November 2, 2007
“Hey Bill, how would you like to work a fire today?” asked my immediate supervisor with a gleam in his eye and a widening grin. I had been working for the U.S. Forest Service for an entire summer and had yet to be called out on fire duty. My normal job as a member of the “land-line location department” usually had me out in the field hunting for land corners and unavailable for working on any fire crews. But this morning I happened to be in the main office at the right time.
“Count me in!” I replied with a shout. “Give me a second to gather my gear and I’ll meet you at the truck.”
As a young college student trying to earn enough money over the summer to help with school expenses I was only too eager to join a fire crew. Working on a fire meant hazardous duty pay at time-and-a-half plus overtime (fires don’t stop at 5:00 pm and neither do fire crews). Although the work was exhausting you could earn a sizeable sum of money on a typical fire, that is, of course, if you survived long enough to collect your paycheck.
Upon arriving at the sight of the forest fire I began to wonder if the extra income was worth it. Thick bluish-black smoke billowed up from the hills in front of us and towered over the scene like an enraged monster waiting to devour anyone who dared come near. Bursts of orange flames danced and cavorted wildly having their way with the tinder dry wood and overgrown brush. The smoke chocked our lungs and filled our eyes with tears. At times the heat was unbearable. It was as close to hell as I would ever want to find myself. As a nineteen year old boy I was terrified, yet at the same time I was strangely exhilarated. There was something about the fire, the danger, the excitement that drove me onward into the raging inferno. Grabbing a pickaxe I sprinted up to the fire boss to receive my assignment.
“Hey, you guys!” shouted the fire boss to me and my supervisor. “Go to the supply truck and pick up a couple of water packs. Fill them up and then patrol the right flank. We don’t want any embers starting a new fire. But be careful, this fire could change direction in a heartbeat.”
Despite our disappointment at not being on the fire line we quickly obeyed our orders. In a fire there is only one general and for everyone’s safety his commands must be faithfully carried out. The black rubber water packs held around five to six gallons of water and proved to be a huge burden as we climbed up the hill on the right side of the blaze. The swirling winds would often spin out burning embers which, left unchecked, could ignite other spot fires and lead to another front on the already out-of-control conflagration. Up and down the hills we scrambled pouring water on anything that appeared likely to spark another fire. It was back-breaking work but we did what we could to keep the fire from spreading in our direction. At times, when we looked toward the towering inferno and realized we had such an insignificant amount of water, it seemed like we were trying to hold back hell with a squirt gun.
After night-fall the winds died down a little and the fire boss directed us to begin lighting backfires. Now this was more like it. Instead of water packs we were carrying kerosene torches. Instead of putting out fires we were starting them. Now we wielded the power and we relished our new duty. Within minutes we had set several acres of timber and brush ablaze. I was amazed at how fast the fire took off and spread. I was also amazed at how much heat could be generated by such a fire. As I faced the flames, the front of my body was sweating profusely while my backside was freezing in the cold air of the mountain evening. I will never forget the terror of being that close to a firestorm. Nor will I forget the thrill of lighting a fire and watching it explode into the darkness. Despite its destructive force, before long the raging inferno was contained thanks to our backfires combined with aerial bombardments of fire retardant and the diligent work of those on the ground digging fire lines.
The memories of my experiences fighting fires in my youth came back to me recently as I watched the scenes on television of the wildfires in Southern California. In this case the “Santa Anna” winds were blowing at hurricane force and multiple fires were spreading completely out of control. These fires would not be extinguished as easily as the fires I worked on years before. As long as the wind blows with such ferocity, no one can contain these blazes. They are wild, unstoppable, uncontrollable, consuming everything in their paths.
As I was thinking about these fires and praying for the victims of their wrath my mind took me to the two fireplaces we have in our home. The one in our family room is no longer functional. A free-standing stove used to sit in front of it on the hearth but had to be removed when we remodeled the room three years ago. Surrounded by new paint, granite tiles, and a brass screen the fireplace looks like it belongs in a model home. Yet because it is missing a flue we cannot place a fire inside of it. During holidays we light candles and place them in the fireplace. It’s a nice decorative touch, but it produces no heat.
The fireplace in our living room has been converted to natural gas. It also looks great, but like our other fireplace it can do little to affect the temperature inside our home. Most of the heat stays inside the chimney. On top of the chimney sets a spark-arrester designed to prevent any stray embers from escaping and perhaps landing on our shake roof. The fuel consists of fake logs which are non-combustible. The fire is carefully contained, easily controlled by a single valve, and able to be extinguished with a twist of the wrist. Neither fireplace lives up to its original purpose of being a source of heat. Today they serve mostly decorative purposes. Every effort has been put forth to make certain they pose no threat of starting any wildfires.
I believe our fireplaces are an unfortunate picture of many churches today. The pastor might work diligently to try and ignite a holy fire among the members yet the system is designed to prevent the very fires he may be trying to start. The congregation has long ago grown so accustomed to the pastor’s fiery sermons that they are now unmoved, apathetic, and incombustible. They often come across to the surrounding community as fake, unable to bring any warmth to a spiritually cold society. Their beautiful facilities are attractive and raise the value of surrounding property, but they serve mostly decorative purposes. All glowing embers are quickly removed from the outside world and sequestered in the chimney. The community has little to fear if they happen to catch fire. The flames are easily contained by the leadership with a view toward not letting things get out of control. The elders patrol through the membership like spark-arresters making sure no one leaves the chimney. They often appear at the sight of any spot-fires which happen to flare up outside the church in order to pour water on any free-floating embers.
Other churches have entirely given up on starting any fires. Their original fireboxes have been removed in favor of a gentler, less inflammatory approach to influencing their neighbors. Like other churches they may have immaculate looking facilities and carefully groomed landscaping yet they are incapable of producing any heat.
It is ironic to me that these very churches will often pray for revival, yet they will insist that such a revival remains contained within their own system of belief, restrictive traditions, and denominational structures. Such people have never experienced the fire close up. When the fire of revival rages it will be wild, unstoppable, uncontrollable, consuming everything in its path. It will explode out of our churches and ignite entire communities. Sin and its advocates will flee in terror from the approaching firestorm. Apathy will melt in its intense heat. Traditions will be demolished and denominational structures will crumble into an ash heap. Leaders will give up trying to contain it. Just try holding back heaven with a squirt gun! This fire will be anything but safe!
Picture a raging firestorm of kingdom expansion propelled by hurricane-force winds from the Holy Spirit. The awesome conflagration will roll onward at unbelievable speeds changing direction in a heartbeat of the Father’s will. Lives will be transformed at amazing speed. The miraculous will be commonplace. The most stubborn unbelievers will be converted in an instant. Passive Christians will become dynamic evangelists. Entire communities will warm up to the message of a God who deeply cares about them. Homes, businesses, churches, schools, all in the path of the holy fire will be quickly set ablaze with spiritual fervor. “…for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” – Hebrews 12:29.
In case you think this is all just a pipe dream you may want to heed the warning sign posted at the entrance to this forest: FIRE DANGER TODAY – EXTREME! The fuel is tinder-box dry and ready to explode into flames in an instant. “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life…” – John 4:35-36. The winds of the Spirit are already blowing and increasing in intensity. The stage is set for the perfect firestorm. There is only one missing ingredient—someone to ignite the flame.
People have often asked me what I mean by using the term “apostle” to refer to modern day church planters. Please don’t get confused by any misuses of the word. It is simply the Greek form of the Latin-based word, “missionary,” and it means “one who is sent.” An apostle today is merely one who is sent by God to begin ministries, to plant churches, to start fires. They are “holy arsonists,” “passionate pyromaniacs” whose hearts ache from the burden of reaching the lost and whose souls weep with the love of the Father over those who don’t yet know His Son. They are both terrified of the coming firestorm yet exhilarated by the approaching flames. Eagerly they will grab their tools (prayer, faith, and the “sword of the Spirit”) and charge into the raging inferno. They are filled with the fuel of God’s Word and powerless to keep it from bursting forth and catching fire. “…his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” – Jeremiah 20:9. They carry with them the fire of a God “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” – 1Timothy 2:4. WARNING: They are extremely dangerous, highly flammable, and capable of sparking intense wildfires.
It is the function of apostles to ignite the fire, make sure it is burning furiously, and then move on as directed by the Spirit to the location of the next conflagration. It is not their purpose to hang around and reign as the “fire boss.” There can be only one General and, for the sake of the optimal growth of the kingdom, His orders must be faithfully carried out. They may on occasion return to fan the flames, but they are primarily fire starters. Others are more gifted to keep the fires burning and pour additional fuel on the flames. Their stay in one location may only be temporary, but when enough of these “holy arsonists” are let loose on an area where the fuel is abundant and the Spirit is blowing at hurricane force, a firestorm is inevitable.
Where will you find such individuals? Many of them are hanging out in local churches wondering why they feel so unfulfilled, frustrated at the lack of fire they are experiencing, and eagerly waiting for someone to turn them loose. If only they would be allowed to start setting fire to dead wood. Permission granted! “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out…” – Luke 10:2-3.
It is time for churches to kick down their decorative screens, open up their chimneys, and fan the flames of their smoldering members. “…fan into flame the gift of God…” – 2Timothy 1:6. Then remove the spark arresters and let the burning embers escape to set fires all around the community. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” – 1Thessalonians 5:19. It is time for the “holy arsonists” to emerge from their flickering mediocrity and enter the growing conflagration. The wind is fierce; the fuel is ready to explode. Would anyone like to work a fire today?
Bill, a child of God eager to set the world on fire