Saturday, April 25, 2009


April 25, 2009

It was a day that would go down in history. I was certain that the events of that afternoon would someday occupy a major chapter in my biography written by some future historian attempting to chronicle the major turning points in my life. My six year old body was trembling with the excitement of knowing that today I would cross a major threshold of maturity. I was about to enter a new era of my life, an era that belonged to the athletic elite. It would be "one small step for a little boy, one giant leap toward manhood." It was the day the training wheels would be removed from my bicycle.
Grasping the handlebars with a mixture of excitement and sheer panic I could already imagine the exhilaration of blasting off into the unknown world with the wind whistling through my hair, free to follow my dreams (at least around the block), unshackled from the embarrassing, encumbering stigma that had been attached to me for so long. It seemed like I had waited an eternity for my legs to grow long enough to reach from the bicycle seat to the ground. But now at last the wait was over, the day had come, the hour of triumph was upon me.
My older brother, David, was selected to be the guide for my launch into a new life. At long last there I was, perched upon the captain’s seat of my new spacecraft with the despised restraints cast unceremoniously on the lawn. With my brother holding the rocket ship upright I pushed the ignition switch with my foot and propelled myself forward into adulthood. I had slipped the surly bonds of earth and was headed skyward to investigate unexplored worlds. Unfortunately, while attempting to break through the earth’s atmosphere, I immediately encountered some extreme turbulence.
No one had bothered to tell me that riding a bicycle is not a skill with which we are born. What had appeared to be so easy with the training wheels attached was now proving to be exasperatingly troublesome. Time after time I weaved and wobbled my way back and forth along the narrow sidewalk in front of our home with my brother running along behind holding onto the bike. Each time I began to fall or veer too close to the edge of the sidewalk my brother was there to grab the bike, push it upright and set me back on course. It was a great feeling knowing he was right behind, helping me through this critical period of my life. Well, it was a great feeling until the time I turned around and discovered he was no longer there. In fact, he was several yards behind me, waving goodbye—and laughing!
"DAVID!!!" I screamed at the top of my lungs! Unfortunately, when I screamed I turned my head around, and when I turned my head around the bike turned with me, rolling off the sidewalk, over the curb and into the street where it came to rest on top of my smarting ego (not to mention my bruised backside). After barely lifting off the ground my spaceship had crash landed back on earth. Knowing he was likely risking his life just to approach me, my brother rushed to my side, picked me up, and congratulated me on how well I was doing. Then, without waiting for me to object, he placed me back on the bike, set me back on the sidewalk, and gave me another shove.
I had just survived my first fall managing to escape with just a few bruises, a skinned knee and a sore throat from screaming at my brother. Although at the time I was certain he was trying to kill me, David was only attempting to help me learn to keep my balance and negotiate the narrow sidewalk by myself (at least that's what I'd like to think). He also was teaching me another valuable lesson in life: Falling does not necessarily mean failure. In fact, it may be the best teacher leading us to our eventual success. And persevering through difficult situations is the best tutor for learning how to achieve anything worthwhile.
Learning to master the Christian life can be a similar experience. How exhilarating it is racing through our new life with Christ, following our Godly dreams, unshackled from the embarrassing sins that use to slow us down, released from the lack of faith that had previously prevented us from soaring with the wind. Unfortunately, we immediately encounter turbulence. As we struggle to remain upright in our new life weaving and wobbling down the pathway, we can't help but wonder how something that looked so simple could be so difficult. Yet how comforting it is to know that the Lord is running along beside us, ready to grab us if we start to fall or veer too close to the edge of our faith! In response to our heartfelt plea He is eager to push us upright and set us back on course. It's a great feeling until the time comes when we start to fall, cry out to God for help, and discover He's stepped away from the bike.
As we come crashing to earth our tendency is to get angry with God. “Why have you let me fall?” “Why have you allowed this near-impossible circumstance at this inopportune time?” “Why have you stepped away from me right when I need you the most?” At the time we may think God is some kind of sadistic prankster who enjoys watching us suffer and make a fool of ourselves. But perhaps, like my brother David, He just wants us to grow up and learn to keep our balance while negotiating our way down “the narrow road that leads to life.” “...My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves...No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” – Hebrews 12:5-6, 11.
Did that say, “…trained by it”? Wow, come to think of it, the Lord's discipline makes a pretty good set of spiritual training wheels. Even when He allows us to fall, the Lord is always with us and will rush to our side to pick us up, bind up our wounds, encourage us, and send us off again in the right direction. Through these times of intense pain and discouragement we need to learn a lesson from cycling. Falling does not mean failure. In fact, it is often the best way to learn how to stay upright. And learning how to persevere while struggling through troublesome, difficult, and seemingly impossible situations, is the best way to grow in our Christian faith.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” – James 1:2-4.
It occurs to me that the church has often served as inappropriate training wheels for its members. It is wonderful for a group of disciples to come around a new believer and hold them up as they begin their walk with Christ. However, there comes a time when we must step aside and allow the growing Christian to launch out on their own, to struggle in their faith, and yes, even to fall. Such difficulties are necessary for them to fully mature. This doesn’t mean we are to totally abandon them but rather encourage them to grow. And this means rather than insisting they remain in the womb of the assembly we need to help them discover their gifts, help them learn how to use them, and then assist the Holy Spirit in launching them out into the harvest field to reach new people for the Lord, make new disciples for Christ, and plant new ministries. To fail to do this is tantamount to leaving their training wheels attached, stunting their growth, and preventing them from becoming the effective minister Christ has called them to be. It also prevents the kingdom of God from expanding.
As the body of Christ we need to realize that our goal should not be to have the largest assemblies on the planet, but rather to do our best to help people mature in Christ. “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” – Colossians 1:28. In order to accomplish this we must determine when each individual needs to have their training wheels removed and then we must release them out into the world, to explore new communities yet unreached by the Gospel, to fulfill the role in the kingdom Christ has determined for them. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” – John 20: 21. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19.
As a fellow cyclist, one who has taken more than his share of tumbles, allow me to offer some hard-learned advice. Traveling with your training wheels attached will stifle your growth and limit your exhilaration and joy in the Lord. Let this be the historic day when you cast them aside and propel yourself fully into the adventure of becoming the disciple Christ has created you to be. Is it frightening? Absolutely! Will you fall? Yes, of course you will. But each time you fall the Lord will be there to pick you up, encourage you, set you back on course, and shove you down the pathway once again. The best way to maintain your balance, on a bike or in the Christian life, is to keep your eyes looking forward and keep on pedaling. “...forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on...” – Philippians 3:13-14.

Bill, a child of God, training wheels removed, still pedaling

Saturday, April 11, 2009


April 11, 2009

"Shhhh, they're coming! Everybody be quiet."
Quickly we all scrambled to our hiding places waiting for the pivotal moment. The party had been planned for weeks, a 50th birthday celebration for a close friend of ours. Dozens of expectant revelers, eager for a good laugh and a chance to honor a loved one, had gathered at the palatial home of one of her many friends. The invitations had come via stealth emails from the birthday girl's conniving husband. "Be careful not to let her know about this," he wrote. "It's a surprise!" To avoid tipping her off as to our presence we had all parked a few miles away and were taken to the party location in a van pool. The guest of honor and her husband, under the pretense of coming for a quiet, intimate dinner engagement, were to show up about half an hour after we had all arrived.
Finally the moment had come. The reluctant fifty-year-old arrived in front of the house wearily dragging her feet up the walkway, burdened with life and not at all thrilled to be reaching such a significant milestone. She could not have imagined what was waiting for her. The doorbell rang and a houseful of secret guests tried valiantly to suppress their giggles. The door opened and the birthday girl walked into the waiting ambush. "SUPRISE!!!"
The whole house trembled like it had just been hit by a violent earthquake. Shouts came from every direction followed by a stampede of people rushing to the entryway to congratulate the guest of honor. Our friend was dumbfounded. I'll never forget the look of utter shock on her face. Disbelief gave way to amazement which turned into tears of joy. She was overwhelmed that we had gone to such an extent to show how much we cared. Suddenly, turning 50 wasn't such a bad deal. It must have been especially sweet to realize she had so many friends who were willing to walk through this trial with her.

The pre-dawn darkness hung like a shroud around a small group of women as they wound their way through the streets of the sleeping city toward a lonely cemetery just outside the city walls. On their heads they carried heavy jars of spices. In their hearts they carried an even heavier weight of grief. The spices were meant to anoint the dead, but nothing could sweeten the smell of their loss. Three days earlier they had watched as their fondest dreams, their highest hopes, and their greatest joys were nailed to a cross, ripped apart, and destroyed. Prevented by Sabbath restrictions from doing so earlier, they came now to perform a final act of love, to prepare the body of their Lord for burial.
With eyes red and swollen from weeping and with hearts aching from unimaginable sorrow they wearily made their way, step after painful step, toward the tomb. They wondered aloud if the guards would move the stone and allow them entrance to fulfill their gruesome task. Despite the likelihood of being turned away they were determined to try. They also wondered silently how they could even go on living after so profound a loss. Why bother to continue breathing when hope itself had died? But none of them could have imagined what was waiting for them.
Surrounding the tomb, hiding behind their spiritual veils, a group of the heavenly host was waiting for the pivotal moment. "Shhhh, they're coming! Everybody be quiet." This encounter had been planned for ages. It would be a celebration of life that would change the course of history and forever destroy the fear of the grave. All of heaven was watching, eager to see the moment when a new faith would be born, when the power of sin would be crushed, when death would be dethroned and a gateway opened to eternal life.
Finally, after centuries of planning and waiting, the moment had arrived. The small group of unsuspecting women was approaching the tomb. The secret guests hiding in the cemetery tried valiantly to suppress their giggles. Suddenly the signal flashed from the throne room of heaven. Death had been defeated; victory was achieved; the Son was alive! A violent earthquake shook the ground, the huge stone that had been placed in front of the tomb rolled away, and the guards shook with fear and became like dead men.
"SUPRISE!!!" "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples..." – Matthew 28:6-7.

Don't you wish you could have been there to see the expressions on the faces of these women? I'm sure they were all dumbfounded. Perhaps disbelief gave way to amazement which turned into tears of joy. I can imagine that the jars of spices came crashing to the ground as they ran back down the path to the city. Death would not be anointed today. Joy had returned; hope itself had been resurrected. The burden had been lifted from their heads as well as their hearts. I suspect they were all overwhelmed that God had gone to such an extent to show how much He cared for them, indeed for all mankind.
Perhaps you are wearily winding your way through a period of darkness in your life, your mind burdened with despair, your heart filled with loss. Maybe you have just watched your fondest dreams, your highest hopes, and your greatest joys ripped apart and destroyed. Is there a giant stone that stands between you and your goals that has you wondering how you can go on? Has hope itself died for you?
At the risk of giving away a secret I'd like to let you in on something. You may not realize it now but you are walking into a surprise party, one that God has been planning for some time now. And you are the honoree! "'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.
To be sure, there is a surprise party being prepared for the day when we finally complete our earthly sojourn and step into glory. But there are likely other joyous celebrations waiting for us along the journey as well, just up the road apiece, concealed from our immediate view, hidden behind the stone of impossibility and those who would in vain guard the power of God from reaching our need. Praise the Lord; we serve a God who delights in surprising His children with grace! “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” – Romans 8:31-32.
What's the message? Don't stop on your way to the tomb. Don’t give up before you reach the glorious resolution to your dilemma. No matter how impossible the situation, no matter how large the stone, no matter how fierce the guards, no matter how burdened your footsteps, keep moving forward. You are not alone in your despair. Heaven is watching, and for all you know there may be a surprise party waiting for you around the next bend. Is that the sound of giggling I hear? Anybody feel an earthquake?

Bill, a child of God expecting a party

Saturday, April 04, 2009



Nuts! I can't believe it's already that time again. No, I'm not talking about the dreaded credit card bills that are coming due after our holiday spending binges. And no, I'm not referring to that most anticipated of all time periods in this blessed republic known as tax season. I'm bemoaning the arrival of something even less welcome. For those of us who live in the bay area of California and have any deciduous plants and trees surrounding our homes, the first six weeks of the year provide the best window of opportunity for pruning. Every year at this time I question the sanity of previous occupants of our property who apparently nurtured a love affair with trees and planted them everywhere, dozens of them in numerous varieties and all sizes, some of them bearing fruit, some of them bearing tiny seeds which blow in the wind and seasonally make a mess of our neighborhood, and all of which grow far too rapidly and require periodic thinning.
However, I cannot blame all of our wooded woes on our residential predecessors. A family of brown squirrels has taken up homesteading in our backyard forest and regularly contributes to the proliferation of growth by burying walnuts, acorns, and a plethora of seeds, usually in the most unwelcome places. Every spring we are plagued with new trees sprouting all over our yard, in our garden, too near our home, and too close to other mature vegetation. By late summer our home begins to resemble a jungle hide-away, and every winter I am obliged to become a temporary lumberjack.
My personal deforestation campaign began a week ago on a cool, dreary, overcast Saturday afternoon. I could no longer put off the inevitable chore since some trees were already showing signs of budding. After a few tedious, back-breaking hours of sawing, chopping, clipping and whacking, I wearily stood in the midst of several mountainous piles of tree trimmings. I was ready to collapse from exhaustion when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something small and brown dashing across one of the few remaining uncluttered portions of my lawn. Undeterred by the logging operation which threatened his very existence, a squirrel was busily picking out a choice spot to bury a prized walnut, a seed which would likely be forgotten and consequently added to my removal chores twelve months later. I tried to muster enough energy to throw something at the furry insurgent but found myself instead marveling at his amazing persistence. I had spent eight years attempting to discourage his haphazard planting scheme but come every winter I was again faced with uprooting his handiwork.
In frustration I slumped into a lawn chair and began to dream of having my home surrounded by magazine-cover landscaping, professionally designed and meticulously maintained, something similar to what graces my neighbors' homes on both sides of our property. All right, I will admit to a twinge of curb-appeal envy, but you would think the squirrels would share their sowing labors equally amongst all of the yards in the neighborhood. Why was only I so richly blessed?
In my daydream I began to visualize what the perfectly designed, beautifully styled, low maintenance yard would look like. All of the trees would be carefully planted in large wooden boxes or decorative clay pots. Then they could be strategically placed to provide the correct amount of shade in the right area and be aesthetically pleasing increasing the value of the property. The planter boxes and pots would add to the delightful decor and prevent the trees from growing too rapidly. All of the fruit would be consumed before it fell to the ground, took root, and sprouted a new plant. Of course the yard would be regularly maintained and meticulously manicured by qualified professionals. No new vegetation would be allowed to remain that wasn't pure-bred, nursery-born, and growth-controlled by its placement in a container. And the squirrels would be banned from digging in the soil and planting seeds. They would be safely, humanely, interred in the tree-tops where they would remain cute, playful, amusing, and completely harmless.
As I thought about my dreams of squirrel containment my mind drifted to images of the oak-forested hills surrounding our community. I love to hike the trails that meander through these lush woods. It occurred to me that these beautiful woodlands, which stand in such stark contrast to the California deserts, were all planted by natural means, including the accidental, haphazard, absent-minded actions of squirrels. Somehow in the wild, without the help of man, God manages to make every plant fit together perfectly to achieve a magnificent garden, much more aesthetically pleasing than our vain attempts at landscaping. Unarguably, God is vastly more adept at playing God than we are. Perhaps I should just let God, nature, and the squirrels have their way, I thought, but then, what would my neighbors say?
Suddenly my daydream took a decidedly more serious turn and I became haunted by a most disturbing image. A vision involving the Church transformed my idle dream into a nightmare. The yard became the church universal and the trees, plants, and shrubs represented individual congregations of numerous varieties and all sizes, some of them bearing fruit, some of them bearing seeds blowing away in the wind, and all of them struggling to grow in their own way. In our arrogant haste to control our ministries, and in our burning desire to grow something aesthetically pleasing (at least in our own eyes), we have carefully sown this vegetation in handmade, wooden planter boxes and beautifully decorated clay pots. An emphasis on external design (property, programs, and size) has fostered a spirit of competition. A truthful introspection would cause many of us to admit to a twinge of curb-appeal envy. The planter boxes and pots, while adding to the pleasing decor, provide an effective way of controlling our growth. The roots of our faith can only grow so deep and the size of our branches is limited by such things as budgets, buildings, and bureaucracy. Most of the fruit is consumed by our individual programs before it is allowed to fall to the ground, take root, and sprout new growth.
In our traditional, centuries-old, generationally-preserved mindsets, we are convinced the Church and its numerous programs must be regularly maintained and meticulously manicured by qualified, seminary-trained professionals. No new congregations are allowed to flourish unless they are doctrinally pure (according to our own creeds), denominationally-born, and growth-controlled by their careful placement in a suitable container. And the Holy Spirit (Forgive me, Lord, for comparing your Spirit to a squirrel) is largely banned from digging in the soil and planting new seeds. He has been safely interred in our steeples where we sing of His power and amuse ourselves with His gifts, but He remains largely harmless.
"But Bill," I can hear the doubters complaining out there, "you can't just let new churches and ministries spring up anywhere. They might appear in places unsuitable for proper growth like inner cities, or hostile political climates, or in the shade of other mature congregations. And you can’t just let anyone and everyone plant new churches. Who will ensure that the church planters have the necessary training to start doctrinally sound, denominationally pure congregations? You just can't grow the Kingdom without adequate human controls and oversight."
Allow me a brief rebuttal to this argument. Exhibit A: The first one hundred years of the Church saw no seminaries and few if any buildings, yet growth has never been as rapid or effective—never, that is, until the recent explosion of house churches seen in countries like China, India, or parts of Africa. Exhibit B: The last seventeen hundred years of the Church has seen the rise of the professionally landscaped, denominationally gardened congregation and growth has been neither rapid nor effective. Could it be that the Church today in this culture has become too professional, too groomed, too carefully cultivated, too contained?
"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously." – 2Corinthians 9:6. "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." – John 15:1-2. "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow." – 1Corinthians 3:6-7. “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” – Mark 4:26-28. "Do not put out the Spirit's fire." – 1Thessalonians 5:19.
The diminishing light of approaching nightfall aroused me from my daydream. It was time to get back to the task at hand. My neighbors are expecting me to maintain the proper community image. But when it comes to the church, I have decided to smash the clay pot and surrender to the Spirit's will. Let the neighbors turn aside in worldly wonderment. I prefer to dwell in the forest. How do I know that's right for me? A little squirrel told me!

Bill, a child of God, still chasing after a squirrel