Friday, November 30, 2007


November 30, 2007

It was one of my most embarrassing moments in front of an audience. On a Sunday morning during church a few years back I was providing the special music during worship, playing my guitar and singing. There was nothing new here; I had done the same many times. But suddenly this moment in the spotlight turned into my worse nightmare. I had forgotten the words to the song. Regrettably, this just happened to be the one and only time my wife, Babs, and I have endeavored to sing together. And to make this faux pas even more inexcusable the song we were attempting to perform was an old-time favorite, “The Old Rugged Cross,” one which everyone in the audience would recognize and probably be silently mouthing the words along with us.
It was one of the few times in my life I have been struck with a devastating case of stage fright. I wasn’t concerned about my own performance but I was terrified that Babs might mess up her part. I had tried to talk her out of performing along with me but she insisted on being a part of the hapless duet. My fear of her possible failure caused me to draw a blank when it came time to croon the familiar words I had grown up singing, words that I had long before committed to memory, words that could be recalled at a moment’s notice almost anywhere, almost anytime, but not with my wife by my side in front of that audience.
For a while I faked a guitar interlude playing the same chord progression over and over again hoping the words would suddenly pop into my mind. After the monotonous guitar strumming had droned on for over a minute, however, most everyone began to suspect that something had gone terribly wrong. Fortunately Babs, with a look of utter amazement and disgust in her eyes, eventually caught on to my plight and began singing the words alone. With her leading the way I was able to join in and finish the sorry performance. It was a moment I will likely never live down, and one I certainly will never forget. Adding to my misery, I have been blessed with a group of wonderful friends who were in attendance that day who thoroughly enjoy reminding me of the time I was struck dumb by stage fright.
Have you ever been tongue-tied or suffered a case of stage fright and become unable to speak? Perhaps you have been stricken with a case of laryngitis. If so, you understand how terribly frustrating it is being unable to communicate. It is also frustrating to the would-be listener who may want or need to hear what we’re trying to say. My own communication nightmare came to my mind again the other day, not by a friend meaning to have some fun at my expense, but by God’s Word. While reading through the Christmas story I came across a kindred spirit, another servant of God performing in the Lord’s house who was suddenly, unexpectedly silenced.
I am referring to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Scripture tells us he had a communication problem, not due to illness or stage fright, but due to unbelief. While he was performing his priestly duty in the temple, the angel Gabriel announced to him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear him a son. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:17. But far from being overjoyed at the news, Zechariah had serious doubts. After all, they were both very old, well past the years for being new parents. Perhaps he was concerned for his wife and uncertain if she could fulfill her part of this “duet.”
Most likely, however, he just didn’t believe the angelic messenger. How could God make a dead womb live again? And why would God choose a relatively unknown, unexceptional, elderly couple like he and Elizabeth to bear such responsibility? When Zechariah expressed his doubts, Gabriel pronounced judgment. He would be silent, unable to speak until the time the angel’s word was fulfilled. He was struck dumb by unbelief. My memory lapse lasted only a minute or two. Zechariah had to endure his shame for nine long months. I can only imagine how embarrassing that must have been.
The silence of Zechariah was shouting to me from the pages of my Bible. In the deafening roar of his dumbness I believe there is a message ringing loud and clear for the church today. Like the father of John the Baptist, we have an incredible story to tell, the story of a miraculous birth. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6. Yet many of us never repeat this miraculous message, not to our work mates, not to our neighbors, not to those who service our cars or wait on our tables or ring up our groceries, not even to our families. Why the silence? I’m afraid most of us can’t legitimately use illness as an excuse. I suppose stage fright is a factor. But I wonder how we can be so vocal about advertising the virtues of our favorite political candidate, or arguing about the needs of our favorite sports team, yet be struck so dumb when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
I think the real reason we don’t communicate the “greatest story ever told” is, like Zechariah, we suffer from unbelief. We can’t imagine that God would choose such relatively unknown, unexceptional, unqualified individuals as ourselves to shoulder the responsibility of sharing such a remarkably important message. We don’t believe we can tell the story adequately or convincingly. We don’t believe others really want to hear us. We don’t believe what we say could make any difference. We don’t believe it’s our job to do it. We don’t believe God can empower us to speak His message, or that His power indwells the message itself, or that the message has the power to open hearts and change lives.
So, like Zechariah, we remain silent, struck dumb by unbelief. But unlike Zechariah, our silence is self-imposed; our deafness, self-inflicted; our shame, self-made. Like the father of John the Baptist we have failed to fully accept and pass along the message of the miracle birth, the story of the arrival of grace and peace. But unlike this first century doubter, we are not being punished for our unbelief. Or are we? Perhaps the waning power and influence of the body of Christ in this society is a type of judgment the Lord has placed upon us. Are we the victims of our own silence?
Contrary to popular belief, the world is filled with ears eager to hear the sweet melody of peace on earth. The Holy Spirit is already playing the appropriate accompaniment, over and over again, waiting for us to break our silence and sing the words of the good news. They are familiar lyrics; we have sung them regularly since we were babes in Christ. The Lord Himself, our duet partner, is longing for us to join Him in the beloved refrain.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come; let earth receive her King:
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room. And heav’n and nature sing.
I’m afraid ignorance of the words is a poor excuse and a momentary lapse of memory is, well, momentary. How can stage fright be a problem when the Lord is standing beside us singing along? “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:19-20.
As long as there are people on this planet who haven’t heard the message, we (each one of us, no matter how seemingly insignificant, unqualified, unknown, unexceptional, or tone-deaf) have been called to sing out the good news. Every believer in Christ has been commissioned by God to sing the same song given to John the Baptist, to go before the Lord in the power of His Spirit, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” How frustrating it must be for those who desperately need to hear the song, who are longing for a message of peace. This time of year they certainly can hear very well the sounds of cash registers, frantic shoppers, and dime-store Santa’s. But when it comes to the needed lyrics of hope, will they hear only the sounds of silence?
By the way, when Zechariah did speak, nine months of frustrated silence burst forth in a wondrous song of praise. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” – Luke 1:68. Wouldn’t it be great if our voices, after years of silence, suddenly burst forth in praise! Would not the world take notice? Would not multitudes be moved to join the chorus? Christmas is a beautiful season filled with great opportunities to communicate the message. I pray for boldness in our witness. And I pray we won’t be too dumb to speak!

Bill, a child of God, no longer too dumb to speak

Saturday, November 17, 2007


November 16, 2007

“Uh-oh, that can’t be good,” I announced with alarm as we pulled into our driveway after a shopping trip. From underneath the garage door a substantial river of sudsy water was flowing down the driveway and into the gutter in front of our house. It was as though from somewhere upstream a dam had burst and a torrential flood was cascading down an ancient river valley which just happened to flow right through the middle of our garage. In reality the reservoir of water that was suddenly released came not from some army corps of engineers’ project in our community but rather from an outdated, inefficient washing machine that should have been repaired or replaced years ago.
“It looks like our washing machine is on the fritz again,” sighed my wife, Babs.
“Yeah, and we’ve got a humungous clean-up waiting for us,” I added. “I’m scared to death to look at the damage in the garage. I guess that’s what we get for procrastinating in taking care of the clutter that has collected out there. Now we have no choice but to take the rest of our weekend and attempt to bring some order to the chaos.”
“I vote we just throw it all away,” recommended Babs. “We could push it all out to the curb and call for an extra trash pick-up. That would make our clean-up task a lot easier.”
“Nonsense,” I replied a little repulsed at the thought. “There are good reasons as to why we’ve been saving all that stuff. I’m certain a lot of it can still be redeemed.”
However, my first glance at the damage made me wonder if Babs’ idea wasn’t the more practical way to go. The washing machine was sitting a good five feet from its normal perch. Only the intake water hoses and the electric cord had prevented it from crashing through the garage door and strolling on down the street. For years we had suffered with this finicky contraption knowing that if the load of laundry wasn’t carefully balanced the action of the agitator followed by the vibrations of the spin cycle would cause the machine to “walk” away from the wall pulling out the drain plug and releasing the contents onto the floor of the garage. That particular day we had started doing a load of laundry and then left to go to the store failing to stick around long enough to make sure the load was properly balanced. To make matters worse we had selected the “extra rinse” option which had doubled the usual amount of water being released out the drain pipe. The result was nothing short of catastrophic.
Once the water had found its way out of the drain pipe it celebrated its new-found freedom by spreading out across the floor and inundating most of the garage in a mad dash to the door, the gutter, and eventually to San Francisco Bay. In the process the newly formed and recently christened “Dirty Laundry Creek” managed to soak several boxes of books we had saved to one day give away, camping gear we had neglected to put away since our last outing, old furniture, old clothing, old music, painting supplies, and a plethora of just plain junk. I was amazed at how the water managed to find its way into every nook and cranny of our garage.
“It’s going to take a miracle to clean up this mess,” I proclaimed shaking my head. “But I’m not about to throw everything away without at least attempting to reclaim some of it.”
Incredibly, after only two days of wielding mop and push broom, rags and “elbow grease,” the impossible disaster had been vanquished. Those items which were salvageable were cleaned and put away and the rest was thrown into the dumpster. The garage was cleaner than it had been in years including the floor which was unintentionally “laundered” in the process. What we had at first thought to be a catastrophe of epic proportions turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The apparent misfortune had forced us to finally break down and accomplish what we had needed to do for years.
The flooding of “Dirty Laundry Creek” came to mind recently as I was meditating on the phrase “liquid church” which is cropping up frequently in the simple church movement. As we have chronicled many times, roughly one million believers are fleeing from the institutional church every year in this country alone. Rather than having lost faith in God, these spiritual refugees have lost faith in the institutional church’s ability to enable them to accomplish what they are convinced God is calling them to do. In addition, thousands of pastors are leaving the ministry every month for a wide variety of reasons. Many of them have become hopelessly disillusioned over an institution which seems to be highly ineffective at making a difference in the surrounding community. Others have been forced out by well-meaning yet demanding church leaders who possess unrealistic expectations about the “hired servant” they have commissioned to make their church another “Willow Creek Community” or “Saddleback Community.” Still others have experienced debilitating burn-out over attempting to fulfill a role which is neither Biblical nor practical.
At first glance the torrential exodus from the “legacy” churches in this country might appear to be catastrophic. A cataclysm of this magnitude is bound to create a great deal of havoc both within the church as well as within the surrounding community. One might even wonder how this mess will ever be cleaned and the damage to the body of Christ repaired. However, as a believer who has been caught up in the out flowing current and as a pastor who has been flooded out of the institutional church, I have a completely different take on this apparent disaster. I believe God is simply forcing us to accomplish what we should have been doing all along.
Please don’t get me wrong. In no way am I condemning the local churches in our communities. What I am about to share applies equally as much to house churches and cell churches as it does to mega churches. It is not so much the size of the institution that is at fault here, but rather the attitude. It is the mind-set that insists on attempting to advance the kingdom of heaven by attracting all the “dirty laundry” of the community into the “washing machine” of the church where it is cleansed and re-cleansed, week after week, year after year, getting agitated and spun by sermons and ceremonies until the clothing has been worn out, the garments have been frayed, and the excitement has long since faded. This strategy has proven in modern times to be overwhelmingly ineffective at producing any genuine, lasting, community transformation.
At the risk of appearing heretical allow me to suggest that the deluge of believers out of our churches is a “God thing” and is absolutely essential if we have any chance of fulfilling the Great Commission in the near future. As I have said before, Jesus did not tell us to “go and plant churches in every nation.” The command is to “…go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19. Earlier in His ministry he declared “…I will build my church…” – Matthew 16:18. Somehow in the last two thousand years we have migrated from a church focused on outreach to one bent on ingathering, from a missional to an attractional mind-set.
Even though the institutional churches in the world as a whole are declining in attendance and influence, the body of Christ is growing faster than it has since the days of the Book of Acts. How can this be? The Holy Spirit has been agitating believers within the church convincing them that their church experience is out of balance with the way their faith is being practiced beyond the stained glass. The Lord is shaking up the “washing machine” and spinning His followers out into the world to inundate their communities with practical ministries exhibiting the love of Christ in tangible ways. As a result many messed-up, hurting souls, individuals once destined for the dumpster of society, who might never have found their way to the “washing machine” are being cleaned up and salvaged. Families are being reclaimed from the world, criminals and gang members are being redeemed, and whole neighborhoods are being laundered. The church of Christ is reaching into hidden nooks and crannies, soaking into areas which have never before been touched by the Gospel. It is a phenomenon we call “liquid church.”
With great embarrassment I must confess, in the past I have kept careful attendance records of our house church. For years as an institutional church pastor I lived and died according to such statistics. Unfortunately I found it all too easy to carry the same obsession into simple church. But the Lord has helped me understand that what takes place during our weekly gatherings is only a small part of the church. I now try to chronicle all the face to face connections Babs and I make during the week, not as an exercise in boasting over how many lives our ministry is touching, but as a reminder that our primary focus is outside the walls of our home. I am learning to keep my eyes open for any opportunity to serve.
A few days ago I stopped in the midst of a music lesson and prayed with one of my piano students who was concerned about her cousin stationed in Iraq. Can you see the water flowing? Following another piano lesson Babs and I spent some time praying with the student’s father concerning his wife who was diagnosed with breast cancer. We counseled with him sharing our own experiences in traveling down the same road. Watch out, the water is getting deeper. Last Thursday we recruited two Spanish speaking friends of ours and paid a visit to a needy Hispanic family in a neighboring town. Babs was able to get their new computer (a donation from another believer) up and running after which we gathered around their dining room table and feasted on the pizza we had brought for the occasion. A passion-filled time of prayer capped off our visit. Run for your lives; this is turning into a flash flood. Last week some close friends of ours stopped by for a visit and stayed the night. The next morning, prompted by our cell phone alarms going off at 10:02 am, we entreated the Lord by lifting up the Luke 10:2b prayer together. “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. Don’t attempt to struggle against the swiftness of this current. Just go with the flow!
It seems as though we are always encountering waitresses who need prayer, couples who need counseling, young people who need encouragement, and the poor who need a handout. In addition, during the last several years Babs has facilitated a local breast cancer support group and I have volunteered as a police chaplain. Many doors of opportunity have opened through these pursuits. What is the common denominator amongst all these varied activities? None of them has occurred in a church building during a regularly scheduled gathering of believers. And yet, each encounter was just as legitimately “church” as is any Sunday morning worship service. Somehow I missed the Scripture that says you must have a song service, followed by some special music, followed by an offering, followed by a sermon, followed by announcements, followed by a prayer, in order to qualify as church. The difference is, what we are experiencing is “liquid church,” agitated and spun out of the institutional variety by the Holy Spirit, spreading into every nook and cranny of our society in order to penetrate the love of God deep into the chaos, clutter, and filth of the world.
So where and when does “liquid church” take place? Church is in session whenever we see an opportunity and hear the Lord calling us to serve. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15-16. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” – Colossians 4:5.
If the Spirit begins agitating your church and believers begin pouring out the drain pipe it may not be the terrible disaster you think it is. The Lord just might want the contents to escape in order to flood the local community with living water. Perhaps the better strategy would be for churches to train their members in “flash flood ministry,” pull the drain plug themselves, and release the flow giving their blessings to those caught up in the outward current. Far from being a catastrophe, a flood of “liquid church” is essential in order to see churches becoming unified, revivals catching fire, lives being transformed, and nations being discipled. Please, Lord, let the water flow!

Bill, a child of God caught up in the flow

Saturday, November 10, 2007


November 9, 2007

It was the most ambitious construction project in the history of the planet. Experts in architecture, engineering, and various building techniques had gathered together from many surrounding countries along with a crew of thousands to erect the world’s tallest skyscraper. It would have been man’s greatest achievement. Tragically, their blueprints had one fatal design flaw. The purpose of the structure was to bring glory to mankind, not to God.
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves…” – Genesis 11:4.
When God saw their intentions He used the incident to confuse their language, divide their cultures, and scatter them across the face of the earth. Instead of being a project to unite the peoples of the world, it became a colossus of confusion, a source of separation, a tower of division. I’m referring, of course, to the tower of Babel. Last night as I lay in bed trying in vain to fall asleep the Lord brought the historic tale to my mind and revealed its significance to what we have been experiencing in recent weeks within the simple church movement and to what I had just witnessed earlier that same evening.
We had gathered for church in the East Bay community of San Pablo at the home of some Hispanic friends of ours. Two days before when I spoke with Carlos at the restaurant where he works he mentioned what we would be eating that night.
“I’m going to fix ‘mole’,” he said with no little amount of pride. “It is my favorite dish.”
“Remember, Carlos, I don’t handle spices very well,” I cautioned. “You’re going to be feeding perhaps the wimpiest tongue on the planet! I try to steer away from even normal table salt because it’s too spicy for me.”
“Don’t worry, Bill,” he assured me. “I’m going to make it real mild. You will love it!”
With great anticipation along with some unsettling concerns my wife and I drove the 35 miles to San Pablo to fellowship with this wonderful family. Before dinner Babs asked Carlos’ wife how “mole” (pronounced moh-leh) was made.
“Oh, it’s a sauce made in different ways depending on where you live within Mexico,” responded Susanna. “My family makes it very sweet with chocolate.”
For an instant I breathed a sigh of relief thinking I might just live through the evening. Unfortunately, my relief was quickly dispatched by her next comment.
“Carlos’ family likes it very spicy with many different kinds of ground up chili.”
“So who is cooking tonight?” I asked nervously.
“Oh we are letting Carlos’ mom cook tonight in honor of her visiting us from Mexico.”
Immediately my stomach began to tie itself in knots in anticipation of the fiery ordeal it was about to endure. As we sat down at the dinner table and a plate of steaming food was placed in front of us, but not in front of Susanna or her own mother, I grew increasingly alarmed.
“Are you not eating anything?” I asked.
“Oh, we already ate something else before you arrived,” Susanna answered. “We don’t care for ‘mole’ being served this way. It’s a little too spicy for us.”
I’m doomed, I thought to myself. If these with Hispanic palates believe this is too spicy how will I ever come out of this with my intestines intact? But the Lord reminded me of the passage of Scripture we have been studying as we are learning to follow Him into the harvest.
When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you…” – Luke 10:5-6.
Okay, Lord, I prayed. We are following your directives. Help us manage to swallow this food without gasping for breath and calling the fire department.
Surprisingly (thank you, Jesus!), I was able to handle the flaming fare without too much trouble. It was actually very delicious although it did burn my lips and clean out my sinuses. During the meal, as I repeatedly wiped the tears from my eyes and blew my nose, Carlos’ mother pulled out some ancient photographs of her children and proudly showed them to us. We all laughed at scenes of Carlos as a curly-haired infant in a dish pan getting a bath.
We are discovering the Lord’s wisdom in teaching us to gather around the dinner table in the home of a “person of peace.” There is just something about sharing a meal that draws people together, even those from radically different backgrounds, and opens up hearts to the message of the Gospel. After dinner I broke out my guitar and we sang songs from two different cultures. We all laughed as we strained our memories to come up with the lyrics to old sixties’ rock ‘n roll tunes. Carlos’ mother and brother spoke almost no English but I could tell they thoroughly enjoyed the music. When we began to sing some of the worship songs popular with our own home group Susanna did her best to translate the words. It was touching to see these wonderful believers in Christ smile at the recognition of the Gospel story. As I put my guitar back into its case I pulled out a book and handed it to Carlos.
“This is a gift for you,” I announced. “It’s a Bible, written in Spanish. In the back it has a program you can follow that allows you to read the entire book in three months. It would be good for you and your wife to read it together. If you have a question about anything you read, write it down. If you are moved by anything, write it down. If you hear God speak to you, write it down. We can discuss it all next time we meet.”
As Carlos and Susanna lovingly held onto their new treasure and carefully explored its contents, I continued. “The Bible says it is not just some words written down thousands of years ago. It is alive and active today which means God will speak to us through this book about issues we are facing personally right now. This is where He is teaching us about this new way of doing church, which really isn’t new. This is the way the church began, in small gatherings in peoples’ homes around the dinner table. Somehow, over the ages, we have strayed from this simple form of worship to embrace huge crowds in large, expensive buildings with professional priests being the only ones who can understand God’s Word. The truth is God will speak to anyone whose heart is open to His voice, and the best fellowship is found in small, intimate gatherings. It only takes two people plus Jesus to have church.”
When he heard this last comment Carlos began to sing a song from his childhood he obviously learned in some church setting. The words were based on this well known Scripture. “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:20. It was clear he was beginning to grasp the concept of simple church.
Carlos’ home resides in the shadow of St. Paul’s cathedral, the church from which San Pablo derives its name. He has attended mass there often for many years, but he knows very few of the people and considers none of them to be his personal friends.
“You are my only real friend, Bill,” he told me recently. “I have told you things I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling anyone else. You are welcome in my home anytime.”
We closed our time together last night with an intense time of prayer. We shared some hugs, promised to return, and drove home. But the events of that amazing evening kept coursing through my mind. As I lay on my bed pondering the meaning of it all, the Lord brought the tower of Babel into my thoughts. What did this simple church gathering in San Pablo have to do with ancient Biblical history?
I certainly do not want to alienate any of my friends who still serve the Lord within traditional churches. I know many such congregations that are marvelously kingdom-minded and are totally focused on lifting up the cause of Christ. But like the builders of the tower of Babel, many institutional church adherents in this country have been following a fatal design flaw. Their efforts have often brought more glory to man than to God. They have lifted up the name of their own denominations (or non-denominations) as much or more than they have magnified the name of Jesus. They have labored more at advancing their own programs and institutions than advancing the cause of Christ. They have sacrificed more to build up their own campuses than to build up the kingdom of God. They have invested more resources into raising their own facilities than in raising the fortunes of the truly needy that live in the shadow of their edifices. They have rivaled the world with the quality of their entertainment but have fallen short of what it means to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. They have championed pet doctrines rather than glorified Christ, embraced a narrowly targeted culture rather than welcomed all peoples into their midst, promoted congregational rivalry rather than kept the unity of the Spirit, and focused on increasing their own numbers rather than increasing the citizenship of heaven.
I believe it was Billy Graham who proclaimed that Sunday morning at 11 o’clock was the most segregated hour in America. Instead of being a force to unite the peoples of the world under the name of Jesus, the institutional church has, for the most part, become another colossus of confusion, a source of separation, a tower of division. Before God passes judgment on this modern day tower of Babel something needs to be done to transfer our focus from ourselves to the Son of God.
Is there a counterpart to the tower of division? Is there an antidote to the human tendency to build flawed edifices in a vain attempt to reach heaven in our own way? Yes, there is a tower of unity, a high-rise of peace which reaches, not from earth to heaven, but from heaven to earth. It is crude, blood-stained edifice built with rough-hewn timber and used as an instrument of capital punishment. I’m referring to the cross. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” – John 12:32.
The closer we come to the cross of Christ, the closer we will come to one another. As we gather around the cross all thoughts of self will vanish in awe over the One who willingly suffered there for us and any value we may have placed on our own towers will melt away into insignificance. At the cross, we will see our neighbors through the loving eyes of our Savior and do everything we can to bring them into fellowship with Him and thus, into fellowship with us as well. At the cross, personal and corporate ambitions will diminish in favor of growing our relationship with the Lord and cultivating our relationships with others. At the cross, selfishness and pride will be crucified and the needs of others will be elevated above our own. At the cross, we will find the courage to enter into a different culture sacrificing our own comfort in order to help draw others to Christ, even to the point of “eating whatever they give you.” At the cross, we will find the only tower we will ever need.
As I write these words my stomach has been filled with a meal from yet another culture. Tonight we dined on Asian cuisine at the home of some Singaporean friends where we also have been meeting for church. My appetite has been wonderfully satisfied, but my heart has been filled even more by enjoying the amazing diversity and intimate fellowship found amongst those who gather, not within the towers of division, but around the cross of Christ.

Bill, a child of God, hungry for more fellowship

Saturday, November 03, 2007


November 2, 2007

“Hey Bill, how would you like to work a fire today?” asked my immediate supervisor with a gleam in his eye and a widening grin. I had been working for the U.S. Forest Service for an entire summer and had yet to be called out on fire duty. My normal job as a member of the “land-line location department” usually had me out in the field hunting for land corners and unavailable for working on any fire crews. But this morning I happened to be in the main office at the right time.
“Count me in!” I replied with a shout. “Give me a second to gather my gear and I’ll meet you at the truck.”
As a young college student trying to earn enough money over the summer to help with school expenses I was only too eager to join a fire crew. Working on a fire meant hazardous duty pay at time-and-a-half plus overtime (fires don’t stop at 5:00 pm and neither do fire crews). Although the work was exhausting you could earn a sizeable sum of money on a typical fire, that is, of course, if you survived long enough to collect your paycheck.
Upon arriving at the sight of the forest fire I began to wonder if the extra income was worth it. Thick bluish-black smoke billowed up from the hills in front of us and towered over the scene like an enraged monster waiting to devour anyone who dared come near. Bursts of orange flames danced and cavorted wildly having their way with the tinder dry wood and overgrown brush. The smoke chocked our lungs and filled our eyes with tears. At times the heat was unbearable. It was as close to hell as I would ever want to find myself. As a nineteen year old boy I was terrified, yet at the same time I was strangely exhilarated. There was something about the fire, the danger, the excitement that drove me onward into the raging inferno. Grabbing a pickaxe I sprinted up to the fire boss to receive my assignment.
“Hey, you guys!” shouted the fire boss to me and my supervisor. “Go to the supply truck and pick up a couple of water packs. Fill them up and then patrol the right flank. We don’t want any embers starting a new fire. But be careful, this fire could change direction in a heartbeat.”
Despite our disappointment at not being on the fire line we quickly obeyed our orders. In a fire there is only one general and for everyone’s safety his commands must be faithfully carried out. The black rubber water packs held around five to six gallons of water and proved to be a huge burden as we climbed up the hill on the right side of the blaze. The swirling winds would often spin out burning embers which, left unchecked, could ignite other spot fires and lead to another front on the already out-of-control conflagration. Up and down the hills we scrambled pouring water on anything that appeared likely to spark another fire. It was back-breaking work but we did what we could to keep the fire from spreading in our direction. At times, when we looked toward the towering inferno and realized we had such an insignificant amount of water, it seemed like we were trying to hold back hell with a squirt gun.
After night-fall the winds died down a little and the fire boss directed us to begin lighting backfires. Now this was more like it. Instead of water packs we were carrying kerosene torches. Instead of putting out fires we were starting them. Now we wielded the power and we relished our new duty. Within minutes we had set several acres of timber and brush ablaze. I was amazed at how fast the fire took off and spread. I was also amazed at how much heat could be generated by such a fire. As I faced the flames, the front of my body was sweating profusely while my backside was freezing in the cold air of the mountain evening. I will never forget the terror of being that close to a firestorm. Nor will I forget the thrill of lighting a fire and watching it explode into the darkness. Despite its destructive force, before long the raging inferno was contained thanks to our backfires combined with aerial bombardments of fire retardant and the diligent work of those on the ground digging fire lines.
The memories of my experiences fighting fires in my youth came back to me recently as I watched the scenes on television of the wildfires in Southern California. In this case the “Santa Anna” winds were blowing at hurricane force and multiple fires were spreading completely out of control. These fires would not be extinguished as easily as the fires I worked on years before. As long as the wind blows with such ferocity, no one can contain these blazes. They are wild, unstoppable, uncontrollable, consuming everything in their paths.
As I was thinking about these fires and praying for the victims of their wrath my mind took me to the two fireplaces we have in our home. The one in our family room is no longer functional. A free-standing stove used to sit in front of it on the hearth but had to be removed when we remodeled the room three years ago. Surrounded by new paint, granite tiles, and a brass screen the fireplace looks like it belongs in a model home. Yet because it is missing a flue we cannot place a fire inside of it. During holidays we light candles and place them in the fireplace. It’s a nice decorative touch, but it produces no heat.
The fireplace in our living room has been converted to natural gas. It also looks great, but like our other fireplace it can do little to affect the temperature inside our home. Most of the heat stays inside the chimney. On top of the chimney sets a spark-arrester designed to prevent any stray embers from escaping and perhaps landing on our shake roof. The fuel consists of fake logs which are non-combustible. The fire is carefully contained, easily controlled by a single valve, and able to be extinguished with a twist of the wrist. Neither fireplace lives up to its original purpose of being a source of heat. Today they serve mostly decorative purposes. Every effort has been put forth to make certain they pose no threat of starting any wildfires.
I believe our fireplaces are an unfortunate picture of many churches today. The pastor might work diligently to try and ignite a holy fire among the members yet the system is designed to prevent the very fires he may be trying to start. The congregation has long ago grown so accustomed to the pastor’s fiery sermons that they are now unmoved, apathetic, and incombustible. They often come across to the surrounding community as fake, unable to bring any warmth to a spiritually cold society. Their beautiful facilities are attractive and raise the value of surrounding property, but they serve mostly decorative purposes. All glowing embers are quickly removed from the outside world and sequestered in the chimney. The community has little to fear if they happen to catch fire. The flames are easily contained by the leadership with a view toward not letting things get out of control. The elders patrol through the membership like spark-arresters making sure no one leaves the chimney. They often appear at the sight of any spot-fires which happen to flare up outside the church in order to pour water on any free-floating embers.
Other churches have entirely given up on starting any fires. Their original fireboxes have been removed in favor of a gentler, less inflammatory approach to influencing their neighbors. Like other churches they may have immaculate looking facilities and carefully groomed landscaping yet they are incapable of producing any heat.
It is ironic to me that these very churches will often pray for revival, yet they will insist that such a revival remains contained within their own system of belief, restrictive traditions, and denominational structures. Such people have never experienced the fire close up. When the fire of revival rages it will be wild, unstoppable, uncontrollable, consuming everything in its path. It will explode out of our churches and ignite entire communities. Sin and its advocates will flee in terror from the approaching firestorm. Apathy will melt in its intense heat. Traditions will be demolished and denominational structures will crumble into an ash heap. Leaders will give up trying to contain it. Just try holding back heaven with a squirt gun! This fire will be anything but safe!
Picture a raging firestorm of kingdom expansion propelled by hurricane-force winds from the Holy Spirit. The awesome conflagration will roll onward at unbelievable speeds changing direction in a heartbeat of the Father’s will. Lives will be transformed at amazing speed. The miraculous will be commonplace. The most stubborn unbelievers will be converted in an instant. Passive Christians will become dynamic evangelists. Entire communities will warm up to the message of a God who deeply cares about them. Homes, businesses, churches, schools, all in the path of the holy fire will be quickly set ablaze with spiritual fervor. “…for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” – Hebrews 12:29.
In case you think this is all just a pipe dream you may want to heed the warning sign posted at the entrance to this forest: FIRE DANGER TODAY – EXTREME! The fuel is tinder-box dry and ready to explode into flames in an instant. “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life…” – John 4:35-36. The winds of the Spirit are already blowing and increasing in intensity. The stage is set for the perfect firestorm. There is only one missing ingredient—someone to ignite the flame.
People have often asked me what I mean by using the term “apostle” to refer to modern day church planters. Please don’t get confused by any misuses of the word. It is simply the Greek form of the Latin-based word, “missionary,” and it means “one who is sent.” An apostle today is merely one who is sent by God to begin ministries, to plant churches, to start fires. They are “holy arsonists,” “passionate pyromaniacs” whose hearts ache from the burden of reaching the lost and whose souls weep with the love of the Father over those who don’t yet know His Son. They are both terrified of the coming firestorm yet exhilarated by the approaching flames. Eagerly they will grab their tools (prayer, faith, and the “sword of the Spirit”) and charge into the raging inferno. They are filled with the fuel of God’s Word and powerless to keep it from bursting forth and catching fire. “…his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” – Jeremiah 20:9. They carry with them the fire of a God “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” – 1Timothy 2:4. WARNING: They are extremely dangerous, highly flammable, and capable of sparking intense wildfires.
It is the function of apostles to ignite the fire, make sure it is burning furiously, and then move on as directed by the Spirit to the location of the next conflagration. It is not their purpose to hang around and reign as the “fire boss.” There can be only one General and, for the sake of the optimal growth of the kingdom, His orders must be faithfully carried out. They may on occasion return to fan the flames, but they are primarily fire starters. Others are more gifted to keep the fires burning and pour additional fuel on the flames. Their stay in one location may only be temporary, but when enough of these “holy arsonists” are let loose on an area where the fuel is abundant and the Spirit is blowing at hurricane force, a firestorm is inevitable.
Where will you find such individuals? Many of them are hanging out in local churches wondering why they feel so unfulfilled, frustrated at the lack of fire they are experiencing, and eagerly waiting for someone to turn them loose. If only they would be allowed to start setting fire to dead wood. Permission granted! “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out…” – Luke 10:2-3.
It is time for churches to kick down their decorative screens, open up their chimneys, and fan the flames of their smoldering members. “…fan into flame the gift of God…” – 2Timothy 1:6. Then remove the spark arresters and let the burning embers escape to set fires all around the community. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” – 1Thessalonians 5:19. It is time for the “holy arsonists” to emerge from their flickering mediocrity and enter the growing conflagration. The wind is fierce; the fuel is ready to explode. Would anyone like to work a fire today?

Bill, a child of God eager to set the world on fire