We must have resembled a scene out of the Beverly Hillbillies. Our minivan was packed front to back, floor to ceiling, with furniture, boxes, and suitcases. More boxes were strapped to the luggage rack on top. A fake fichus tree took up the passenger seat next to me blocking my view to right. The only thing missing was Granny sitting in her rocking chair on top. We were in the midst of a cross-town move from north to south Phoenix, a move we were attempting to undertake all by ourselves. Continue reading “THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD!”
We had already been hiking for two hours and covered three miles with an elevation gain of over a thousand feet. Although I was already somewhat exhausted and light-headed from the altitude, I had no idea just how difficult this endeavor would prove to be. My nephew, Rich, and I were enjoying a day trip to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area just south of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We were attempting to climb to the summit of Mt. Toll. It wasn’t supposed to be all that challenging, or so we thought, just a few hours of mild adventure hiking in this beautiful wilderness. Mt. Toll had always intrigued me due to its distinctive shape (steep, rugged, with sheer cliffs on two sides) and its location directly on the continental divide. I had always anticipated that the view from the summit must be spectacular, hoping one day to see it for myself. Continue reading ““TERROR ON MT. TOLL””
“BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY”
September 25, 2010
“We’re at ten centimeters!” Babs blurted out excitedly. “The doctor has been called in and they say this may take anytime between five minutes and two hours.”
I drew in a quick cleansing breath and attempted to gather my thoughts. My wife and I had driven 650 miles from our home in Northern California to Vancouver, Washington in order to be with our daughter as she gave birth to her first child, our third grandchild. Because the baby was past due and our daughter is rather petite, her doctor had decided to try and speed up the process. We had been with Trisha in the hospital since mid morning watching her slowly progress over the course of several hours from light, early labor to more productive and intense contractions. It was now mid afternoon and the last examination by the nurse measured her cervix at five centimeters, just halfway to delivery. Sensing this might go on for quite some time I decided to take the elevator down to the parking lot and retrieve a book from our car. Stepping off the elevator on my way back up to our daughter’s room I bumped into Babs bursting with excitement over the news that Trisha had progressed from five to ten centimeters in less than an hour.
“Perhaps this isn’t going to be such a long ordeal after all,” I replied sinking into a comfortable position in a chair in the waiting room and opening my book to the page I had previously marked.
We had barely become settled when Babs received a message on her phone. The message came in the form of a picture taken by our son-in-law, Alex—a picture of Trisha cuddling a brand new baby. Apparently, our daughter had chosen to deliver her child in five minutes rather than wait the two hours we were told it might take. With a squeal of delight Babs raced to the delivery room with her husband close on her heels. Unfortunately, we were kept out of our daughter’s room for an agonizingly long time while little Ava Michelle received her first meal and her mom received the care she needed.
While the minutes dragged on, my thoughts travelled back in time to another delivery room some twenty eight years earlier. Trisha is our second child and she came into the world in a lightning fast, one hour delivery including a frantic rush to the hospital and a desperate call to her doctor who just barely arrived in time. Somehow, the last twenty eight years has seemingly gone by just as fast.
At last the door to the delivery room opened and we were allowed to view the fruit of Trisha’s womb. I cannot possibly describe to you the joy that comes from holding your daughter’s daughter. There is something deeply satisfying about being a grandparent, about realizing your own fruitfulness has given birth to a new generation, and about the hope that even more fruit may lead to more distant generations in the future. Twenty nine years ago a seed of love was planted which God graciously, miraculously caused to bear fruit. Now, thanks to the planting of another “love seed,” that same fruit is bearing more fruit which, in turn, has the potential of bearing even more fruit. It is an unfathomable wonder of God’s miraculous creation, and an indescribable blessing to be a part of it.
“Be fruitful and multiply…” – Genesis 1:28. This was the first commandment our heavenly Father ever gave to mankind and I am beginning to understand the reason He gave it such a high priority. After all, God is a grandfather, several billion times over, and therefore is well acquainted with the thrill of watching His creation bear fruit. I can also, although in an infinitesimally small way, begin to comprehend the joy He must have felt when He watched Mary give birth to His only begotten Son, and the unbearable pain He must have felt when He allowed His Son to be crucified. Yet in so doing, our heavenly Father planted a seed of love which gave birth to a movement which, in turn, has given birth to countless generations who all bear the name of His Son. How thrilled He must be over each individual who is born again into His family!
“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…” This is a command which has never been revoked, although it has taken on a much more spiritual dimension. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” – Matthew 28:19. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” – John 15:16. In reality this is still the same command mankind first heard back in the Garden of Eden. And wonder of wonders, it is to be implemented in the same manner, by planting seeds of love and asking the Father to bless them that they might bear fruit.
New births are conceived through intimacy and spiritual births are no different. Intimacy with God’s Son is absolutely essential if we ever want to bear fruit. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:5. Intimacy with Christ will fill us with “love seeds” which we are to sow everywhere we go and with everyone we meet.
What, exactly, do I mean by “love seeds”? Seeds of love are sown by doing acts of kindness. Over the years we have learned to bless people by being generous tippers, calling waitresses and bank tellers by name, complementing others when they are serving us, and offering to pray for their needs. Whenever possible we try to meet the needs of others in a physical or financial way making sure they know we are doing so in the name of Christ. We inquire about their health and that of their family members. We let them know we genuinely care about them. Do seeds of love always bear fruit? As our Lord taught us, the soil is not always conducive to bearing fruit. But we are learning to be prolific in scattering our seeds. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” – 2Corinthians 9:6.
When our seeds of love fall on good soil, people fall in love with Jesus, disciples are made, churches are started, our Father’s family multiplies, and the kingdom of God expands. Sometimes a new birth will happen quickly. Other times we may spend years laboring in the delivery room. Though I much prefer the more rapid deliveries, any new birth in Christ is a miracle from Father God. Words cannot express the joy of witnessing seeds of love we have sown bearing fruit, of watching new babes in Christ being born. But greater still is the thrill we feel when these “love children” begin to sow their own seeds of love and a new generation of Christians is born.
Around fifty years ago a seed of love from Christ, planted by my parents, found good soil in my heart and God’s love was reborn in me. Around twenty years ago that seed of love was replanted in our daughter, Trisha. It is our hope and prayer that this seed will again find good soil in little Ava Michelle and, in turn, be replanted in her children. But the Lord has also blessed us with many spiritual children and we pray that they, too, will be fruitful and multiply generation after generation after generation until the day we all stand before our heavenly Father and see for the first time the spiritual family that has been born from the love seeds we have planted. That day will truly be an unfathomable wonder of God’s miraculous grace, and an indescribable blessing for those of us who will be a part of it.
Bill, a child of God sowing seeds of love
“IT’S OKAY, I’M WITH THE BAND”
July 1, 2010
“Come on everyone, it’s time to sing!” announced one of the leaders of the simple church.
Suddenly the place was filled with commotion as kids emerged from throughout the house and made a beeline for the family room. Eagerly I retrieved my guitar from its case in an adjoining room, checked the tuning, and prepared for what I hoped would be some inspirational worship. To my horror I soon realized I wasn’t the only one readying an instrument to play. We were visiting one of our house churches in the Central Valley of California, a mixed race group comprised mostly of two families, each with an impressive herd of young, active, and noisy children. I was hoping that a few minutes of quality worship and praise would help to corral the young ones and focus our attention on the Lord. However, what transpired resembled more chaos than choir, more warfare than worship, more mayhem than music, more pandemonium than praise.
While I had been pulling my guitar out of its case the group’s leaders had been distributing their own instruments. Noisemakers of all sorts were hastily retrieved from a box by tiny, eager hands. Maracas, ratchets, tambourines, and wood blocks were quickly claimed and pressed into service. One child brought out a junior version of a trap set and began banging with all his might on the drums and cymbals. Another child placed the strap of a department store electric guitar over his shoulder and plugged the instrument into a nearby amplifier. As he cranked up the volume it soon became apparent that he knew no chords; he was just enthusiastically strumming the open strings. As each kid tested out their chosen instrument the decibel level rose to a deafening roar, roughly akin to an explosion in a ball-bearing factory.
While the praise leader counted off the beat for the first song I was praying for a miracle. Sadly, my plea was drowned out by the beginning of world war three, commencing with the shock and awe of an instrumental introduction that will live in infamy. Little hands everywhere sprung into action making as much noise as possible. My own guitar and voice were completely overwhelmed by the chaotic clamor. A quick glance at my wife, Babs, revealed her panicked attempt to find a way to politely cover her throbbing ears. You’ve got to be kidding! I thought to myself. How can anyone call this worship? How can you present this deafening din to the Lord and claim that we’re honoring Him?
But then I caught a glimpse of the faces of the children. They were singing their hearts outs, totally enraptured in praise to their heavenly Father. Suddenly it dawned on me that the only real sour notes were coming from my attitude. Who was I to pass judgment on their ecstatic worship? Indeed, they were playing to a much higher audience than me, one who is much more able to look past the imperfections of our feeble attempts at worship and graciously judge the hearts of the performers. For years we had been wrestling with how to involve children more in our simple churches. Now the answer was shouting back at me through the agency of these children’s unorthodox yet heartfelt praise.
For generations the church has practiced segregation according to age. While adult worship was taking place in the “sanctuary,” we committed the children to the basement where they could do their thing without disturbing our “more genuine” worship upstairs. This arrangement allowed adults to pursue uninterrupted, quality praise and worship with professional musicians, resulting in a church service that was more dignified, reverent, and “worshipful.” But what have we taught the children? And what have we missed by their absence?
In children’s church our kids learn that worship means playing games, singing fun songs together, hearing a Bible story, and eating yummy snacks. They are encouraged to ask questions and everyone is urged to take an active role in worship. When they graduate to junior church the games get more sophisticated and the songs change to reflect the appropriate age. The Bible story may be a bit longer but the pattern remains essentially the same. On through high school our kids experience roughly the same thing. Worship involves games (Come to youth group this week and bring your Super Soakers!), age appropriate songs, a Bible time when everyone is free to ask questions and make comments, and food (Bring your favorite toppings and we’ll make our own pizzas!).
Tragically, when our kids graduate from high school, they are thrust into adult worship where they are forced to sit still in rows facing forward while the professionals do all the worshipping on stage. The play time is done away with, the interaction is missing, the Bible story has morphed into a thirty minute monologue, the worship becomes more subdued (we shouldn’t upset all the old folks) and snacks are relegated to coffee and doughnuts in the foyer before the service begins (except for that tiny sliver of a cracker and thimble full of grape juice we ironically refer as the Lord’s supper). Is it any wonder that 92% of children who grow up attending Sunday school leave church when they leave their parents’ home?
On the way home from our boisterous house church worship adventure I recalled a T-shirt I once saw when I was a professional musician employed by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. In large letters across the front of the shirt the message read: “It’s Okay, I’m with the Band!” For a musician the humor lies in the fact that this saying is a well known excuse for gaining access to the stage area in order to hobnob with the celebrity performers. I found myself wishing we had those t-shirts to hand out to all the children who frequent our simple church gatherings.
One of the most often asked questions regarding simple church is, “But what do you do with the children?” The answer is we let them on stage with all the other performers, meaning they are an integral part of what we do. We play games with them, interact with them, eat a meal with them, and sing with them. While we are enjoying a potluck meal together we ask everyone to share any “God sightings” they have witnessed since we last met. Our children love talking about experiences in which they believe God was actively involved. Some of our most deeply touching worship gatherings have occurred when the Lord has spoken to us through a child. As many others have often said, God doesn’t give children a junior Holy Spirit.
When it comes time to sing we often hand out noise makers to the kids. The music may not be as aesthetically pleasing (to our ears anyway) as it would be if only the adults took part in the praise time but it is a wonderful blessing to see entire families, young and old alike, worshipping the Lord together. And yes, we often sing children’s choruses—complete with all the motions. It’s amazing to see how much fun adults can have remembering the songs they used to sing in children’s church. Yes, I agree with those who argue that God deserves our very best, including when it comes to our worship. But do we honestly think, when surrounded by the heavenly host and all the music heaven has to offer, that God is all that impressed with our Sunday morning stage productions? As others have well said, God is not so much concerned with the state of our art as He is with the state of our heart! “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise…” – Psalm 8:2.
So what do we do when the discussion gets too deep or becomes inappropriate for the little ones? We have another room where they can play with toys, watch a Christian video, or listen to a Bible story from one of the adults. But our aim is to involve them as much as possible in all we do in our gatherings. When one of our more lively kids gets a little out of hand he or she quickly learns that they have many parents in our church family and all adults are to be given respect. Younger or more inexperienced parents receive good advice and practical demonstrations of effective disciplinary procedures. Our children learn that they are free to ask questions and that their opinions are highly regarded. Perhaps most importantly, these children are growing up observing their parents passionately worshipping their heavenly Father and earnestly praying for one another. I can only imagine the spiritual dividends this will bring later in their lives.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.’” – Matthew 18:1-5.
“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.” – Mark 10:13-16.
I can just see Jesus, after discovering that His disciples were preventing the children from “disrupting” His ministry, saying to one and all, “Let the kids come up here on stage with me. It’s okay; they’re with the band!”
Bill, a child of God thrilled to be in His band
“THE DAY IN BETWEEN”
April 4, 2010
Friday was awful; Sunday was awesome. But in between there was Saturday. I was thinking today how absolutely brutal the day after the crucifixion must have been for Christ’s disciples. They were in between the death and the resurrection, in between the agony and the ecstasy, in between the horror of the cross and the glory of the empty tomb, in between the knowledge that all was lost and the realization that everything was gained, in between the sting of death and the victory of life, in between the curse of Adam and the blessing of Christ, in between the tyranny of the grave and the freedom of grace, in between the horror of hell and the hope of heaven.
Fortunately, Christ’s original followers only had to endure one day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Believers today all live on the other side of Sunday. We know about the glory of the empty tomb, the victory of life, the blessing of Christ, the freedom of grace, and the hope of heaven. We know that “…Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” – 1Corinthians 15:20. We know that God “…has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…” – 1Peter 1:3-4. We know that “…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…” – Ephesians 2:4-5.
So if we know all this, why do we still live as though death was this all powerful enemy to be loathed and feared? Why do we still waste so much time and energy complaining about the state of the world, the state of our finances, the state of our health, and acting like we’re on our way to a funeral? Why do we so often find ourselves devoid of the joy of the Lord? Why do we so often act as though we were stuck in Saturday?
When Jesus gathered with His disciples on the night He was arrested He knew that their faith in Him was about to be shaken to its core. They were about to experience the worst two days of their lives. Not only would they witness the agony of His death on Friday, they would also experience the total absence of Christ on Saturday. For the first time in three years they would be completely removed from His presence. They were about to live through the “in between.” So He prayed to His Father on their behalf saying: “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” – John 17:13.
If Jesus’ final requests included an immeasurable amount of joy for His followers why do we so often allow the things of this world to rob us of His joy? Can financial stress, unemployment, poor health, sour relationships, failing businesses, political turmoil, or shattered dreams compare to the riches of eternity with Christ in heaven? “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” – Habakkuk 3:17-18. “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. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” – Philippians 4:4.
The answer to the Saturday blues is to keep your focus on Sunday. Whenever you find yourself in between your dilemma and His solution, in between your defeat and His victory, in between your sorrow and His joy, in between Good Friday and Easter, imagine yourself among the women who went to a tomb early one morning to anoint death but were instead surprised by life. Listen as they were told by two angels, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” – Luke 24:5-6. Imagine what it was like to have one incredible dawn obliterate the worst day of your life. Imagine having the darkness of your Saturday eclipsed by the brightness of His Sunday. And then realize that we are already living in Sunday!
Bill, a child of God rejoicing in Sunday
“THE MANIFOLD GRACE OF GOD”
March 28, 2010
“Never purchase a diamond after it has already been fixed in its setting,” explained the white-haired jeweler as he stared at me over his thick reading glasses. “You must examine it outside its setting, under a bright light, under a magnifying glass. Come; let me show you what to look for.”
The aged proprietor of the best known jewelry store in my hometown led me over to a counter and motioned for me to sit down on a high wooden stool. It was late summer and after several weeks of visiting my family and working summer jobs I would soon be returning to Arizona State University to resume my music studies. But before I made the trek back to school I had one monumental, life-changing task to accomplish. I had made the decision to pick up an engagement ring for my future bride. Because I knew almost nothing about purchasing a diamond ring I was advised to seek out the counsel of a certified gemologist.
The grizzled old gentleman sat down on a squeaky, well-worn stool on the opposite side of the counter from me. After unlocking a display case he reached in and produced several solitary diamonds placing them on top of the counter on a black velvet cloth. After schooling me about the color, the carat weight, and the clarity of the stones he talked about how the stones were cut.
“When a diamond is cut properly it will cast a perfect shadow; no light can penetrate,” he explained as he invited me to look through a large magnifying glass at a stone he was holding with a pair of locking tweezers. To emphasize his point he placed a clean sheet of white paper under the stone and slowly rotated the diamond under a bright light. The experienced jeweler was correct. At every angle the diamond cast a perfect shadow; no light was able to pass through it. “No matter which way I hold it this stone will perfectly reflect the light,” he proclaimed admiringly. “The many facets in the stone act like tiny mirrors bouncing the light back toward the source and radiating it in manifold directions. When a stone is cut right, its brilliance will be enhanced. Just look at how the lustrous beauty of this stone is brought to life and magnified under the light!”
I was hooked. The old man proved not only to be an experienced gemologist but a pretty good salesman as well. Forty years later my wife still wears the same diamond and all the wear and tear of four decades worth of washing dishes, sorting dirty laundry, changing diapers, cooking and cleaning, raising three kids and keeping a husband in line has not been able to dim its brilliance.
The distant memory of the time I bought that ring popped back into my mind the other day when I read this verse of Scripture. “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” – 1Peter 4:10. It was the phrase, “the manifold grace of God,” that triggered the memory of how a diamond is cut. Just like a multi-faceted diamond is cut to be a perfect reflection of the light, the Church is also designed to be a perfect reflection of Christ. But I wonder how well we live up to our design. Are we actually enhancing the brilliance of our Maker or do we cast imperfect shadows across the landscape of our neighborhoods?
We Christians have a habit of gathering together with those who look, think, and act just like ourselves. Not only does this lead to ethnic, economic, political, and philosophical segregation, but this tendency also gives rise to denominationalism. We usually prefer fellowshipping with those who possess the same ministering gifts we exhibit. Consequently we see churches who display an overabundance of one or two particular spiritual gifts. Those who are gifted as teachers will congregate in a church which emphasizes Bible study. Others possessing shepherding gifts will be drawn toward churches which have an emphasis on reaching out to the poor in their community. Others who have a passion for reaching the lost will search for a church with a strong evangelistic program. Those who employ the so called “charismatic gifts” will gather in charismatic churches.
It’s not that any of these emphases are wrong. Indeed they are all a part of the manifold grace of God. But that’s the problem; they’re just a part of His grace. By themselves these groups cast imperfect reflections of Christ. From one direction they may look terrific. But rotate them just a little and their luster fades. This is what happens when we allow imperfect stone-cutters (meaning human) to chisel away at the body of Christ and attempt to make it into our own image. Instead of mere humans doing the cutting, we need to place our trust in the Master Gemologist. Only He can cut the stone in such a way as to provide the greatest brilliance. Only He can bring together every facet of His manifold grace in a way that brings glory to Him no matter which way the stone is turned. Only He can place each stone in the proper setting in order to enhance the beauty of the whole piece of jewelry.
“As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’” – 1Peter 2:4-6.
I am sickened by the fact that throughout the history of the church human stone-cutters have broken up the kingdom of God into thousands of imperfect stones none of which comes anywhere close to perfectly reflecting the glory of our Cornerstone. We may see tiny glimpses of His grace here and there, but just think how glorious it would be if we all surrendered our hammers and chisels and allowed Christ to do the cutting! How much of our human programs, pride, and prejudices would have to be cut away before we became a stone which perfectly reflected the brilliance of the source of our light? What would have to be chipped away before those outside the kingdom would be able to look at us, from any angle, and see a perfect reflection of the manifold grace of God?
I don’t believe the simple-church movement has all the answers to these questions, but I love the concept of simply following Christ into the harvest field and allowing Him to gather together the people He chooses, organically, rather than directing people into an already existing group which may or may not be the proper setting to display their gifting. I continue to marvel at the individuals God has gathered together in our various simple churches. The church at table number two amazes me the most right now. At a local coffee shop on Tuesday evenings in our home town you are likely to see around ten very different individuals crowding around a corner booth sharing food, reading Scripture, and praying for one another. Included in this group is an African American, an Asian, two older white men, two Hispanics (one of whom speaks almost no English), an older woman of mixed race, and two unwed mothers in their early twenties.
There is no way any human stone-cutter could have come up with such a gem. Only God could have brought together this diverse of a group. I am so glad we gave up trying to be just a men’s accountability group and allowed Christ to shape us into His own image. Because we gave over our hammer and chisel to the Master stone-cutter, the glory of God shines forth from that restaurant every Tuesday evening. All we do is show up and ask God who He wants us to shine upon that evening. To our amazement He keeps bringing us into contact with individuals we never would have imagined gathering together into a church. As God continues to polish this gem the light has begun to radiate outward. Additional gatherings have sprung up and more ministries are about to be birthed.
I have a feeling God isn’t finished shaping this gemstone. But after all we are a “living stone” and as long as we are willing our Master Gemologist will continue to cut away what doesn’t belong and polish what does. He does so in order that we might not absorb any of His glory but rather mirror it back to a world lost in darkness. He does so in order that the beauty of our stone might be enhanced and the light of Christ might be magnified. He does so in order to help us become a greater reflection of the manifold grace of God.
Bill, a child of God and a steward of His manifold grace
“PASSING THE BATON”
March 5, 2010
“Keep your eyes on those green hills that stretch on forever, Frank,” I said over the rhythmical hissing of his ventilator and the incessant beeping of his heart monitor. “You’re going to be dancing across those hills very soon.”
These were the last words I ever spoke to my friend. I’m not entirely sure that he heard them since he had been fairly comatose for the past several days. But I’m guessing that he did and that it helped him focus on what lay ahead for his spirit. Frank had been imprisoned in a wheel chair for years with progressively deteriorating muscle movement that was gradually, day by day, siphoning the life from him. Now, that life had been almost completely drained from his body. Burdened by a lifetime of muscular dystrophy and years of battling other various ailments, Frank’s body had all but shut down. His kidneys were failing, his lungs were filling with fluid, his extremities were swelling up and he was virtually unresponsive to any verbal stimulation. His ventilator was the only thing keeping him alive. At 78 years of age Frank had lived a long time for someone with his degree of disabilities. But all the signs were pointing to the unmistakable fact that his earthly struggles were coming to an end.
Earlier that day, in conference with a consortium of doctors and hospital staff, his wife had agreed to remove Frank from his respirator. The decision was based upon Frank’s request written beforehand due to the likelihood he would eventually end up in such a condition. Frank’s wishes were clear; he didn’t want to be left imprisoned in a helpless body kept alive only by means of artificial life support. So, late on a chilly February evening, his wife and four other close friends gathered in his hospital room to say goodbye to a brother in Christ and usher him into eternity.
When earlier that week I had heard about the possibility of this happening I was uncertain as to God’s will in the matter. Was this really Frank’s time to go? Did God want to heal this man and allow him to linger in our presence a little while longer? But then, two nights before his departure, I had a dream which I believe came from the Lord.
In my dream I was carrying an aging dog in a cage to the vet in order to have him put to sleep. The veterinary clinic seemed to be out in the country, in the middle of nowhere. Stepping out of the car with the cage in hand I noticed the surrounding countryside. I was completely surrounded by rolling green hills as far as the eye could see. This dog would love to be set free here, I thought to myself. He could run all over these hills exploring every gopher hole and rabbit burrow and have the time of his life free from any restraints. But then I noticed there were no fences anywhere in sight. What if he got lost and couldn’t find his way back? No, I better keep him in the cage.
At this point in my dream I woke up thinking how stupid it was to keep the dog caged up for his protection when he was headed for his demise anyway. Realizing this dream might be a message of some sort from the Lord I asked Him what it meant. “Open the cage and let him go free.” The words popped into my mind in such a way that I had no doubt they were of divine origin. The next day I shared the dream and its message with Nancy, Frank’s wife, and shared it again the next evening with Frank and the others who were gathered in his room to say farewell. It is difficult to describe in words the peace that came over us as we let the message of the dream minister to our grieving souls.
The dream brought with it a surreal sense of joyous celebration in the midst of the sadness of saying goodbye to a friend. Just two years earlier we had witnessed Frank placing his trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior so we had no doubt as to what was in store for our brother. So we anointed him with oil, read Scriptures which spoke of heaven and the resurrection, sang Amazing Grace, and prayed. As we did so the attending nursing staff increased the flow of his drugs while simultaneously decreasing the flow of his ventilator. Slowly, peacefully, Frank’s body was allowed to take its rest. After about two hours of traveling through this process the door to the cage swung gently open and Frank’s spirit was set free. I am convinced God sent the dream to bring comfort to us all, including Frank as he drifted off to sleep in a morphine haze with visions of rolling green hills on his mind, only to awaken with the realization that the dream had become a reality.
During our farewell gathering, the divine presence in that hospital room was overwhelming. I got the sense that we were on one side of the great divide lifting up our brother’s spirit and passing it off to a host of waiting angels on the other side who joyously, triumphantly, carried him off to his reward. It reminded me of a relay race in which we were passing off the “baton” from one existence to another, from the hand of man, to the hand God. It gives one a whole new meaning for the phrase, “passing on,” and makes one wonder why those who belong to the Lord would ever look upon death with such fear and loathing.
“For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1Corinthians 15:53-57.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” – 1Timothy 4:7-8.
“Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’” – Revelation 14:13.
I believe it is vital to make certain that you are “in the Lord,” that you are involved in the great relay race. And it is also important to gather around you those who are helping to prepare you for the baton exchange; those who will help you mature in Christ, who will partner with you in ministry, bear with you through life’s failures and triumphs, and support you in your heartaches and struggles. Then we can look forward to the baton exchange with joyful anticipation rather than fear and dread. For unless the Lord returns beforehand, there will come a time for each one of us when the Lord says, “Open up the cage and set his spirit free.” When that happens to you, I pray that you will awaken to find that your greatest dream has become a reality!
Bon-voyage, brother Frank. Enjoy dancing across those green hills!
Bill, a child of God, grieving and rejoicing at the same time
“PRESSING INTO HIM”
December 24, 2009
There are times when I get so upset at him I feel like twisting his elongated body into a pretzel, and last night was one of those times. I had just returned from a thoroughly exhausting day of Christmas shopping, a task which rates near the very top of my list of most loathsome activities (somewhere between paying taxes and being boiled in hot oil). I had stashed my packages in a closet out of site from inquiring eyes and settled down for a relaxing dinner. A few minutes later when I returned to the closet to begin wrapping the presents, I discovered a sickening mess. Jaba, our pet miniature Dachshund, had managed to find the stash and tear into a box of chocolates. I honestly wanted to murder the gluttonous beast. It was the perfect exclamation point on an absolutely horrendous day. Fortunately for his sake, my wife Babs came to the rescue of the thieving mutt and carried him away from my fury.
Today, he is once again sitting at my feet whining for attention as if nothing had happened the previous evening. He is without doubt the most loving animal I have ever known. He insists on being next to Babs or me constantly. Not content to merely be in the same room or even on the same couch, he will press into us making sure his fur is rubbing against us. I am convinced he would crawl under our skin if he could. Though his pandering for attention is sometimes a little unnerving, his loving nature makes it pretty difficult to stay upset at him for any length of time.
His continual thirst for intimacy with Babs and me is a marvelous image of how our relationship should be with Christ. Even though I’m quite certain there are many times during each day when our less than holy actions are exasperating to our Lord, He will never refuse our thirst for intimacy with Him. After all, He is the one who continually pursues intimacy with us. “We love because he first loved us.” – 1John 4:19. He has gone to the greatest length possible, even death on a cross, to open up a pathway to our hearts. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” – John 3:16. Christmastime is the season when we celebrate how our heavenly Father pressed in so close to us that He actually did crawl into our skin.
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’” – Matthew 1:22-23.
For many people this is the most stressful time of the year. This year it doesn’t help that we are in a period of extreme economical distress and our society seems to be more divided than it has been in decades. Around the world Christians as a whole are experiencing more persecution right now than we have seen since the first century. Many will celebrate Christmas while hiding in darkened rooms for fear of reprisal from an oppressive government or zealous religious fanatics. Yet even in the midst of such trauma, the peace of Christmas is still available to those who are determined to press into Jesus, those who persist in demanding an intimate relationship with Christ.
I recommend you take a hint from our wayward little pooch and insist on pressing into your Master. Don’t let anything get in your way, not even your many indiscretions. I am confident that He will accept your offer of love and allow you to experience the peace and warmth that comes from intimacy with Him. This season is not about the perfect gifts, the best decorations, the tastiest food, or the warmest gatherings. It’s all about Jesus!
May you experience the full measure of His peace and joy this season even as you press into Him!
Bill and Babs, children of God learning to press into Him
December 13, 2009
It was one of those life-lessons you’d certainly rather see deleted from the curriculum, at least postponed until after the holidays. But this one surprised us on the first day of December, a sucker punch from the Christmas Grinch that stole our holiday spirit and threatened to destroy our hopes for the coming year. In a terse email notice from our mortgage company we learned that the application for refinancing our home had been denied. Last June our five-year, adjustable-rate mortgage adjusted and our house payments suddenly increased dramatically. One month prior to the scheduled adjustment we began negotiating with our bank to refinance our loan never dreaming it would take so long. After seven months of wrangling with bankers and underwriters we were unceremoniously discarded in four short sentences.
The news came particularly hard since only a week prior to the notice we had been assured that everything looked great and our loan would be closing by the end of November. There would be no need to make a December mortgage payment and future payments would be five hundred dollars less than they had been. The bank even sent us a sample closing statement with a generous cash-back offer asking if we thought the amount was too much.
“Let’s leave it the way it is,” I replied relieved to have the long ordeal finally coming to a close. Anticipating the extra income Babs and I began to plan an anniversary get-away to make up for a couple of years without a vacation together. It’s about time we had some fun together after living like paupers the last few months and barely getting by, I thought to myself. “How would you like to spend a week at Disneyland?” I asked my wife.
It was shaping up to be one of the greatest Christmas seasons ever. But then we received the heart-wrenching email that burst our holiday balloon and I was instantly cast into a pit of despair, self-pity, and anger.
“How dare these arrogant, greedy bankers pass judgment on my finances,” I cried. “For the past six years we haven’t missed a single payment, nor have we even been late on a payment. If they think we’re a poor risk for a new loan how do they think we’ll be able to continue to pay them the hundreds of dollars more each month we currently owe? I don’t think they ever intended to approve this loan. They’ve just been stringing us along month after month content to be squeezing more money out of us. I can’t believe people could be so cruel as to dangle the prize in front of our eyes within our grasp, and then yank it away at the last minute.”
The more I thought about the injustice of it all the more angry I became. My fretting over the situation increased to the point where it became difficult for me to pray. I knew the Lord wanted me to give it up and allow Him to work things out in His perfect timing and in His perfect way, but I was too full of rage and depression to surrender to His will. I had a good mad on and I wasn’t about to lay it down. It took the better part of a week before the Lord succeeded in breaking through my inconsolable attitude. My daily Old Testament reading brought me to Psalm 37 and my sickened heart was pierced by His powerful, two-edged sword.
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” – Psalm 37:7-9.
As I broke down and repented before the Lord, His Spirit began downloading into my heart heaven’s perspective on the painful life-lesson I was experiencing. I was suffering from a bad case of misplaced hope. I had foolishly placed all of my hope for a joyful Christmas and a prosperous New Year in a group of human financiers and their approval of our new mortgage. How utterly senseless! How could I have so easily fallen into the enemy’s trap? I was granting people and circumstances power over my joy rather than looking to Jesus for all of my hope.
The more I dwell on this issue the more I am convinced the problem of misplaced hope has become an epidemic among Christians. Instead of trusting in the Lord we place our hope in doctors, or investment schemes, or employers, or bank accounts, or real estate, or friends, or spouses, or technology, or politicians, or scientists, or our own strength and skill, or pastors, or even the church. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad. Indeed there is a potential for much good in them all. They’re just not Jesus, and only Jesus can make our hope secure. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” – Hebrews 6:19.
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
When Darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace; in ev’ry high and stormy gale my anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood support me in the whelming flood; when all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand—all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand. – Edward Mote
I have decided to place my hope in Jesus rather than in banks. Since He holds the true deed to our home and since all our income ultimately comes from Him, He possesses every right to determine where we live and how much we pay for the privilege. Besides, He has promised that “…those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” Why should I be so concerned about one small house?
I am determined not to let people and circumstances rob me of the joy of this season. I sincerely invite you to join me in this resolution.
Bill, a child of God placing my hope squarely on Him
“BRINGING JESUS TO A PUB”
November 21, 2009
“Hey, do you guys know anything about a place called Evie’s?” asked Berm on his cell phone. “I had a dream last night about this name. Just now as I was on my way home from Starbuck’s and had stopped at the light on the corner, I looked across the street and saw a sign with this name above the door of what I think is some sort of restaurant. Anyway, I think you guys should check it out.”
The call came while Danny, Dave, and I, fellow organic church planters, were still sitting at a small table in Starbuck’s coffee shop finishing up our discussion and prayer time. We had been meeting there for the past few weeks on Sunday mornings talking and praying over strategy on how to advance the kingdom of God in our city. We had invited Berm, a Korean Christian friend of ours with a prophetic gift, to join us that day in order to help us listen more intently to the Holy Spirit. It had been a productive meeting reviewing images and thoughts from the prayer walk we had taken the previous week. But nothing specific leaped out and grabbed us as being from the Lord—nothing, that is, until Berm’s phone call shortly after he left our table. But was that message really from the Lord?
On the way home from the coffee shop that day I drove by Evie’s. From the street it appeared to be just some sleazy, hole-in-the-wall bar. Visiting a place like that, especially on a Sunday, would certainly not be on my list of fun things to do. Planting a church there was no where near my radar scope. I figured someday we should check the place out but right now we were all convinced God had called us to gather at Starbuck’s where we were already getting to know some of the barristers and regular customers. In fact, since we were engaged in some significant ministry there, we were humorously referring to our Sunday morning gathering as “The Church at St. Arbuck’s.” For several weeks we ignored the message from Berm and continued meeting at the coffee shop every Sunday morning. But then God confirmed the word He had given concerning Evie’s.
Berm and his family had been staying in our home for a few weeks while they were preparing to move to China for a job opportunity. On Saturday evening before their plane was to leave the next day, Berm and his wife along with Babs and I sat on our living room floor and prayed for each other. Following our prayer time Berm spoke up.
“While you were praying, Bill, I saw a vision of a pub with an ‘oikos’ inside.” (The word “oikos” is Greek for “house” or “household” and refers to an intimate group of extended family members and friends.)
“Oh, that’s kind of like the TV show, ‘Cheers,’” replied Babs.
“I suppose we ought to pay a visit to Evie’s,” I commented with resignation and not the slightest hint of enthusiasm.
I had not been feeling well and the thought of going to some bar was not at all appealing to me. However, the next day while meeting at Starbuck’s, the feeling that we should visit Evie’s was overwhelming. So reluctantly two of us, Dave and myself, drove across the street and parked in the rear of the establishment since the front parking lot was filled. Why is this place so busy on Sunday afternoon? I wondered. But as soon as we walked through the rear entrance the reason became clear.
It was football season and the walls of the pub were dominated by no less than ten TV screens all tuned to various games in progress. Many of the patrons were decked out in jerseys representing their favorite team. Occasionally a cheer would erupt from a few excited fans accompanied by groans from others. Along one wall a shelf was filled with several crock pots and bowls filled with homemade food. Chile, bread, pasta dishes, and pumpkin pie along with the usual tavern libations were in the process of being enjoyed by the hungry patrons. Everyone seemed to know each other and they were all having a great time, unless their team wasn’t living up to expectations.
We took a seat at the only empty table and surveyed the scene. Although the inside was much cleaner and nicer compared to what I had imagined still, all things considered, the place was just a bar. Silently I hoped no one who might know me as a local pastor would recognize me. As Christians involved in organic church planting we felt very much out of place and wondered what we would say if anyone inquired as to who we were and what we were doing there. A few minutes later a waitress approached us and asked us what we wanted to drink. After ordering soft drinks we inquired as to the food.
“Oh, this is stuff people bring to share on Sundays during football season,” she replied. “You are welcome to whatever you want.”
After our drinks arrived we settled down to watch our favorite game and prayed that God would connect us with whomever he wanted. Since He had brought us to this unique place we figured there must be at least one person He wanted us to meet. We didn’t have long to wait.
“Wow, you guys are just about the last people we would ever expect to meet here!” shouted a female voice coming from halfway across the room.
If I could have crawled under the table and disappeared I would have instantly done so. My worse fears were suddenly coming true. Someone had recognized us. How were we ever going to explain what we were doing there? But in a flash my fears were relieved and my faith in God was elevated to a new height.
Turning around we were greeted by two of the waitresses with whom we have built a friendship at the Church at Table #2 in Carrow’s Restaurant. Evie’s was apparently an old hangout for them when they used to work at the restaurant on Sunday mornings and would stop by to relax together before heading home. A strange set of circumstances had resulted in them sharing the same shift once again and they had decided to drop by the pub for old time’s sake. Neither one of them had been to Evie’s for months.
“This was our favorite place to come and have a leisurely drink,” they shared. “But since neither of us drink much anymore (They are both new mothers) and our schedules never allow for us to share Sunday mornings together we have stopped coming. Today was just a fluke! So what on earth would bring you guys here?”
We had an interesting time explaining to them that God had called us to be there, but since we already enjoyed a spiritual relationship with them and they were familiar with the concept of organic church planting, they understood our motive. Once our embarrassment over having been caught in a bar began to subside, the conversation turned to this unique pub. The two young women began to point out different people we might want to get to know.
“That’s Evie,” one of them proclaimed pointing to the woman behind the bar. “She’s the owner and she insists on keeping this place spotless. She knows everyone else and makes us all feel at home here. You need to take the time to get acquainted with her.”
After sharing information about the rest of the staff and a few of the patrons, the girls excused themselves and headed home. Dave and I were left to ponder in amazement what had just happened. Through Berm’s prophetic gift God had obviously, supernaturally, led us to this pub at this very time to reunite us with two individuals who were already intimately familiar with the place. Their testimony about the pub confirmed the fact that God has something in mind for our ministry there. Gradually, the progression of how the Lord of the harvest was leading us began to take shape in our minds. Two years ago our men’s accountability group which met every Tuesday evening at Carrow’s Restaurant was transformed into The Church at Table #2 as God showed us how to witness to the staff and customers. That gathering led us to other forays into the harvest and helped us understand that planting simple churches isn’t about inviting people to come to our home, but rather about inviting ourselves to go to theirs, or to their place of business, or school, or some other place where they feel comfortable.
As the Lord’s harvest workers we have learned that we can’t just open the barn doors and expect the wind to blow the wheat inside. The crop won’t harvest itself! It requires laborers to actually go into the fields and do the work. God will then bind the sheaves together into whatever gathering He desires, whether in large barns or small sheds, open fields or fenced yards, living rooms or mega churches, restaurants or even pubs. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19. Nowhere does it say we are to stay in one place and expect disciples to form around us. “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – Matthew 16:18. Building the church is strictly the Lord’s responsibility. We dare not remove this vital task from His capable shoulders no matter how much we may be convinced we know what the church should look like.
This outward focus led us to gather at Starbuck’s on Sunday mornings, a place where many people in our community love to hangout, a time when people, who are not going to church, like to go for a latté. But we never dreamed that following the Lord into the harvest would lead us to a bar. It certainly makes a lot of sense, however, when you consider that we aren’t exactly looking for saints. The following week, while sitting at Starbuck’s before venturing across the street to Evie’s, the Lord led us to read the Scripture passage which describes the calling of Matthew. After Matthew decides to leave his tax collector’s booth and follow Jesus it seems like the very next thing the Lord does is to go to Matthew’s house in order to connect with a few of the new disciple’s friends.
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” – Matthew 9:10-13.
That week at Evie’s we watched as the owner walked around the tables and stopped to visit with each patron. She was doing exactly what I used to do as a pastor of an institutional church at every potluck dinner we held. Evie was shepherding her flock. The only thing missing was Jesus. We now know why the Lord has brought us to this unlikely spot to do church. We are there to simply supply what is missing, to bring Jesus to the pub.
Bill, a child of God venturing even further into the harvest field