Saturday, April 26, 2008


April 25, 2008

"Is this what I think it is?" she asked, her voice filled with anticipation and her eyes searching for the affirmation of a dream. She held out a dusty, well-worn, antique wooden case and invited me to open it. "We found this in dad's attic while we were sorting through his things after his funeral," she explained with obvious excitement and a childlike grin betraying her expectation for my assessment.
Upon learning that I had been a professional cellist the woman had insisted on showing me her recently discovered treasure hoping I would be able to ascertain its value. Having always been fascinated with antique musical instruments I eagerly agreed to her request. The open case revealed an old violin scratched and worn from years of use. Its two broken strings and collapsed bridge testified to the likelihood that a great deal of time had passed since the instrument had felt the fingers of a musician or vibrated with the sweet sounds of a melody. A warped bow rested in the lid of the case with a few remaining strands of horse hair hanging loosely from its tip. A tattered polishing cloth was draped over the ancient instrument like a burial shroud. I slowly and carefully exhumed the violin from its place of interment and began examining it more closely.
"Look inside," she said pointing to the "S" shaped sound-hole on the top of the ancient instrument. Holding the violin up to the light and peering inside, I could plainly see a label. Though faint with age the name was still legible, "Stradivarius."
"Is it genuine?" she asked expectantly. “Is it what it claims to be?" Her questions begged for a positive response, and my heart longed to satisfy her dreams of finding a rare treasure.
Unfortunately, I was almost certain the label was false. Although my knowledge of stringed instruments is limited, a lifetime of playing the cello including 18 years as a member of a professional symphony orchestra has taught me to be extremely suspicious of such labels. During the era of Stradivarius, the best “luthiers” were all members of exclusive guilds. No one would purchase an instrument that wasn’t created by a member of one of these guilds. Consequently, makers would often sell their labels to other, less reputable luthiers to make extra money. Sometimes apprentices in the same workshop would all use the same label even though an instrument might never be touched by the master. Over the years cagey craftsman learned to “borrow” the label of a famous maker in order to sell their product for a greater profit. The label on an instrument is just about the last place to look when appraising its worth.
When it comes to stringed instruments, a small handful of master appraisers alone are qualified to determine their true value. They will carefully examine an instrument's shape, dimensions, design, varnish, quality of craftsmanship, state of repair and, of course, the quality of the sound, comparing it to other instruments they know to be genuine. The master's appraisal will determine the worth of a musical instrument, not its label.
"I'm afraid the quality of the craftsmanship doesn't live up to the name," I confessed regrettably. After blowing away some dust and viewing the label through a magnifying glass, I could make out some additional writing. In small print, barely visible, just above the name Stradivarius, were the words, "in the style of…" The violin was nothing more than a cheap imitation. Had it been genuine it would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, its value was nothing more than a few hundred dollars. Expectations unfulfilled...hopes dashed...dreams disappointed...label false!
I wonder how many professing Christians resemble that old violin. Most people will gladly wear the label "Christian," but sadly the quality of the craftsmanship often doesn't live up to the name. They may be convinced they are a priceless treasure, a genuine child of God, when in reality they are nothing more than a cheap imitation. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’” – Matthew 7:21.
The name “Christian” isn’t the only label we proudly display. One look at the average church directory would reveal we are a people seemingly obsessed with titles. Pastor, reverend, bishop, elder, deacon, apostle, prophet, and many other labels prominently adorn the front of our names. Again, tragically, the quality of the instrument often fails to match the name on the label. When others go to such celebrated pillars of the faith for help or look up to them as examples to emulate, expectations of true Christlikeness are far too often left unfulfilled. Hopes dashed...dreams disappointed...label false!
Why are we so enamored over titles? Why is it so difficult to look beyond the labels we wear? Why are we so easily taken in by them? The answer is we are too little enamored over Christ, and we are far too unfamiliar with the only genuinely perfect instrument, the only one who truly exemplifies all His titles. He is “Lord of Lords,” “King of Kings,” “Prince of Peace,” “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” the “Righteous One,” the “Alpha and the Omega,” the “Beginning and the End,” the “Living Water,” the “Bread of Life.” I could go on and on listing the titles with which He is labeled in Scripture and every one has been proven genuine. Why would we look to anyone else no matter how impressive their title might be?
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” – Colossians 1:15-18. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:10-11. “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” – Hebrews 3:1. The more we are familiar with the real thing the less chance we will have of being fooled by a cheap imitation.
As Christians we have a "Master Appraiser" who alone is qualified to determine whether our label is genuine. He will examine the design of our love. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." – John 13:35. He will measure the dimensions of our fruit. "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." – John 15:8. He will compare our lives to His teaching. "...if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples." – John 8:31. And He will listen to the sound of our voice to determine if it agrees with the faith of our heart. "For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." – Romans 10:10. The Master's appraisal will determine our true value, not the way we label ourselves or the way others may label us. "The Lord knows those who are his..." – 2Timothy 2:19.
Now if you happen to be concerned about how your true value measures up, check this out. For those of us who accept God's free gift of grace through faith, our "Master Appraiser" is also the One who fashions us and remakes us in His image. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works..." – Ephesians 2:10. As such, we bear the Master's label. God has “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts..." – 2Corinthians 1:22. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” – Romans 8:16. When God labels an instrument we can proudly and confidently wear His name and that makes us His children, His cherished creation, His treasure. Expectations fulfilled...hopes realized...dreams validated...label genuine...value priceless!

Bill, a child of God, the only label I desire

Saturday, April 19, 2008


April 18, 2008

It’s like being buried alive in my own office, interred in a terrifying tomb of rubble, swallowed by an ever-growing behemoth of toxic waste, swept away in a continuous avalanche of litter, struggling to break through to the surface only to be pummeled by another flow of seemingly endless debris. Those of you who may think I am launching into hyperbole have obviously never caught a glimpse of my desk in its current condition. It is a clutter catastrophe!
My desktop, which at one time was graced by an organized stack of yet-to-be-paid bills and a few current reading projects, has suddenly erupted into an immense, steadily expanding, volcanic mountain with a resultant debris flow that is threatening to completely inundate my tiny office. The arrival of tax season has brought with it a flood of additional stacks of miscellaneous forms and various receipts which have greatly increased the chaos. Several times in the last few weeks one of my growing piles of clutter has attempted to escape the confines of my desk by spilling onto the floor. After corralling the rebellious debris for the umpteenth time I received a flash of brilliant inspiration. With the addition of a strategically placed TV tray I could increase the area of my desktop and thus accommodate more clutter. Unfortunately, there is now barely enough room for me to sit at my desk and operate my computer. If any more rubble flows down from the summit of “Mount Clutter” I will be forced to abandon my office. Clearly, something needs to be done.
Precisely at this time, in the midst of the worse clutter catastrophe my office has ever seen, just as I am about to go down for the third time and perish beneath the waves of rubbish, the Lord has chosen to chastise me. I hate it when He does that. You would think He could have picked a more convenient, less hectic time for His school of rebuke to be in session. But I have learned there is much to be gained by heeding His instruction no matter when it comes. I have also learned that what I gain from His teaching is better assimilated if I take the time to pass it on to others. Therefore, take note of the following debris flow and standby to download some of my clutter onto your own desktops. Hopefully, this will prove to be well worth taking up room in your life.
The Lord has shown me that the condition of my desk is a fairly accurate reflection of my chaotic life at the moment. Like my office, my daily schedule is suffering from a clutter catastrophe. For weeks I have been complaining to God that the growth of our church planting ministry seems to have slowed dramatically. Some of our home groups are struggling to survive and the once steady flow of new “workers for the harvest” has apparently all but dried up. I have placed the blame for this growth plateau on some of our house church leaders; I have cursed the devil; I have even had a few angry words for the Lord of the harvest. But now God is revealing to me that my own failure to keep my life free from unnecessary clutter is a major factor contributing to our slow down. Ouch, this hurts!
The Lord has me taking a personal inventory of my daily schedule. I won’t bore you with the ugly details but I must confess my typical day is certainly piled high with stacks of nonessential activities. It’s not that these daily pursuits are inherently evil; it’s just that they aren’t helpful toward the goal of kingdom expansion. The result of this chaotic collage of unprofitable, unproductive behavior means I rarely get to bed before midnight which, in turn, means I rarely get enough sleep. Being in a continual state of exhaustion lessens the depth of my devotional life and lowers the effectiveness of my efforts toward expanding the harvest. The sad truth is I am in danger of being buried alive in my own day-planner, interred in a terrifying tomb of time constraints, swallowed by an ever-growing behemoth of toxic sleep deprivation. I get the feeling that if any more clutter flows into my schedule I will be swept away in the avalanche.
Lest you think I am again resorting to hyperbole I suggest you also take a personal inventory of your daily schedule. Invite the Lord to reveal to you any activity which is unproductive to your spiritual growth, behaviors which may on the surface seem harmless but actually reduce the effectiveness of your ministry. I am guessing there are many who are reading these words who are suffering from a similar clutter catastrophe.
It’s not just individuals who suffer from this debris-strewn scheduling malady and who need to engage in a behavioral inventory. Many churches also display similar symptoms. Board meetings, committee meetings, church work days, choir rehearsals, building-fund drives, budget battles, bake sales, and craft fairs are just a few of the items which fill up the calendars of our churches. Tragically, even house churches can fill their gatherings with unfruitful behavior. Again, I’m not saying that these activities are evil. Indeed, some of them might be noble pursuits. They just may not be the most effective actions with which to busy ourselves when it comes to striving toward the goal of expanding the kingdom.
As an individual believer or as a church, do you have the courage and faith to invite the Lord to reveal to you which activities are fruitful toward enlarging the harvest and which are not? Are you ready and willing to have the Lord of the harvest clean off your desktop? Allow me to share some Scriptures which the Spirit brought to my mind to use as tools for clutter removal.
“…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” – Hebrews 12:1.
“No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer.” – 2 Timothy 2:4.
“‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better…’” – Luke 10:41-42.
“Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” – Luke 5:10-11.
By the way, the Lord revealed to me that I actually did one thing right in my attempt to take care of the clutter in my office. It’s a good idea to set up a tray in order to create more space to hold things. How does this relate to our topic? We need to call in others to help share the load when our ministries get too much for one person to bear. Ministry is meant to be a team sport. Trying to do it all alone is the quickest way I know of to suffer a clutter catastrophe, not to mention a mental, emotional and spiritual meltdown.
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” – Ephesians 4:11-12.
The Spirit is telling me I need to stop writing before this message becomes a rubbish heap of left-over thoughts. Besides, I have a clutter catastrophe on my desk that needs to be cleared.

Bill, a child of God, clutter and all

Saturday, April 05, 2008


April 5, 2008

Old-timers talk of standing at the south rim and, if conditions were right and the river was swollen with the spring thaw, being able to hear the thunder of the cascading water some three miles distant and one mile beneath them. But that was before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. These days the flow of the Colorado River has been drastically reduced, a tiny trickle compared to the powerful force that used to tear through the Grand Canyon. At the south rim today, other than the whistling wind and an occasional chirping of a bird, you will experience a deathly silence, an eerie stillness that grips the soul and makes one long for any sign of life. It is not unlike standing over a deceased loved one and straining to hear once again the sound of their voice. Even so, the canyon remains a vast testimony to the unfathomable forces which created it over past eons when the river flowed unfettered by human engineering.
Today it is difficult to believe how such an insignificant stream could have caused so much devastating change to the landscape. Yet when the river flowed free and unhindered it carried an average of 500,000 tons of silt and sand past a single point every day. It has been estimated that the river in full flood would carry a total of about 55 million tons of material a day past a given point, either suspended in the water or rolling along the bottom. Boulders the size of small houses would bounce along the riverbed crushing other rocks, widening the chasm, and gouging out new channels for the powerful, incessant flow. Sandbanks, boulders, and fishing holes which one graced one area would vanish and reappear somewhere downstream. As an excavator the river could rival any manmade machinery.
The pulverized rock, boulders and sand are washed down from a watershed that spans five states and about 150,000 square miles. Before man sought to control its power the Colorado River was the life-blood for much of the Southwest. It filled the Imperial Valley of California, left enormous deposits of nutrient-rich soil, and created a huge delta at its mouth in the Gulf of California. The mighty flow meant life to every living creature abiding near the river. Today, tragically, much of that natural life is threatened with extinction.
In his rush to control the river and make it his servant, man has drastically altered the ecology of the region. The debate over the benefits versus the harm caused by damming the flow will likely continue for generations. One side of the argument points to the power that is being generated which lights up the homes of millions of residents and provides energy for industry and commerce throughout the southwest. The dams allow us the luxury of controlling the rate of flow and reducing the destruction caused by yearly flooding. The reservoirs provide recreation (swimming, fishing, camping, and boating) and water to irrigate farmland. Some would even claim that we have added to the beauty of the natural landscape. Yet in the process we have also endangered several forms of life which depend upon the river’s natural yearly cycle of high and low flow for their wellbeing. Indeed, engineers now periodically release a larger flow of water creating a mini-flood in order to help maintain the vibrancy of certain species. But it’s not just animal life that is being adversely affected by our attempts to improve on nature. Today, by the time the water reaches the southern end of its migration toward the sea, the flow is so minimal and laden with salt that it is virtually useless for drinking or farming. For those who live near the southern end of the river, life has become frustratingly difficult.
It is interesting to note that over the course of time earthquakes and landslides have caused several natural dams to obstruct the river’s flow. With each such occurrence, however, the river has either forced its way over the barrier or found a new way around the obstruction. Nothing has been able to permanently stop the flow. The same is holding true for manmade barriers. The reservoirs behind our dams are rapidly filling up with debris washed down from above. Eventually they, too, will be breached by the unstoppable force of nature and we will discover that, despite our ingenuity and cleverness, we are only the servants of that which we seek to control.
Why am I offering up this lesson in hydro-geology? I believe the Colorado River is an apt metaphor for the kingdom of God. Indeed the kingdom flows like a mighty river through the church and through God’s people. When the waterway is unobstructed and left free for channeling periodic floods, enormous quantities of resources flow through the church to others downstream who are suffering from intolerable thirst in a spiritual desert. To those who are fortunate enough to be touched by the flow, the river means life.
Isaiah prophesied about the river. “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.” – Isaiah 35:6-7. Ezekiel was given a vision of the river while an angel described its benefits. “Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.” – Ezekiel 47:9. Jesus spoke of the river. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” – John 7:38. John the Apostle was given a vision of the river after which he issued an invitation. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” – Revelation 22:1,17.
All the resources of the kingdom flow down through the river. Grace, mercy, peace, love, joy, wisdom, knowledge, along with more tangible benefits like food, clothing, shelter, and money, all tumble down the riverbed and flow out to those with pressing needs. People resources, those individuals specially gifted with navigating skills, ones who are able to direct the flow through them to those with specific needs, are also suspended in the river as it flows downstream. At times the river will flow at flood stage depositing resources high up on the banks and overflowing onto the thirsty plains. During these times the quantity of the flow is unimaginable. Material the size of houses will bounce along the riverbed widening the stream and gouging out new channels for the powerful current.
Tragically, this is a picture of the way the river used to be, before man sought to control the flow. These days the powerful currents and resource-laden floods have been backed up behind manmade dams. The mighty flow has been reduced to a tiny trickle compared to the powerful force that once cascaded down the riverbed. And much of the life downstream is dying of thirst.
The debate over the benefits of gathering the kingdom resources into large churches as opposed to allowing the river to flow freely downstream will likely continue for generations. Christian “reservoirs” allow us the luxury of storing the power and directing the flow to areas where we feel the greatest need exists. They provide for marvelous educational programs and quality ministries which can meet specific needs and attract those who are thirsting for “safe waters.” Beautiful facilities can actually add to the value of a community and serve as a continual invitation for those who desire to check out the rich nutrients in these placid pools. And who could argue with the benefit of having a vast amount of resources available in one location?
I am convinced that God will continue to use the “reservoir church” to accomplish significant advances for the kingdom as He has done so for generations. But I would like to take this opportunity to lobby on behalf of those who are living downstream from these manmade dams, those who will likely never be attracted to take a dip in the reservoir, those who are in danger of spiritual extinction. Please stop hording all the water! No, I am not advocating that we do away with the institutional church. Reservoirs have their place in the kingdom. And I am not saying that house churches have all the answers. Unfortunately many house churches remain plugged up behind their own dams and have merely substituted a large reservoir for a smaller one. I am just suggesting that we release the flow. Release the love, mercy and grace. Release the material blessings. Release the people resources. Let them spill over the dam to be used as God intends. Open the floodgates and let the life-giving resources flow downstream.
As institutional churches, as simple churches, or even as individuals, we have a tendency to store up treasures for ourselves. The resources of the kingdom may swirl around from person to person but they usually remain behind the dam. Those who live downstream, those who are perishing without the “water of life,” those who most often stand in the greatest need, are suffering through an unbearable drought. In the meantime we are splashing around in our pools of abundance. I would like to remind you that nature has a way of taking care of obstructions in the river. Eventually pressure from behind the dam will grow so intense that either the dam will burst or the river will find a way around the obstruction. Perhaps the recent exodus from the “reservoir church” is a sign that this phenomenon is already taking place.
If your own church is experiencing a decreased flow of resources into its coffers, or if your personal finances are taking a downturn, perhaps God is directing the river around the dam. My advice is to release the flow downstream before God causes the dam to burst and all of your hard work washes away. The river belongs to God; we are only servants of that which we seek to tame. Despite our ingenuity and cleverness, we cannot control it for long without having our dams breached and His precious resources released. Yes, every flood that occurs along the river will change the landscape. Sandbanks, boulders, and fishing holes which once graced our domain will move on down the river to grace someone else. But take courage; another flood is on its way and more resources will soon pile up along our shores.
These Scriptures, which we often use as a message to promote financial giving, can be applied to all of the resources God sends down the river. “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” – Luke 6:38. “…‘Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’” – Malachi 3:10. Listen! It is time for the spring thaw and the river is running at flood stage. Can you hear it?

Bill, a child of God releasing the flow