Friday, August 17, 2007


August 17, 2007

“We’re getting ready to pray here in a few minutes,” I announced to the woman refilling our coffee cups at our booth in a local restaurant. “Do you have anything you’d like us to pray for?”
“Oh yes, please!” she responded giving us her full attention. “You can pray for my son.”
During our weekly men’s accountability group meeting we have often asked those who wait on our table if they have any prayer requests. Usually they respond with some pressing need which is concerning them at the time, an upcoming test, a sick grandmother, a better job. Over time we have acquired a reputation for a group of Christian men who honestly care about others, especially those who work in that restaurant in a less-than-ideal situation with less-than-adequate pay. But this woman, the night manager and new to the job, took our offer of prayer as an opportunity to verbally vent an oppressive list of monumental burdens which were emotionally crushing her to death. Chief among them was her son.
“His wife has thrown him and their three-year-old daughter out of their home,” she explained. “They have moved up from the Central Valley to stay with me but I don’t have room for them. He has no job, no car, and very little clothing. I’m working two jobs, twenty hours a day, to try and provide for them. But I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
“I’m not sure what we can do to help, but we can start by praying,” I offered. “We serve a big God who knows your needs and delights in coming to the aid of those who cry out to Him. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine. Let’s see what He can do.”
Over the next few weeks we did what we could to help this desperate family. We paid her son to do some odd jobs around our house which I had been neglecting due to a tender back and just plain procrastination. We were able to help him get into an apartment and coached him in signing up for whatever assistance the government would provide. Most importantly we provided him with a Bible and helped him rediscover a faith which he had left behind years ago. Every Tuesday evening at the coffee shop when our men’s group would meet, the woman would insist on waiting on our table giving us an update on all that was going on in her life. Eventually she began to sit in the booth with us as we prayed over her. Our men’s accountability group (plus one) began to take on a different character as we learned to put our own agenda on hold and acquiesce to what the Lord had in mind for us that evening. Although I have been a “simple church” advocate for several years I was blown away by a comment this waitress made to us recently.
“Someone asked me to go to church with them last Sunday, but I always have to work on that day,” she testified. “Besides, I have my church every Tuesday evening right here. Didn’t you say it only takes two to have church? I look forward to this time; it’s the highlight of my week. I just know that God is present with you guys. Yes, this is my church!”
“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:20.
I have often quoted these words. I have even preached sermons on this Scripture. But I must admit, until she shared her testimony that night, I had still thought of Tuesday evenings as just our men’s gathering. Leave it up to the Lord to use a waitress to remind me of what I have been lecturing on for years! She is right, of course. Our gathering at the coffee shop is just as much a church as is our Sunday evening home gathering, which is just as legitimate a church as any other gathering at any other time in any other building in any other location on this planet where people are meeting in Jesus’ name. The lack of stained glass, professional clergy, worship music, program bulletins, padded pews and sermons does not make our gathering at the restaurant any less of a church. It’s not that any of these other items normally associated with church are wrong or unchristian; they’re just not essential. We have replaced these items with stained carpet, professional servers, canned “golden oldie” music, menus, padded benches, and praying for each other’s needs. We have learned that the only essentials for having church are Jesus and at least one other person.
Last week our waitress friend had a surprise for us. After we talked for awhile and prayed in our booth she told us that the cook wanted to speak with us. In a few minutes the cook, accompanied by another kitchen worker, ambled over and sat down in our booth. Apparently they had noticed how we were helping the manager and wanted to see if we would also respond to their needs. The cook spoke in broken English, his assistant knew only Spanish, but the Lord had brought them to us and I was grateful. I prayed silently that the Spirit would be able to communicate how much we cared for them.
We learned they both lived in apartments with their extended family members, one group in a city next to ours, the other in a town about 25 miles away. Neither family had any furniture. They were in need of beds, tables, chairs, mattresses, and a crib. I had no clue as to how to help them.
“I don’t know what we can do to help,” I answered in response to their request, “but I know who can. We serve a big God who knows your needs and delights in coming to the aid of those who cry out to Him. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine and He has obviously brought us together. Why don’t we talk to Him about this?”
The cook quickly removed his hat, then reached over and removed his helper’s hat. Somewhere in his past he had learned respect for the Almighty. After lifting their need before the Lord we exchanged phone numbers and they returned to the kitchen. The rest of us sitting around the table were left in awe of how God had transformed a coffee shop into a sanctuary and used a nondescript restaurant as a tool for administering His grace. We all had the feeling this story was just beginning. We had just placed God on the hot seat in providing for these needs. Somehow, we knew God wouldn’t let us down. There were two families out there who were about to taste the goodness and kindness of the Lord, and both of these families had their own circle of acquaintances with their own unique needs. Only God knows how far the influence of our coffee shop church will reach.
While reflecting upon our coffee shop church I have come up with the following three principles applicable to anyone interested in assisting in helping to reap the Lord’s harvest, whether here in Northern California or anywhere else in our western culture:
1. If you want to reap a harvest, you need to be in the harvest field. For centuries we have attempted to grow the kingdom by doing our best to attract others to our particular church gathering. In so doing we have been expecting the wheat to find its own way into the barn. I doubt if we will ever see the revival for which we have so fervently been praying until we learn to break free from our stained-glass sanctuaries and invade our sin-stained world, armed with the love of Jesus and willing to expend ourselves in sacrificial service to others. By the way, we can be just as trapped inside the walls of our home gatherings as others are in larger, institutional churches. Jesus reminds us there is nothing wrong with the harvest. The problem of a declining church in the west lies with the harvesters. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Luke 10:2.
2. Where you find the greatest needs, you will find the most fertile soil. Our Lord’s ministry was primarily with the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the hurting. He announced this fact near the beginning of His earthly ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19. Somehow we have largely forgotten this part of the ministry. “…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:40. It would seem that Jesus identifies with “the least of these.” So should we. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32. Reaching out to society’s “least” is not only planting seeds in the most fertile soil; it’s also following in the footsteps of Christ.
3. The Lord of the harvest will direct His workers, but they must be available, obedient, and attentive to His voice. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27. Had we been focused totally on doing our own thing in that restaurant (asking our accountability questions, reading our Scripture for the week, and praying for our own concerns) we would never have seen an anxious waitress overburdened by the world and desperately in need of help. Nor would we have been connected to two additional families who have their own share of needs. We are learning that the Lord must always set the agenda for His church, whether we are meeting in the sanctuary of a large institutional church, in the living room of a local home, or in the coffee shop down the street. It’s His church, His ministry, His order of service; and we are His servants, His harvest workers. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” – Col. 4:5. Forgive us, Lord, for the many times our agenda has usurped yours!
So, my fellow harvest workers, let’s keep our eyes and ears open. We won’t always know in advance when and where the Lord of the harvest might be about to use us as instruments of His grace. We could be pressed into service at a large church gathering or at a small, simple fellowship in a home. But it could just as easily be at the coffee shop down the street.

Bill, a child of God alert and ready to serve

Friday, August 10, 2007


August 10, 2007

"SWAT...56!" "WHAM...57!" "SLAP...58!" Throughout the night the sounds of the battle continued in repetitive cycles of fierce violence followed by the victorious cries of a valiant warrior adding up the bodies of the savage enemy who had fallen, crushed by a relentless barrage of strategic, deadly accurate blows. "WHACK...59!" "SLAM...60!" On and on the war raged with the enemy being significantly, systematically, and summarily smashed into oblivion. Blood and guts littered the battlefield, but still the enemy persisted in charging. "SPLAT...61!" "SQUISH...62!" Would this enemy ever surrender? Would this violence ever cease? Would we ever be able to rest in peace?
Where was this battle being fought and who were the combatants? Am I describing the ongoing conflict in the Middle East? No, actually this battle took place somewhere in the Midwest at a campground one summer in the 1950's. My parents, two older brothers and I were in the midst of a cross-country automobile trip from our home in Idaho to my grandparent's house in Indiana. It was my dad's brilliant idea to save money by camping out along the way. It was supposed to be a lot of fun, and it was, until we discovered that campgrounds were the favorite habitat of the enemy. We had never before encountered an adversary quite so prolific and formidable. We had never before fought against a foe of such enormous size, possessing so much ferocity and voracious appetite. We had never before been up against the dreaded, gigantic, merciless Midwestern mosquito.
Their attack commenced at dusk driving us from the picnic table into the bunker of our canvas tent. Unfortunately, by the time we were all safely sheltered our clever opponent had successfully infiltrated our headquarters with dozens of suicide bombers committed to drawing our blood or dying in the attempt. With our backs against the canvas, trapped in our own makeshift bomb-shelter, illumined by our faithful Coleman lantern, we determined to make our last stand. It was here that the battle began to turn in our favor, the enemy body count began to rise, and a Hoffman legend was born.
Dad, of course, was the general who wielded the heavy artillery, our one and only flyswatter. SWAT...SLAM...POW! We all cheered with each report of an enemy kill. I bravely tried to inflict my own damage on the swarming beasts but my hands were too small, too slow, and too clumsy to be of much good. Most of the enemy's flying aces seemed to congregate near the top of the tent, far out of reach for the flailing arms of three little boys.
"You guys need to get into your pajamas, crawl into bed and cover yourselves with your sleeping bags," the general ordered his troops. "I'll take care of the mosquitoes."
Hour after agonizing hour, blow by tent-trembling blow, our fearless leader, our intrepid general, our loving, self-sacrificing father gave up his flesh and blood in a glorious fight to the finish—and emerged the conqueror. Although the years have dimmed my recollection of the details of that historic evening, I do remember the thrill of being a member of such a victorious army, the comfort which came from the ointment Mom mercifully spread on my itching bites, and the secure feeling of knowing I didn't have to face the enemy alone. I'm not sure how many hours the battle raged. Long before the last salvo was fired and the last drop of blood was spilled, I succumbed to battle fatigue and the lateness of the evening and fell fast asleep. I'm also not certain of the final enemy body count. I know it was well over a hundred, but as the years have increased since the infamous mosquito war took place, so too has the body count. I do know this event is destined to live forever in the annals of the history of the Hoffman brigade, and at every reunion of such the incredible story of Dad's one-man stand against all odds is told and retold.
Why have I shared this episode of my family's glorious past with you? The parallels to our life in God's family should be obvious. We, too, are under a continuous, relentless attack by a ferocious enemy, an adversary far too cunning and formidable for our small, clumsy attempts at defending ourselves. Fortunately, we have a valiant Warrior who has entered the battle for us, a fearless Leader, an intrepid General, a loving Father, a self-sacrificing Lord who gave up His own flesh and blood in a glorious fight to the finish—and emerged the Conqueror.
Although our victory has already been secured, the battle continues to be fought all around us. Once in a while an enemy agent is allowed to pass through our Hero's hands and attack us. We feel the sting of sin followed by the inevitable itching of our consciences, or we are bitten by life's trials and become swollen with grief, frustration, pain and uncert ainty. All such symptoms are consequences of being wounded on the battlefield. It is during these times when we so desperately need the church, our local brigade, our community MASH unit, where the healing salve of God's mercy is applied. Here in our church family we are reminded that we are more than conquerors. Indeed, we have chosen the winning side and we can rest assured that we do not face this battle alone.
But most of this war is fought beyond our reach, in this "dark world" and "in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). In truth, we have no idea how high the enemy body count has risen in our defense. "SWAT...56!" "WHAM...1,000!" "SLAP...587,324!" We only know that every day our Commander-In-Chief tells us to cover ourselves with the blood of Christ and He will take care of the enemy's sting. The sting of death is sin...But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1Cor. 15:56-57.
I'm grateful that Dad has left me with a mental picture of my brave, ever-vigilant, heavenly Father faithfully swatting away at my enemy! He's your Father, too, you know. Have you invited Him in to share your bomb shelter? Or, better yet, have you taken up residence with Him? If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the Lord, who is my refuge – then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. – Ps. 91:9-10.
But there's another image I want to leave with you. A vision, not just of our Protector at work fending off all adversaries seeking to do us harm, but the serene scene of a small child sleeping soundly, peacefully, oblivious to danger, totally trusting in his loving Father, illumined by the light of his Dad's amazing, self-sacrificing love, while all-out war rages above. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. – Ps. 4:8. "SWAT...6,000,000 and one!"
Good night, sleep tight, and please, Father, don't let the mosquitoes bite!

Bill, a peaceful, trusting, victorious child of God

Saturday, August 04, 2007


August 3, 2007

Thirty-eight years later it remains one of my most terrifying memories. I will never forget the paralyzing fear which gripped my soul and shattered my meager self-confidence that day. With my heart in my throat and my common sense obviously nowhere to be found, I approached one of the most intimidating individuals I had ever met to ask for the greatest earthly favor one could ever receive.
“Mr. Crowder,” I began, attempting to disguise the quiver in my voice by raising my volume. Unfortunately, the enormous lump in my throat made the words burst forth in a high-pitched squeak. Clearing my throat I wiped the sweat from my forehead and started in again. “Mr. Crowder,” I repeated, this time making my voice sound as deep and manly as I could under the circumstances, “I’d like to ask you for the hand of your daughter in marriage.”
The father of my beloved stared at me with eyes so intense I thought he was piercing me through with a pair of lasers. He was a World War II veteran, fiercely patriotic and extremely conservative. His hardened features bore testimony to a difficult life striving to provide for his family. He stood before me in the living room of his Colorado home and leaned against his cane which supported an artificial leg, the result of an automobile accident years earlier. I cowered in front of him just out of reach of that lethal walking stick. Despite his disability and the almost constant pain he was forced to endure, he had managed to carve out a living for his wife and two daughters as a small instrument repairman for an airline. He had taken the worst that life had to offer and rose above it all. But asking him to give up his daughter was a blow from which I had no idea how he might react.
Facing him that day was a trembling, twenty-year-old music major still attending college some 900 miles away, a campus peace activist with long hair and a disdain for anything reeking of the establishment. As I look back on that unreal, mismatched encounter, if the roles had been reversed, I believe I would have shot the naïve, immature, impudent little kid who dared to steal my daughter’s heart. “Who does this low-life think he is, making such an absurd request?” As it happened, Joe simply stared at me with those haunting eyes and said nothing. The silence seemed to last an eternity which provided ample time to give birth to a flurry of disturbing thoughts in my already terrified mind. Am I imagining it or is his hand slowly closing into a fist? Is he waiting while he ponders how best to arrange for my demise? Is he planning where to hide my body? Just as I was about to run for my life he finally cracked his tight lips just barely enough to reveal the gold crowns on his teeth and spoke without changing his stern expression.
“Just how do you plan on making a living?” he growled.
After a sincere yet highly inadequate answer from his future son-in-law he responded with a question of his own, one which I have never forgotten, one which has become increasingly meaningful to me as I have endured the bitter-sweet duty of giving away two daughters of my own.
“Do you understand I am entrusting one of my life’s two greatest treasures with you?”
Joe’s voice had changed from that of a deep and threatening drill-sergeant to a cracked, impassioned, almost whispered plea. Why did his heart soften toward this less-than-sterling choice his daughter had made for a husband? Perhaps he was able to see me not as I was at the time, but as I could be with the help of God; not through his own eyes, but through the loving eyes of his little girl. His daughter’s choice had become his choice as well. In love he was able to look forward to the joyful day of our wedding.
For the last 38 years I have done my best to be worthy of his trust. As a father of two precious daughters I know the feeling of being convinced that this world has never given birth to any man worthy of being entrusted with either of these treasures. But following Joe’s example, I have found the will to hand them both over to the men they have chosen. I am proud to declare that my trust in both of these men has been affirmed and my love for them is stronger than ever. I have learned that true love, though often painful, must be unconditional and trust is a mutually shared commodity. To be complete, love and trust must flow in both directions. When I was reminded of this lesson the other day, however, I was taken totally by surprise.
In the midst of a prolonged period of fasting and prayer a few weeks ago I was convinced by a Christian friend to try writing down what I felt the Lord was saying to me. My wife, Babs, and I have been feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the harvest in this area and discouraged by our own inadequacies in making much of a difference for the kingdom of God. By seeking the Lord together in prayer and fasting we were hoping to receive some direction and encouragement in our ministry. I had engaged in spiritual journaling in the past and I was eager to pick up the habit once again. But I was not prepared for the impact of the very first entry in my journal. After reading in God’s Word one morning followed by a time of passionate prayer and worship, I simply asked the Lord if He had anything to say to me.
“Bill, do you trust me?”
There was no audible voice but I believe I clearly heard Him speaking into my spirit. After recording the message I wrote down my response.
“Yes, Lord,” I answered, excited to be communicating with the Divine yet somewhat apprehensive about what else I might hear. Displaying my own lack of self-confidence I quickly added, “But I do not trust myself.” The Lord’s reply flowed so quickly and effortlessly from my pen I really don’t remember it passing first through my own mind. When I saw what I had written I dropped my pen and stared at the words in disbelief.
“Do you trust me to trust you?”
You must understand that my faith heritage is very conservative. I grew up believing God no longer communicates with His children in such ways. For those of you who may be traveling a similar pathway, I apologize. However, I am convinced those words did not come from me. But, oh, how encouraging this message has been!
As I meditated on those words I began to explore all their implications. For most of my life I have struggled to trust God completely. Now He was proclaiming His trust in me. But why would the creator of the universe place His trust in this mistake-prone, weak-willed, sinful creature? Perhaps it is because He sees me not for who I am, but for who I am in Jesus; not through the eyes of the world, but through the loving eyes of His Son. I was reminded that true love is unconditional and covenant trust is a mutually shared commodity. To be complete, love and trust must flow in both directions.
So with what is God willing to trust me? He trusts me with His spiritual gifts and talents and with the ministry of the Gospel. …I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. – Jude 3. He trusts me to minister to those He sends my way who are in need of a tangible expression of His love. He trusts me to be a witness of the wonderful grace of Jesus to those I encounter who do not yet know Him. He trusts me to be a suitable home for His Spirit. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Sprit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? – 1Cor. 6:19.
Here’s the shocker. He actually trusts me with His Son! For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son… – Jn. 3:16. In my mind I pictured a star-struck Jesus going before His Father and asking to be bound in covenant with me. “I know love is blind but get real, Son. Don’t you know what a low-life this guy is?” That’s what I would expect God to say—but He didn’t. The Son’s choice has become the Father’s choice as well. The love of His Only Begotten covers all my faults and God is pleased to welcome me into His family as one of His trusted sons. As both the Father of the bride and the Groom, He is looking forward to the wedding celebration soon to come and an eternity of glorious joy to follow. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. – Rev. 19:7.
How does it change your view of yourself to realize that God has placed His trust in you; that even as you struggle to believe in Him He has declared His belief in you; that while you strive to have confidence in His unfailing love, He has no problem having confidence in you; that He has faith in you, hope in you, and vital ministry assignments for you; that He loves you more than you can possibly imagine, even after the times when you fail Him?
What He spoke into my heart that morning He says to each one of us. “Do you trust me to trust you?” I don’t know about you, but knowing this makes me desire to be all the more worthy of His trust, and all the more faithful with the ministry He has entrusted to me. We love because he first loved us. – 1Jn. 4:19.

Bill, a trusting and trusted child of God