Saturday, January 19, 2008


January 18, 2008

“Grandma, what’s that?” asked Will as he pointed toward the fireplace in our living room.
“It’s just our fireplace, Will,” answered Babs, more than a little perplexed about his question since he had seen it many times before.
“No, Grandma,” responded our four-year-old grandson a little louder. Moving closer to the fireplace and pointing at the glass fire-screen he asked again, “What’s that?”
Crouching down and looking through the glass Babs discovered, much to her horror, the object that had sparked the boy’s curiosity. A couple of small brown eyes were staring back at her! With a gasp she sprang to her feet, ran through the house, and bolted out the back patio door into our backyard where I was engaged in the annual winter chore of trimming our trees.
“There’s a squirrel in our fireplace!” she shouted with an expression on her face that radiated surprise as well as anger over the intruder’s unwelcome visit to our domain. “How are we supposed to get him out?” she asked excitedly, her hands much more animated than usual.
By the tone of her voice and with years of experience in interpreting her requests I quickly concluded that her use of the word “we” most certainly was directed solely at me. With barely a moment’s hesitation I formulated the perfect solution. We have a gas-fueled fireplace inhabited by an unwanted squirrel. Are you with me on this? Are you thinking the obvious?
“Okay, here’s what you do,” I responded with confidence. “Carefully open the glass screen just a crack, light one of the long-handled matches, stick it through the glass, and turn on the gas. Problem solved!”
The look of utter incredulity on my wife’s face told me the obvious solution was not viable in this case. She muttered something about my sanity as she turned around and headed back inside. I wisely opted not to suggest my second solution. Plan B would’ve been to simply turn on the gas and put the furry creature to sleep. Okay, so I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for these pests. They may be cute but they cause me enormous grief by chewing up much of our summer crop of apples, apricots, and plums and then persist in planting unwanted walnut trees in the worst of places. I will admit, however, that the smell of burning fur would not have been all that pleasant, and leaving the gas valve open for any length of time would have been foolishly dangerous. Reluctantly I put down my pruning shears and headed into the house concluding there must be a better solution.
While Babs talked on the phone to our local animal control office I walked over to the fireplace and examined the unfortunate captive. Since we had been out of town for a week I had no idea how long it had taken up residence in our home. It had built itself a nest using fiberglass insulation from the inside of the fire screen and the imitation logs which were part of our gas fireplace kit. I’m guessing it had wandered down the chimney during a recent cold spell and been unable to climb back out. When I pounded on the glass the squirrel disappeared and I heard the welcome sound of the uninvited guest scampering up the chimney.
“Our guest has decided not to stay,” I called out, proud of my ability to save my family from the ferocious wild animal. “Let’s light a roaring fire in here to discourage him from returning,” I suggested. After the fireplace was repaired and a fire started I returned to the backyard to finish my trimming duties content that the crisis had been solved without harming man or beast. Unfortunately, the fun had just begun. A few minutes later a very excited Babs once again came running out into the backyard.
“The squirrel is inside our house!” she yelled, her eyes wide with astonishment. “What do we do now?”
Evidently the squirrel had not made it all the way out of the chimney. Once the heat got too much to bear it had dropped back down into the firebox and exploded out into the room. The next few moments were a blur of furry flurry. The hyper-active rodent made a beeline for every window in the house only to repeatedly knock its head against the glass. Eventually it found its way into our family room where our glass patio door stood wide open. After crashing into the wrong side of the door it finally managed to escape into our backyard. For several seconds it ran around in circles on the grass and then leaped into a eucalyptus tree flying from branch to branch in a joyous display of ecstatic relief. It was a glorious picture of a prisoner set free, a former captive discovering where it truly belonged.
In the few days since the crazy incident of the misplaced squirrel, I can’t stop thinking about how it looked trapped inside our fireplace, and how it must have felt to finally be set free. In my mind I keep picturing the sorrowful eyes of the hapless creature staring back at me from inside the glass. But while I ponder over the sad plight of that poor squirrel the mental image changes and I see myself taking its place as the unfortunate victim held captive.
Not long ago I was that squirrel, trapped inside an environment for which I was not made, held captive by my own ignorance and by a spiritual institution which I had helped to build. Having grown up in the church, the son of a pastor and the grandson of missionaries, I was content to take my place inside the warmth of the Christian firebox. I knew no different. To be outside in the cold world without being surrounded by familiar traditions and the close fellowship of life-long friends was unthinkable. But then Father God, who knows where we each belong in His kingdom and what He has gifted us to do, began pounding on the glass doors of my cage and turning up the heat in the fireplace.
The church which I had served as a senior pastor for over three years unceremoniously asked me to resign. The leadership of the congregation and I were simply headed in different directions. Our separate visions for where we felt God was leading our church were diametrically opposed; our differences seemed to be irreconcilable. Several months later, while preparing to plant another traditional congregation in the same area, the Lord fanned the flames once again. The church planting organization of our pseudo denomination refused to sponsor our ministry. Apparently we were attempting to plant a new church too close to where one of their current projects was located.
Feeling utterly abandoned and totally rejected by the only Christian fellowship I had ever known, my spiritual heritage, I turned to Babs and sadly declared, “The last moorings of our ship have been cast off and we are alone and adrift.”
“Praise God!” she responded enthusiastically. “Now we can raise our sails and be blown by the winds of the Spirit to wherever He wants us.”
Now you know which one of us harbors the greater faith. The screen had opened up and we escaped from the fire, but we were not yet free. For several years we kept bumping into windows we thought were open. Relying on our own training we attempted to plant a church in the manner we had been taught. But with almost no outside help, no place to meet on Sunday mornings, and precious few resources, our efforts met with very little success. Finally, after failing miserably at planting a church our way, we stumbled through the open door and into the freedom of the simple-church movement. Though His methods of springing us from our captivity were dreadfully harsh and frightening at the time, now we can look back on our prison break and see the hands of our loving Lord in action. I’m afraid nothing less than experiencing the fire we were forced to endure could have resulted in leading us into the ministry we now enjoy. I know exactly how that squirrel felt after bursting through the patio door into our backyard.
Why am I sharing this painful experience with you? I am convinced that I am not the only one who has experienced the trauma of being held captive. Please understand that I am not trying to denigrate the ministry of the traditional church in this culture. God continues to use these institutions in many effective ways to further His kingdom. Unfortunately, for centuries we have been insisting that all of God’s children be forced to fit into the same institutional mold, a conformity which simply doesn’t suit everyone’s gifting and passion. The results have been to create an institution which is highly efficient at ministering to those within the firebox, but sadly lacking when it comes to reaching those on the outside. Most of the heat is contained in the fireplace and disappears up the chimney.
I believe our churches are generously populated with a vast number of contented prisoners, unsuspecting spiritual convicts most of whom are oblivious to the fact that they are trapped in a place where they were not created to be. They have built themselves a comfortable nest in their favorite pew and are more than happy to live out their spiritual lives surrounded by the warmth of their familiar Christian fellowship. But deep inside there is a restlessness which they cannot always suppress, a feeling that there is something more that God has in mind for them, a greater purpose than they are currently realizing. So they stare through the glass screen wondering what lies beyond. Please forgive me for pounding on the screen.
Tragically we have perpetrated the erroneous concept that ministry in the kingdom is meant to be performed only by the professional clergy, those who have had the necessary training and experience. But nothing could be further from the truth. In the early church, ministry was conducted by ordinary servants whom God made extraordinary by the presence of His Spirit. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” – 1Corinthians 1:26-29.
Many Christians rely upon the standard excuse of claiming they lack the necessary knowledge to become involved in ministry. However, I contend the average church-attendee in this country has become morbidly obese by feasting upon the Word of God inside the fireplace while their neighbors starve for want of Him. Throughout the world churches are being planted by those who have been believers for only a few days. In places in Africa new converts are told to go back to their villages, gather their neighbors into their homes, and plant a church. Obviously they are sent out without the benefit of a seminary degree. It is not the lack of knowledge that prevents us from obeying the Great Commission, but rather the lack of love for those who are net yet a citizen of the kingdom. “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – 1Corinthians 8:1.
Included among those in the traditional church who are possibly feeling as though they are being held captive are thousands of misplaced pastors, dedicated servants of God who may be better gifted for ministry outside the fireplace. They may be longing to taste the freedom on the other side yet are unable or unwilling to risk the welfare of their family by striking out on faith. Or perhaps they may be totally unaware that legitimate, God-ordained ministry exists outside the chimney. I wish I could spend some time with each one of these tortured souls and share about my personal escape into the freedom of simply following the Lord of the harvest into His harvest field. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:36.
If current statistics are true, some 1500 pastors are leaving the ministry every month in this country. Of course many of those resignations are due to retirement, health concerns, professional malfeasance, and other personal reasons. However, I suspect a good portion of these represent pastors who have come to realize they simply didn’t fit inside the firebox. Today they may find themselves bouncing around the secular workplace, going from job to job, questioning their calling and looking for an open door. My advice is to keep searching; don’t give up. God may have you exactly where He wants, out of the fireplace and out in the harvest. Yes, your calling remains; and yes, there is an open door waiting for you. “…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” – Romans 11:29.
When Jesus began His earthly ministry, shortly after His wilderness temptations, He returned to His hometown of Nazareth and entered the synagogue to teach. He read a portion of Scripture from the book of Isaiah which included the following quote: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” – Isaiah 61:1. I pray that this declaration becomes a reality in your lives!
Once again I ask for your forgiveness for pounding on your fire screens. However, I am trying to coax you out of the fireplace before the Lord deems it necessary to light a fire and remove you more forcefully. When the moorings that have held you back for years are finally removed, don’t fall back in fear. Instead, raise the sails of faith and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow you wherever He wills. For some of you that may mean returning to the traditional church to try to bring about a change, to open up the fire screens and encourage those who are so gifted to be released out into the harvest field to labor amongst the lost. For others it may mean planting simple churches in the homes of your neighbors. For those of you who are still feeling a bit timid I leave you with the image of a grateful squirrel, fresh from captivity in a burning fireplace, now joyously flying through the environment in which it was created to thrive. May you see your own freedom reflected in its joy.

Bill, a child of God…set free

Saturday, January 12, 2008


January 11, 2008

“Grandma, I have something to say,” whispered Will as he sat on the floor next to my wife during our Sunday evening house-church gathering.
Our group was immersed in a deep discussion regarding various trials everyone seemed to be currently experiencing. We were all agreeing how difficult it is to simply let go of our struggles and trust God in every situation. Meanwhile, absorbed in his make-believe world of toy cars, Will seemed oblivious to what the adults were sharing. Our four-year-old grandson was visiting us for a week allowing us a chance to thoroughly spoil him and giving his parents a break while they cleaned up after the holidays. As our conversation grew more intense Will began amusing himself by playing with the eleven-month-old daughter of one of our house-church families. My wife, Babs, sat down on the floor beside the two children trying to keep them out of mischief while the rest of us engaged in ministering to one another.
Will had been showing some signs of being homesick; whining, moping around the house and clinging to his grandparents. Playing with the giggling little girl was proving to be excellent therapy for the boy who was not only missing his parents but was also longing for his own little sister who just happened to be the same age as his new friend. As children are notoriously adept at doing, Will and little Brianna were often successful at disrupting our meeting and distracting our attention. In the past we would have been tempted to remove them to another room and entertain them with a video or with some games. After all, how much could they be expected to understand the discussion which the adults were sharing? Experience has taught us, however, not to exclude children from our gatherings. The Holy Spirit will often use them to minister to us all in profoundly inspirational ways. This evening’s gathering would be another example of such.
“Listen up, everyone,” announced Babs from her perch on the floor. “Will has something he wants to share.” Then she encouraged her grandson by saying to him, “Go ahead, sweetie; what do you want to say?”
“God wants us,” he proclaimed rather casually while scooting a miniature race car across the carpet.
“What does God want us for,” asked Babs. “What does He want us to do?”
“He just wants us,” repeated Will. “He loves us and He wants us.”
At this point Will returned to mouthing the make-believe sounds of a NASCAR race while the rest of us looked at each other in amazement over what we had just heard. Once again the Holy Sprit had broken into our discussion by speaking through the voice of a child. The definitive theological solution to our anxiety over life’s trials had just been proffered by a four-year-old.
Somewhere in his rather brief past Will must have heard someone say those words, but the fact that he chose this time and place to replay them can only be explained by a miracle of God. As a homesick little boy who longed to be in the presence of his mom, dad, and baby sister, he knew exactly what it meant to just want someone, not to do anything for him, but just to be there. When he shared the words, “God wants us,” Will had tuned into the heart of a heavenly Father who longs for the presence of His children.
When you hear the phrase, “God wants us,” are you prone to ask, “What does He want us for?” “What does He want us to do?” I must admit those were my first thoughts. In my mind I had a picture of an old army recruiting poster with an elderly bearded man in a red-white-and-blue suit pointing at me saying, “Uncle Sam Wants You,” only I substituted the slogan, “God Wants You.” I found myself gearing up for some spiritual warfare. “Just show me where the battle is raging, Lord, and I’ll go fight for You.” But God doesn’t need me to do anything for Him. He simply wants me to hang out with Him. Will had no problem grasping this concept. Why do we adults find it so difficult to accept the fact that God’s desire for our fellowship is not based on what we might be able to do for Him? I guess some of the more vital points of doctrine are better understood by the mind of a child.
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” – Luke 10:21. “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” – Mark 10:15.
The Lord has blessed me with being a father to three wonderful children, a father-in-law to two, and a grandfather of two. I dearly love being in their presence. But I can’t seem to fully wrap my mind around the fact that my heavenly Father truly desires to hang out with me, especially considering that He knows how sinful I am. Yet the Bible continually paints the portrait of a God who is crazy in love with us, who will go to any length just to bring us into His fellowship. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” – Jeremiah 31:3. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” – 1John 4:10. And none of this incredible outpouring of love has anything to do with what we can offer Him in return. Armed with this knowledge it becomes much easier to fully trust Him, even in the midst of severe trials.
As wonderful as all this is, it leads to a disturbing question. Why is it so difficult for us to simply want God, to simply desire to be in His presence without asking Him to do anything for us? If God so passionately wants us, without merit, without strings attached, without a “to do” list of items requiring our attention, why do we so often ignore Him or come to Him only when we have a need we want met? If God so loves us, why do we find it so hard to love Him in return? If God is desperately, continually pursuing a deeper, more intimate relationship with us, why shouldn’t pursuing Him be our number one passion?
The Apostle Paul was one who understood this priority. “…I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…” – Philippians 3:8, 10. King David so passionately pursued a relationship with the Almighty that God called him “a man after God’s own heart.” “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I want.” – Psalm 23:1. I’m afraid I have a long way to go before I can stand in the company of these two spiritual giants. I have far too many other wants which keep intruding on my “God hunger.”
People have asked me if I made any New Year’s resolutions. Thanks to Will I believe I’ve come up with one. Although it’s not an objective which can be easily quantified, I resolve this year to spend much more time simply wanting God. I intend to passionately pursue an intimate relationship with Him rather than spend most of our time together going over my current shopping list of requests. I am striving to become more childlike in my love for my heavenly Father. I am, however, already experiencing an unexpected consequence of my pursuit. I’m beginning to feel a little homesick.

Bill, a child of God, wanted and wanting

Saturday, January 05, 2008


January 4, 2008

It has become a yearly ritual, a twelve-month periodical pause in daily routine in order to reboot my schedule. This past week I turned over my “Day Planner” to the new 2008 calendar year. Before I filed away 2007 I took a fleeting glance at a year’s worth of improbable history. Looking back through my "Day Planner" for last year I wonder how I ever survived it all. There were marriage counseling appointments, memorial services, police chaplain responses for many traumatic events including two suicides (one being a local police officer), hospital calls, and far too many visits to various doctors (including several to care for my own broken arm). Of course there were also many joyful times including weddings, baptisms, sharing the Gospel with new friends, family get-togethers, the birth of our second grandchild, no less than five house-church conferences, experiencing the beginning of what we believe is a church planting movement here in the Bay Area, and weekly gatherings with our own home group on Sunday evenings. Truly, 2007 was an incredible year filled with ups and downs, pleasure and pain, feast and famine, the miraculous and the mundane.
As far as our ministry is concerned it was a year of witnessing God in action. With His prompting we are learning to take our faith on the road by planting simple churches in locations outside our own home. This year we have seen new gatherings begin in our own community as well as in San Pablo, San Ramon, and Modesto. We are currently working toward starting new groups in Livermore and Danville. Two of our couples who used to meet with us in our home have started churches of their own; one of them has been instrumental in starting five additional gatherings. Churches are meeting in homes, in restaurants, and even in a house boat. God is infinitely creative! We are reaching Hispanics, Singaporeans, Chinese, Koreans, Russians and Jews.
We have connected with a growing tidal wave of house churches springing up all around the Bay. We now have five apostolic groups (church planters) meeting throughout the Bay Area for mutual support and encouragement. A year ago we were wondering if we were the only ones in this region who were interested in simple church. Now there is a gathering of simple church planters meeting in our home. None of this can be attributed to our own cleverness or carefully engineered church planting strategy. We have simply been crying out to God for help and following Him into the harvest. Obviously, God is up to something major. But what does He have in store for us in the coming year?
Today I am looking at a brand new, completely clean "Day Planner" for the year 2008. I can only imagine what will be scribbled on its pages after the next twelve months. How many new churches will we see being born? How many new converts will be won? How many new ethnic groups will be reached? How many new church planters will be trained and sent out into the harvest field? Will there be any more weddings, baptisms, family gatherings, and new grandchildren? Will there be entries for memorial services, emergency counseling appointments, or chaplain call-outs?
It is both exhilarating as well as frightening to face a future for which so much is uncertain! How many wars will this world witness in the next twelve months? How many young men and women in our armed forces will have to be sacrificed? How many of our friends and loved ones will suffer tragedy, or fall ill, or pass away? Will this be the year of the great earthquake, or tsunami, or terrorist attack, or pestilence? Will we even live to see 2009? Could this be the year we witness a world-wide revival, or the beginning of the great tribulation, or the rise of the anti-Christ? Will Jesus return in 2008?
These are questions that will only be answered as week after week, one by one, I turn over the pages in my new "Day Planner." I have the choice of doing so with great fear and anxiety or filled with His peace and joy. I choose the latter! As I have been contemplating the New Year I have put together a few thoughts I have found encouraging. Perhaps they will help you as well.
1. We can’t know all about the future, but we can know Him who does. God already inhabits every moment of the New Year. Every entry on every page of my new Day Planner has already been seen by His eyes before any notes have been written down by my hand. Since I know I belong to Him I also know that whatever touches my life in the coming months, whether good or bad, has been ordained or allowed by God for my ultimate good...and that is enough to bring me peace in the midst of whatever chaos this world has to offer. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” – Psalm 139:16. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28.
2. We can make all the plans we want to, but God is the ultimate editor of our “Day Planner.” “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” – Proverbs 19:21. We can face the unexpected with faith and confidence knowing it has been scripted by the hand of God.
3. Every new page is a new opportunity to serve our loving Lord. No matter what is written down in our schedules, work or leisure, toil or play, vocation or vacation, it is to be given to the Lord. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” – Colossians 3:23-24. Along with this idea I recommend beginning each day by praying for specific opportunities to witness and minister to others. You may be surprised how this will change your entire outlook on life. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” – Colossians 4:5.
4. With God every day can be a new beginning. There is usually a certain amount of joy and anticipation when we start a New Year. The failures of the past can be left behind and filed away with the old “Day Planner.” Ahead there is a clean slate, a chance to redeem the past and make the future better. Of course our optimism begins to wane with the arrival of our first trial or our first mistake. Before long we usually determine that the New Year is no better than the old. But when we are living for the Lord, each new day is a brand new start. The past is already redeemed along with our future mistakes. The failures which appeared on the pages of past “Day Planners” are not just filed away, they are destroyed and forgotten. Our slate is permanently clean! “…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” – Psalm 103:12. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1.
5. Although “Day Planners’ are useful tools, it is far better to trust our daily lives to the One who holds time in the palm of His hands. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands…” – Psalm 31:14-15. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” – Jeremiah 29:11. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” – 1Corinthians 2:9.

I wish I had more of a prophetic gift and could predict what this New Year will bring. I can tell you there will be joy mixed with sorrow, happiness mixed with pain, and success mixed with failure. But anyone could predict that and be accurate. My prayer is that as we turn over the pages in our “Day Planners” we will find our lives filled opportunities to serve one another, doors opening to reach the lost, and plenty of time to grow in our relationship with the One who holds eternity in His hands. May all of our “Day Planners” be a witness to our faith, a testimony to what truly matters most in this life, and a blessing to our Lord!

Bill, a child of God…everyday