor God first with the seriousness of waiting before Him, bowing before Him, even fasting . . . and then keep praying as you try to make the right decisions.
The value of prayer can't be overstated. Being alone, being alone with God, reflecting on scripture, and waiting on God is just priceless. Clarity comes in such times. Understanding comes in such times. And we should not expect such priceless gifts like clarity and understanding to come cheaply.
You can't see the stars when so many street lights, house lights, garage lights, stadium lights, shopping center lights, night lights get in the way. You've got to get out into the night somewhere, away from all the other lights, and then take your time and simply look up. Let your eyes grow accustomed to the night sky. You'll begin to see more and more stars than you ever imagined . . . as long as you create the opportunity, as long as you slow down, draw away and intentionally be still.
Prayer is like that, too. Want to see the entire, beautiful galaxy of God's grace, of God's greatness? It'll take prayer, and it'll take a lot of it. It'll take some silence in that prayer, too. It'll take some waiting.
Realize, too, that God is in charge, that God is in control. Just because we pray, there's no guarantee that God will give us what we want. He might say yes to our prayers, God might say no, or God might say . . . wait. God might have another plan altogether. But whatever the answer to prayer, we know that God loves spending time with us. He cherishes those moments we give Him.
In his book Good Morning Merry Sunshine, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene chronicles his infant daughter's first year of life. When little Amanda began crawling, he records:
"This is something I'm having trouble getting used to. I will be in bed reading a book or watching TV. And I will look down at the foot of the bed and there will be Amanda's head staring back at me.
"Apparently I've become one of the objects that fascinate her ... It's so strange. After months of having to go to her, now she is choosing to come to me. I don't know quite how to react. All I can figure is that she likes the idea of coming in and looking at me. She doesn't expect anything in return. I'll return her gaze and in a few minutes she'll decide she wants to be back in the living room and off she'll crawl again."
The simple pleasure of looking at the one you love what Bob and his daughter enjoyed is what we enjoy each time we worship God and bask in his presence.
III. Start where you are
Did you catch Nehemiah's job description? "I was cupbearer to the king. (1:11)
All work is honorable, and this was actually a very honorable job. It's the kind of respect you'd give a person if you found out he or she was in the Secret Service, charged with the job of protecting the President. This is the person who throws himself in front of a bullet, who puts her life on the line . . . the person who tastes the wine before the king drinks it, just to be sure an assassin hasn't tried to poison the king.
Nehemiah could have made excuses as to why he couldn't rebuild Jerusalem. After all, he wasn't a Levite. He wasn't a priest. He wasn't even a builder. He was a cupbearer! But like anyone who is called by God to a significant task, the feelings of inadequacy give way to the necessity of the moment.
You can only start where you are. You can't wait until some distant day in the future to get the job done, for that distant day will always stay just over the horizon.
I am a surgical assistant - the surgeon's right-hand man. At one point in my career, I lost my passion. I wanted a job with spiritual significance, and I prayed for that. Imagine my shock when God led me to a position in plastic surgery. Why would God want me in a hotbed of vanity? I wondered.
During my quiet times, the Lord assured me that this was part of his plan, and that I should wait upon his direction. So I obeyed, continuing to pray that the Lord would use me in this job.
The first thing I heard him say when I started my new position was, "Gather and pray in my name." There were only a few Christians who worked in the plastic surgery department, but I started with them. "I'm going to start praying for our workplace each Monday, 15 minutes before we clock in," I told them. "I'll be in Operating Room 2, and I hope you will join me."
We met each week, praying for our work, our colleagues, and our patients. Soon we were praying boldly for opportunities to witness. By the end of that year, God had answered many prayers, which included 10 friends who accepted Christ as their savior!
God has blown me away with his answers, and he has given me a purpose far beyond patient care. He expanded my circle of influence by transferring me to the main surgery department, where I now rotate through all four surgery departments in the hospital campus. I have been able to start several prayer groups throughout the hospital. Each group focuses on inviting the Holy Spirit to move in their department. They encourage each other in Christ, pray for opportunities to witness, seek God's will, and ask that Christ be glorified in their work.
I don't know if I'll always work in a surgery department, caring for patients who are under anesthesia most of the time I'm with them. But since I realized that I could advance the kingdom of God through praying at work, I have found renewed passion for my job, as well as for the opportunities for ministry it provides.
(Used by permission of Pray! magazine. Copyright © 2006, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.praymag.com)
IV. Seize the moment
Nehemiah prayed, "Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man," (1:11), and then he seized his moment.
Look at Nehemiah 2:1-9 (HCSB)
Nehemiah was ready, in part because his grief had motivated him. Nehemiah was ready, in part because he'd spend so much time and energy in fasting, in prayer, in waiting before the Lord. And to his credit, when the opportunity presented itself, Nehemiah seized the moment. The door cracked open, and Nehemiah was ready to go through it. He was sensitive to the possibility that God might be at work . . . so he had this razor-sharp edge of readiness that allowed him to seize the moment.
The Chinese symbols for "crisis" are identical to those for the word "opportunity." Literally translated it reads "Crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind." Seizing the moment requires the recognition that every crisis is also an opportunity for success. In the realm of faith, that could be a very expensive process.
A South African woman stood in an emotionally charged courtroom, listening to white police officers acknowledge the atrocities they had perpetrated in the name of apartheid.
Officer van de Broek acknowledged his responsibility in the death of her son. Along with others, he had shot her 18-year-old son at point-blank range. He and the others partied while they burned his body, turning it over and over on the fire until it was reduced to ashes.
Eight years later, van de Broek and others arrived to seize her husband. A few [hours] later, shortly after midnight, van de Broek came to fetch the woman. He took her to a woodpile where her husband lay bound. She was forced to watch as they poured gasoline over his body and ignited the flames that consumed his body. The last words she heard her husband say were "Forgive them."
Now, van de Broek stood before her awaiting judgment. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked her what she wanted.
"I want three things," she said calmly. "I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband's body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.
"Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.
"Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. I would like someone to lead me to where he is seated, so I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real."
As the elderly woman was led across the courtroom, van de Broek fainted, overwhelmed. Someone began singing "Amazing Grace." Gradually everyone joined in.
This woman understood that to be reconciled with God and to be reconciled with neighbors and enemies is to be free indeed.
(Source: Stanley W. Green, The Canadian Mennonite, 9-4-00, p. 11)
To apply an Old Testament passage to an invitation in a New Testament church, use a personal story of someone coming to Christ, concentrating on the "seize the moment," urgent-appeal aspect of conviction. If your people know the person who came to Christ recently, it's more effective than a story pulled from an illustration source. If the person is present, it's obviously important to have permission before sharing the story. Here's one I used in our church not long after the shocking death of a young adult. From the illustration, it's an easy transition to an altar call.
Easter came early in 2007. Really early. Never before, in our lifetimes, and never again, in our lifetimes, will Easter come so early. It was just in time for Scott Darby.
For on that day, at the end of a worship service, 28-year-old Scott decided that it was time. He hadn't told his family, he hadn't told his friends, and maybe he hadn't even thought about it coming into the service. But he walked down this aisle, and made a profession of faith in Jesus. When asked why, he simply said, "It's time."
Scott was seizing the moment. He called his father later and told him that he'd finally done it . . . that he'd finally gotten saved. He used that Easter invitation as his seize-the-moment time to profess Jesus as his savior. A few days later, he was dead. The only comfort at a difficult funeral was the recounting of how he'd felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and responded immediately.