Saturday, February 23, 2008


February 22, 2008

“Well, where are we going today?” I asked as we took down the tent and loaded up the car.
“I don’t know,” responded Joe, my father-in-law. “Let’s all look at the map and make a decision together.”
After spreading out the map on the hood of the car five intrepid explorers hunkered over the colorful document that gave our adventure the only semblance of order. Once we all agreed on a destination and the most scenic way of getting there, our journey would resume. It was a daily routine which greeted us every morning on this impromptu, purposefully unplanned camping trip through western Colorado. As newlyweds my wife and I had opted to spend our summer vacation visiting her family who lived near Denver. It seemed like a good way to get the most out of our travel budget. Together with her mom, dad, and sister we had pooled our money, packed up their car and headed into an unforgettable adventure. Every day we chose a new location to explore amongst the numerous national parks and monuments which dot the map of this beautiful and diverse section of our country. Every night we would choose a campsite and pitch our tent being careful not to unpack more than necessary so we could make a quick getaway in the morning.
Coming from a family atmosphere where everything was well thought out and planned months in advance, it took me awhile to adjust to this haphazard, unorthodox way of vacationing. But after a few relaxing days of having no real agenda to accomplish other than seeing what beautiful scenery lay beyond the next hill, I began to have the time of my life. It was somewhat disconcerting crawling into our sleeping bags at night not knowing where we would be camping the next evening. But at the same time it was marvelously exciting waiting for an unknown adventure to unfold with each new day.
The memories of this unique camping trip came to mind this week as I read about another such adventure, one which took place long before we dreamed up our impromptu vacation. Some three and one-half millennia ago a God-ordained camping trip turned into a forty year pilgrimage. Hoping to escape the perils of civilized life and find a permanent home, a large group of related families struck out into the wilderness pitching their tents together each evening. I’m talking, of course, about the Israelites and their desert sojourn on the way to the Promised Land. Like our Colorado adventure, no one knew until morning what each new day would bring. The very first item of business in the morning for each family was to open up the flaps of their tent and look in the direction of the tabernacle. Above the large tent of meeting the pillar of cloud, representing the guiding presence of the Lord, would either remain stationary or begin moving. If the cloud remained in place, the Israelites knew they would be staying in that location for at least one more day. But if the cloud was moving out, it was their signal to quickly pull up the tent stakes, pack up their belongings, and get ready to fall in line with the huge caravan of pilgrims as they headed out to the next campsite.
For those who were accustomed to a much more ordered existence the uncertainty of where they would be the next day must have been enormously frustrating. Yet at the same time, it would have been marvelously exciting waiting for an unknown adventure to unfold with each new day. They would never be able to fully unpack all their possessions or become too comfortable with their surroundings. I’m sure they learned to travel light and refrain from driving their tent stakes in too deeply. Imagine how it must have felt needing to be ready at a moment’s notice to throw all your belongings into an oxcart or sling them over your back and head out to some location known only to God.
“Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s order and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the Lord’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out.” – Numbers 9:17-21.
The tabernacle itself was built to be totally portable. Rings of pure gold were affixed to most items of furniture so wooden poles overlaid with gold could be inserted through them allowing the appointed men to carry the items to the next campsite. The poles for carrying the Ark of the Covenant were left permanently in place continually ready to be hoisted upon the shoulders of the Levitical priests charged with moving it properly. The message was obvious. God Himself was wandering with His people, pitching His tent in their midst.
The entire congregation of Israel was perpetually on the move. There was no permanent residence, no settling down, no getting used to their surroundings. Life was to be a continual journey until they reached the Promised Land. Not until they had lived in the land of Canaan for hundreds of years did God allow them to build a more lasting structure for His earthly home. And even in Solomon’s temple the poles were to remain inserted in the Ark of the Covenant symbolizing impermanence. Just in case the Israelites forgot the lesson of daily following the Lord wherever He led, God prescribed a yearly celebration during which the entire assembly would once again camp out in tents. The Feast of Tabernacles was a seven-day observance commemorating the journey from Egypt to Canaan and reminding God’s people that their true home consisted of dwelling in the presence of their heavenly Father, not living in some building constructed by human hands.
Unfortunately, the message which was constantly drilled into the minds of the Israelites has been largely forgotten and ignored by God’s people today. We have become a kingdom of holy temple dwellers intent on erecting elaborate, stained-glass edifices as a sign of our permanence. “This is our church home,” we proudly proclaim gesturing toward the building of our choice where we congregate for worship observances. But what if the “cloud” has lifted and moved to another neighborhood? If the “cloud” settles over a community of rat-infested slums, or a group of homes where a language other than our own is spoken, or a neighborhood where lifestyles reflect an entirely different set of values than ours, are we capable of pulling up stakes and following our Lord? Or have we pounded our tent stakes in so deep as to make relocating nearly impossible?
I wish I could tell you the house church movement is the answer to this problem of immobility, but I’m afraid such is not the case. Sadly, we can become just as encamped upon the couches in our living rooms as those in the institutional churches are ensconced in their pews. Somehow the forward journey of God’s people has come to a halt far from the land of promise. Instead of following after the “cloud” we have pulled out of the caravan and built permanent settlements. We have allowed our tents to be transformed into towers, our tabernacles into temples, and we wonder why we so seldom feel the presence of the Lord in our midst. How could it be that we have so easily lost sight of the “cloud?” Have we accumulated too much baggage to dump into our carts or sling upon our backs in order to quickly follow after the Lord? Have we become too comfortable in our permanent dwellings to risk the uncertainties of a nomadic lifestyle?
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” – Luke 9:58. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23.
How could we have settled for a mud home in the wilderness when a gem-studded, gold-paved, pearly-gated mansion is waiting for us up ahead? How could God’s people erect such elaborate, immoveable dwelling places when the only truly permanent temple is waiting for us in Heaven? How could we exhibit more faith in our own structures than in God’s ability to lead us safely where He wants us to go?
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” – Hebrews 11:8-10.
I recommend we begin every day like those Israelites did in the wilderness by opening up the flaps of our tent and looking to see where the “cloud” is located. When it moves, we move with it; when it settles, so do we. For those of us who like to have our lives carefully planned out months in advance it may take some time to adjust to this haphazard, unorthodox style of ministry. It can be a little disconcerting crawling into bed at night not knowing where we may be camping the next evening. But at the same time it is marvelously exciting waiting for an unknown adventure to unfold with each new day. So jettison that excess baggage, keep your suitcases packed, and don’t drive your tent stakes in too deeply. The wilderness is calling; an adventure of a lifetime is waiting. Let’s go camping!

Bill, a child of God looking for the cloud

Friday, February 15, 2008


February 15, 2008

“What was your favorite part of the conference?” asked one of the parties of our carpool as we drove home from a weekend gathering in southern California.
As others shared their opinions I struggled to come up with an answer. We had just taken part in what could be described as an historic meeting of the minds of those immersed in the house-church movement worldwide. The gathering was entitled, Organic Church Movements Conference, and it was sponsored by Church Multiplication Associates. It was thrilling to hear what the Lord was doing through the growing tidal wave of simple-church advocates. The main speakers were excellent; the workshops were relevant and informative. The worship was inspirational and the fellowship sweet. How could anyone prioritize the value of all the events which had taken place that weekend?
After a long pause I offered my thoughts choosing my words carefully while still pondering the question in my mind. “I loved the conference; it was one of the better ones I have attended. But to me the best part of the weekend has been the fellowship in the car on the way to and from.”
In the days since returning from the conference I have continued to think about my answer to that question. Four companions shared the seven hour journey on Friday from the San Francisco Bay Area to our hotel in Ontario, California. The same four returned together on Sunday afternoon and evening. On the way we had plenty of time to recount our personal faith journeys and explain how the Lord had led us into the simple church movement. We laughed together, prayed together, read Scripture together, shared our joys and sorrows together, ate together, and worshiped together.
One member of our party learned during our trip that he was in the process of becoming a granddad for the second time. We prayed for his daughter and the health of the new baby. Then we rejoiced when we received word of a successful delivery. On the way home, one of our fellow travelers learned of a tragic accident involving some of his family’s closest friends. A child’s life was taken and the mother’s life was hanging in the balance. We offered intense prayer for those who were hurting and bereaved.
On our return trip we discussed at length the topics which were raised during the conference and how they impacted our ministry in the Bay Area. Then we lifted up our voices in an impassioned plea for the Lord of the Harvest to grant us more workers for the harvest, more vibrant families of Jesus meeting throughout the Bay Area and beyond, more outpouring of His Spirit, more empowering of His people, more new citizens of the kingdom, and more revival. As the miles passed by we became more and more excited about what God was doing and was about to do in our area for the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.
What was so special about a road trip with three others in a crowded vehicle through a massive expanse of California freeways? Counting both Friday and Sunday we had church for some 700 miles and 15 hours, and no one fell asleep! I’m guessing that might be one for the record book. There were no sermons, no praise bands, no choral anthems, no worship bulletins, and no stained-glass cathedrals. Well, okay, we did sort of chip in to help share the expenses but no one passed a collection plate. There was nothing of what most people normally think of when describing a church service, but nonetheless it was one of the most inspirational church gatherings I have ever attended.
As I continued to contemplate the weekend’s activities the Lord brought to mind a children’s take-home paper from Sunday school I remember seeing awhile back. It was a plain white sheet of paper covered with dots each of which had a number beside it. The directions called for taking a pencil and connecting the dots in numerical order. Once completed, an outline of the head of Christ was clearly visible. What was the Lord trying to tell me?
The Church, for the most part, has become an expert at creating dots. Visit any church in the west, sadly including many house churches, and you will conclude we are event driven. For most of us it’s all about the main weekly gathering or the mid-week Bible studies. We have Sunday morning dots, Saturday night dots, Wednesday evening prayer dots, men’s accountability dots, women’s missionary society dots, youth group dots, special concert dots, revival dots, rally dots, a host of conference dots, mega-dots and mini-dots. And if we get tired of the same old dots we can read a multitude of books written on how to create bigger and better dots. I wish I could say life in the simple church movement is different but I must admit that many gatherings I have experienced left me feeling like we just traded a large dot for a small one.
So what’s the problem? When church is all about the dots, event driven, it squeezes the Christian life into a single place at a single time. Jesus becomes less visible in the midst of our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our communities, and our normal daily routine. When the bulk of our energy and resources is directed toward the dots, the rest of our lives can become a confused jumble of disconnected events, void of the presence of Christ. When the dots become our main focus, it is astonishingly easy to lose sight of our Lord in everyday life. How foolish are we to believe the Lord speaks to us and desires our fellowship only at the dots? I’m afraid the church has become so caught up in creating the perfect events that we have forgotten what happens in between. The solution is simple; connect the dots.
“I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.” – Psalm 34:1. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.” – Hebrews 13:15.
The truth is church for the mature believer should never be about a certain time at a given location. Church is a continuum of fellowship with Jesus, not a series of events. It is linear, not a smattering of disconnected dots. There is no opening call to worship and no closing benediction. It is one continuous, Spirit-drawn line weaving its way through every moment of our lives.
When I wake up in the morning I am immediately in prayer. Later my prayers flow into my regular quiet time. If possible my wife and I will spend some time praying and sharing Jesus with one another. On my way to wherever I am teaching music that day I will be praying for my students. During the music lessons I am constantly listening to the Spirit for an opportunity to share my faith. On the way home I am thanking God for providing a way for me to earn a living. If we are doing church somewhere that evening we will spend our travel time in the car praying for those we expect to be at the gathering and for God to lead us into a deeper relationship with Him and with each other. On the way home from such a fellowship we will be rejoicing and praising God for the time we experienced together. While I am climbing into bed at the end of the day I will be thanking God for His strength and guidance. And the line continues the next day, and the next day, and the next day connecting all the dots into a marvelous picture of Christ.
“For to me, to live is Christ…” – Philippians 1:21. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
Do I ever fail to experience continual church? Of course I fail, many times everyday. Linear church is a constant struggle, but it is well worth the effort and I am slowly learning that sometimes the road to the gathering may be as much or more inspirational than the gathering itself. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23.
There is an underlying, constant excitement that exists in linear church, a feeling that at any moment Christ may show up and doors of opportunity will burst open. The phone will ring and someone will be in need of encouragement. A knock at the door will lead to some impromptu marriage counseling. A friendly greeting at a restaurant will give rise to a new church being planted. A timely word of kindness will make way for an opportunity to share the Gospel with an unbeliever. Since all of this has happened recently in my life it tends to make one more alert to His presence. After all, we don’t want to be caught napping during church. “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him.” – Luke 12:35-36.
Have you found yourself dosing off in church recently? Has your spiritual life been a little hit or miss? Does it resemble a white sheet of paper filled with an occasional ink blot, or perhaps a jumbled up conglomeration of nonsensical specks? May I suggest you try connecting the dots? You might just be amazed at who appears before your eyes. “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.” – Psalm 105:4.

Bill, a child of God striving to connect the dots

Friday, February 01, 2008


February 1, 2008

“That was pretty good,” I mentioned, trying to be encouraging, “but I’d like you to play the piece again. This time, however, don’t watch your fingers. Keep looking up at the music and listen carefully. Your ears are a far better teacher than your eyes.”
The young piano student sitting next to me responded with an exasperated sigh and began to repeat the piece she had just struggled to finish. Like most of my students this was far from the first time she had heard such admonishment from me. In order to prevent her eyes from wandering from her music and focusing down on her fingers I held a music book over her hands to block her view. This tactic works well enough during the lesson while the student is with me, but when she practices at home I suspect she will go back to trusting in her eyes. My hope is that she will become so dissatisfied with her poor playing that she will take the necessary steps to fully develop the talent with which she has been blessed. Those who lack motivation usually become discouraged by their mistakes and give up. Those who strive for excellence are motivated by their mistakes to improve. The latter are the ones who learn to trust their ears. These are the students who captivate the heart of their teacher.
“Does that sound right to you?” I asked after my student struck an obviously sour note.
“No, I guess not,” she responded correcting the mistake.
“That was a great mistake,” I offered. Then seeing the look of confusion on her face, I explained my comment. “A good mistake is one you hear and correct. Trusting in your ears does little good unless you obey what they tell you. Just now you followed what your ears were teaching. Good job! You are well on your way to becoming an excellent student and a virtuoso performer.”
So what’s the problem with focusing on your fingers rather than trusting your ears? When piano students keep looking back and forth from the music to their fingers they invariably lose their place causing a pause in the sound. It is a sign that they are unsure of their own ability, a sign which can be heard as well as seen. Relying on your eyes results in a sloppy, halting, insecure sound. This bad habit will prevent them from ever maturing into a quality musician. No matter how much talent they may possess they will never live up to their potential. It is essential for pianists to have the confidence that their fingers will strike the correct notes. When they make a mistake their ears will tell them, not their eyes.
Unfortunately, it is terribly difficult to break a student from the habit of staring at their fingers and a constant struggle to convince them it is far better to trust their ears. Guitar students often suffer the same affliction but for them the problem is compounded. In order to look at their fingers guitar players will often tilt their instrument thus moving their left hand out of position. Not only will they lose confidence in their ability to play they will also struggle to reach all the notes with their fingers. Most of my students, both on the guitar and the piano, wrestle with the problem of being over reliant on their eyes. More often than not, when forced to look only at the music, their playing improves.
“Well done!” I proclaimed when my piano student finished the piece for the second time. “You played much better without looking at your fingers. In fact, that’s the best I’ve ever heard you play. Now, what does that tell you?”
“I know; I don’t need to watch my fingers,” she reluctantly admitted. “But this was a new piece for me and I didn’t know what it was supposed to sound like. How am I to know if my ears are hearing right?”
“I can answer that with one word,” I countered immediately, “practice!” Observing her puzzled expression I expanded my thought. “The more you practice staying focused on the music rather than looking down at your fingers, the better you will be able to read the notes. The more you practice trusting in your ears, the more confidence you will gain in your playing. The more you practice listening to yourself, the better your ears will be trained to discern between what sounds right and what doesn’t, even when playing a brand new piece. Practice builds confidence. God has provided you with a marvelous tool for learning how to play a musical instrument, a tool which is always available for you to use even when I’m not around. I’m talking about your ears; they are your best teacher. I highly recommend you use them!”
I was reminded of this conversation with my piano student during a discussion in one of our simple-church gatherings. The topic was centered on our need to always be listening to the Lord, willing and eager to obey what we hear. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is far more natural to rely on our earthly vision rather than our spiritual hearing. So what’s the problem with trusting our eyes more than our ears? The answer can be discovered by observing a young, aspiring pianist with a propensity for relying too heavily on her eyes.
When we remain too focused on the world around us we will invariably lose our place in tracking God’s will for our lives. Trusting in our own eyesight can result in being so out of position that we can no longer reach those around us with the love of Christ. It is a sign that we are unsure of our Lord’s ability to guide us, a sign which can be seen by others who may be affected by such uncertain behavior. Relying on our own vision results in a sloppy, halting, insecure witness. This bad habit will prevent us from ever becoming mature in Christ. It is a roadblock barring us from reaching our full potential in the kingdom. It is essential for Christians to have complete confidence in their Shepherd, trusting fully that He will instruct us in the way forward, that He will direct us in the correct path. When we make a mistake it is the Spirit’s voice that will correct us, not our earthly vision. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2Corinthians 4:18.
Unfortunately, it is terribly difficult to break the habit of looking down at our feet rather than focusing on Christ, on seeing what lies before us rather than above us. Our eyes seem to be always getting in the way of our faith. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” – Hebrews 12:2. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” – Colossians 3:1-2.
Somehow we need to come to the realization that God has provided us with a marvelous tool for learning how to play the part He has ordained for us in this world. It is a tool which is always available to us, even when we are not sitting in the assembly of the saints, even when we are not near another member of our church, even when we might be temporarily separated from God’s written Word. I’m talking about our ears, our spiritual ears. They are a far better teacher than our eyes. “We live by faith, not by sight.” – 2Corinthians 5:7.
But what if using our spiritual hearing is a new experience for us? How are we supposed to know if we’re hearing the right voice? How are we to determine between the sounds of our own voice, that of the enemy, and that of our Shepherd?
I can answer that with one word, practice! The more we practice staying focused on Jesus rather than relying on our earthly vision, the better we will be able to follow His leading. The more we practice trusting in our spiritual hearing, the more confidence we will have in following the Good Shepherd. The more we practice listening to His voice, the better our ears will be trained to discern what sounds right and what doesn’t, even when we are being led in a new direction. Obviously, becoming intimately acquainted with our Lord’s voice as it is recorded in the Bible is an excellent way to learn how to recognize when He is speaking to us. But understand He may choose to address us through the words of a fellow believer, or through life’s circumstances, or through His “still, small voice” speaking into our heart. Just as a child knows the voice of its mother, or a dog knows the voice of its master, so we will learn to recognize the voice of our Lord. Practice builds confidence.
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” – John 10:3-5. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27. “He who belongs to God hears what God says.” – John 8:47.
Of course, trusting in our spiritual hearing does little good unless we obey what we hear. “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” – Luke 11:28. We have a saying in the simple church movement which should ring true in every corner of the kingdom of God. “Listen to the Lord, obey what you hear, and teach others to do the same.” We are blessed to have a Master Teacher who does not condemn us for the mistakes we make in our daily performance. Instead He reaches out to us in grace, implores us to listen, tells us where we have struck a sour note, and patiently waits for us to make a correction. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." – John 3:17.
There have been many times in my life when I wished my Master Teacher would have held His hands over my eyes and forced me to rely on my ears. But as a wise instructor, our Lord knows that our own mistakes can serve to be another effective teaching tool. Some believers become discouraged by their mistakes and are tempted to give up. But those who truly strive to be like Christ are motivated by their mistakes to improve. The latter are the ones who learn to listen in faith, to trust in their ears rather than their eyes, to obey the voice of the Good Shepherd rather than the bleating of worldly sheep. These are the students who captivate the heart of their Teacher. One day, when their performance is finished, they will hear His praise. “Well done, good and faithful servant!…Come and share your master’s happiness!” – Matthew 25:21.

Bill, a child of God, with ears to hear