July 27, 2007

How could such a simple child’s game get me into so much trouble so often? Growing up in a small town in Idaho in the “BT” years (before television) required being creative in a child’s search for entertainment. There were always plenty of places to explore…farms, river banks, forests, old barns…and what better way was there to go exploring than to play “follow the leader?” My oldest brother, Donny, would lead (age carries such enormous responsibilities). Next in line would be my brother, Davy, younger than Donny by three years (second place carries the benefit of learning from the mistakes of the leader). Last (and always least) would come me, younger than Davy by four years and continually struggling to keep up with the longer legs of my older brothers (there is no glory in third place).
One day while exploring the farm of a family friend we came to a weed-infested irrigation ditch. Donny jumped over the ditch; Davy jumped over the ditch; and I (with a ton of determination and an ounce of size) jumped halfway over the ditch. Fortunately, the ditch had long been dry. Unfortunately, I landed on a nest of very angry hornets. Amazed at how high I could jump and startled by how loudly I could scream my brothers carried me to the farmhouse where mom and dad comforted their hurting third child, icing the world’s stings and hugging away the tears.
Another day while exploring a forest in which our family was camping, we came to a flowing brook. Protruding out of the water several feet apart were some large boulders forming a disjointed bridge across the stream. Donny bounced across the boulders and landed safely on the opposite bank. Davy followed close behind and was soon standing safely on the other side shouting encouragement for me to join them. And I (you guessed it) made it halfway across before slipping on a rock which had been sabotaged by the muddy shoes of my predecessors. Fortunately, the brook was only knee deep. Unfortunately, I fell head first and was thoroughly drenched with ice-cold water and covered with cuts and bruises. Again my brothers carried their screaming sibling to the camp site where mom and dad warmed me by the fire, bandaged my wounds, and buried the disgrace of their hurting third child in their hugs.
Near our modest home was a large elm tree in which my brothers had built a club house. Entry into the tree house required climbing up a series of wooden 2 x 4’s nailed to the trunk of the tree. When I announced I was old enough and it was time for me to join the club, the three of us headed for the tree to prepare for the initiation. Donny climbed into the tree house; Davy climbed into the tree house; and I (You’re way ahead of me, aren’t you?) climbed up halfway before succumbing to the inevitable outcome resulting from tiny fingers, short legs, and gravity. Fortunately, I was only about four feet off the ground when I fell. Unfortunately, I scraped against a 2 x 4 on the way down and opened up a large cut on my stomach. Once again Donny and Davy carried their bleeding, screaming brother home where mom and dad applied the first aid and the faithful love needed to heal their hurting third child.
Looking back on all the trials of being third in line, I’ve discovered a few profound axioms concerning our struggles to grow up which can be applied to individuals of any age as well as to churches of any size.

1. Make sure whoever you follow is heading in the right direction. Before following the crowd and lining up behind the latest charismatic author, dynamic speaker, or spiritual guru, spend some time comparing what is being espoused with what has already been laid down as the truth in God’s Word. Pay attention to the ones who have their focus on Jesus and ignore the others. Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ. – 1 Cor. 11:1.
2. Better yet, just follow the true leader, Christ Himself. Even though He may occasionally lead us into a nest of angry hornets (persecution), or through a stream of icy water (man-made or natural disasters), or allow us to fall from the tree house of our own sinful desires, He always has our best interests in mind, He promises never to leave us, and He will never lead us astray. If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. – Lk. 9:23. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith… — He. 12:2.
3. Make sure the course you choose to follow matches your stride (or the ministries you pursue match your gifts). But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. – 1Cor. 12:18-19. …let us run with endurance the race marked out for us. — He. 12:1.
4. Growing-up, maturing in Christ, and growing a ministry rarely progress according to our own time table. Growth is a God thing. 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. – 1Cor. 3:6-7. …the whole body…grows as God causes it to grow. — Col. 2:19.
5. Growing-up, both physically and spiritually, is best when done within a loving, caring family. From him (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. — Eph. 4:16.

I praise God for the spiritual leaders He provides for His Church. But I especially thank God for those special brothers and sisters in the Lord who encourage us to leap to new lengths of Christian service, to bridge the gaps in our spiritual understanding, and to reach for new heights of faith. I also praise Him for those spiritual siblings who lift us up and carry us back to the Father when we fall and who provide the healing hugs for all of God’s hurting children no matter what their birth order. Oh yes, and check this out. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. — Mt. 19:30. Perhaps being in third place isn’t so bad after all.

Bill, a short-legged, highly beloved child of God


July 20, 2007

We had been standing in line for nearly two hours, slowly baking under the oppressive, Southern California sun. Our family vacation to Disneyland was not getting off to a good start. Thinking we could outsmart the less experienced tourists and get a head start near the front of the notoriously long lines of humanity waiting to enjoy the more popular attractions, we had rushed toward the best ride the instant the park was opened. Unfortunately, several thousand other tourists had the same idea. By the time we arrived at the entrance to “Space Mountain” the line was already backed up through a good portion of “Tomorrowland.” There was nothing to do but wait patiently while we inched our way forward toward the goal of our quest…a high speed, turbulent, roller coaster ride through space.
We had all been looking forward to this particular ride for weeks ever since we began to plan our vacation. Now we would have to endure even more waiting. Once we got inside the building that housed the roller coaster our spirits soared in heightened anticipation as the front of the line slowly drew ever closer. In the distance we could hear the screams of delighted space travelers experiencing what we could only imagine.
Finally, with hearts bursting from excitement, we climbed into our spaceship achieving the good fortune of being placed in the best position, the front seat of course, where the thrills are the most intense. The safety bar was locked in place low across our laps and we reached for a firm handhold hanging on for dear life as our ship was launched into space. Picking up immense speed we began twisting and turning and falling through a course made out to resemble a ride through an icy asteroid. Since we were whirling through near darkness it was difficult to know in advance which direction the track would take us next. Often we would brace ourselves for going one direction only to be surprised by turning the opposite way. I found myself praying that I would remain in the spaceship and that it would remain on the track. Up and down, side to side, around and around we flew at breakneck speed, faster and faster until we passed through a spiraling tunnel of light, the brakes were applied, and the ride came to a screeching halt.
“Step this way, please,” beckoned a young woman dressed in a space uniform.
Looking at my watch I realized the ride had lasted barely a minute. After weeks of planning and hours of standing in line the great adventure was already finished. “What a rip-off!” I shouted. “I can’t believe it’s over so soon. Let’s stay put and go around again.”
“I’m sorry,” said the attendant politely but firmly. “Others are waiting to take your place. Step this way, please.”
As young children inching our way through elementary school, the intolerable wait for adulthood to arrive seems to take forever. When will the real adventure finally begin? The years crawl by at a snail’s pace while we eagerly make plans for a future life that seems an eternity away. At last we find ourselves in high school where our spirits soar in heightened anticipation as graduation draws ever closer. With wide-eyed wonder we listen to the testimonials of older friends who have made it to the “great ride” and are experiencing what we can only imagine.
Finally, with hearts bursting from excitement, we don cap and gown, climb to the stage to receive our diploma, and launch ourselves into adulthood. The pace of life suddenly, dramatically lurches forward and we reach for a handhold, grasping for anything to hang onto to keep from flying off the ride. Faster and faster we go, twisting and turning and careening through a maze of life experiences. Odd jobs…different relationships…a new career…marriage…a baby arrives…another child…we buy a house…we get laid off from work. Just when we brace ourselves to go in one direction the ride turns the opposite way. We take the kids to their first day of school…to the dentist…to the emergency room for the “umpteenth” time…then to their own high school graduation. We wonder how this ride can possibly go any faster…but it does! College expenses…weddings…empty nest…the market goes up…the market goes down…retirement…major illness…spiraling tunnel of light…SCREECH!
“Step this way, please,” beckons a young man dressed in white.
It suddenly dawns on us that after years of waiting and planning for life, the great adventure which just seemed to start yesterday has already come to an end. “What a rip-off!” we shout. “How can it be over so soon? Let’s stay put and go around again.”
“I’m sorry,” says the attendant politely but firmly. “Others are waiting to take your place. Step this way please.”
For those of you who find yourselves dizzying over the incredible speed of life and astonished at the terrifying approach of the end of the ride, allow me to share the following amusement park theology gleaned from the roller coaster of life:
1. Life is frightening; dare to climb aboard. And while you’re at it, choose the front seat where the adventure is more intense. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. – He. 11:1. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. – Phil. 4:13.
2. Life is uncertain; make sure your handhold is secure. The lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. – Ps. 18:2. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. – He. 6:19.
3. Life is confusing; make sure you’re on the right track. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – Jn. 14:6.
4. Life is short; make the most of it. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. – Ps. 90:12.
5. Life is really short; take time to enjoy the ride. …I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. – Jn. 10:10.
And here’s the best truth of all. When you are traveling on a spaceship called “Jesus Christ,” just when you think the ride is coming to an end, it’s only barely beginning. Welcome to “Tomorrowland!”

Bill, a child of God enjoying the adventure


July 13, 2007

I stood at our second story bedroom window shortly after midnight stunned by what I saw in our backyard. In the dim light of a distant streetlight I could just barely make out the form of a large animal standing next to our apricot tree. Grabbing my flashlight I gently woke up my wife, Babs, and whispered excitedly,
“You’ve got to come see this!”
Leading her to another bedroom with an open window I shined the flashlight down into our backyard illuminating the area around the apricot tree.
“It’s a deer,” she proclaimed suddenly wide awake.
“A buck,” I added, “with a full rack and three, no four, points on each side.”
“How did he get in here?” Babs asked. “Did he jump over the fence?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “That fence is way too high, even for a deer. He must have come around the side of the house from the front yard through the place where we don’t have any gate. The drought has probably driven him down from the hills.”
We watched the handsome creature for several minutes until I began to get a little irritated at all the apricots he was consuming. Confronting the deer in the backyard I managed to shoo him away from the fruit and chased him back around the side of the house where he promptly disappeared down the street. The very next night, however, he returned apparently hungry for another meal from our apricot tree. Perturbed by the repeat visitation I erected a barrier on the side of the house using our trash bins hoping that this would discourage the persistent thief. So far my defense has worked perfectly.
If only the rest of our apricot woes were as easily fixed. Ever since we first moved into our present home eleven years ago and inherited a backyard orchard we have looked forward to a bountiful harvest of fruit. Our apple tree, lemon trees, and plum trees have fully met our expectations. The apricot tree, unfortunately, is another story. Between the birds, squirrels, insects, and now deer, we have enjoyed precious little fruit. For whatever reasons, the tree has never produced an abundant crop.
But this year it looked like our fortune had finally changed. A few months ago we rejoiced to discover that the apricot tree was loaded with little green fruit. As the fruit ripened and began to turn a bright orange we could see that the tree was completely covered with apricots. Our joy soon turned to dismay, however, as the growing fruit began to significantly weigh down the branches. We grabbed some old lumber and tried to prop up the limbs as best we could but soon the branches had sagged all the way to the ground. Then, tragedy struck. One of the branches broke off and hundreds of immature apricots were ruined.
I had intended to prune the tree last winter but a busy schedule and then a broken arm combined to postpone the work until it was too late. Now we were paying the price for our neglect. In the worst of timing, nature was doing the job I had procrastinated. We can only hope that the apricots will ripen quickly before any more branches break. There have been, however, a few benefits coming from our apricot tragedy concerning some valuable lessons I have learned, about procrastination and raising fruit to mention two, but also about the church. What follows is wisdom gleaned from nursing an over-burdened fruit tree and an unfruitful experience in trying to compel a mid-sized congregation to grow.
No matter what statistical analyses you consult, the future of the institutional church in this country looks bleak. (Check, for instance, The Present Future by Reggie McNeal.) At the same time, interest in spiritual matters is on the rise. Clearly, people are not rejecting spirituality. They are abandoning the traditional church in this culture. Why is this phenomenon occurring? Perhaps our apricot tree has a few clues.
For years we have measured success for the churches in this country by the size of their Sunday morning attendance. Regrettably this has precipitated an unbalanced focus on the numbers of individuals warming our pews as opposed to a focus on whether or not all that “fruit” is actually maturing. The problem with the church in this culture is not that our congregations are too small, but rather that they are too large. For someone, like me, who attended seminary during the height of the church growth movement of the last century, this last statement may seem like heresy. But my own experience and our prolific apricot tree has taught me the truth of that assessment.
When we try to grow too much fruit on one tree, or cram too many believers into one church, several negative consequences will eventually become evident. Too many apricots usually mean the fruit that is produced will be smaller. There are only so many nutrients to go around. In the church there are a finite number of pastors and teachers available to equip the saints. Equippers are easily overwhelmed and congregants suffer unless leaders are taught to multiply themselves allowing for more “nutrients” to reach the flock. Unfortunately, many pastors are not too keen on training up others to share their job. It was he who gave some to be…pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. – Eph. 4:11-12.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that there will be a few near the top soaking up all the sunshine and consequently maturing quickly, while others on lower branches are shaded from the sun and grow much more slowly. In any type of top-down leadership structure, the more the institution grows the less approachable the leadership becomes. They are too high above it all, inaccessible, spending a majority of their time administratively rather than serving others. In a church this becomes tragic when lower fruit are convinced that only a few highly gifted individuals are actually called to pastor or lead a congregation. The gifts of others remain undiscovered, undeveloped, and unused. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. – Jn. 10:11. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Mk. 10:45.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that some will be hidden by leaves and other fruit. These neglected fruit may never ripen and may never be picked because they can’t be easily seen. Our churches are filled with neglected saints who remain hidden in the back pews, whose fruit never ripens and who never get picked to serve in any ministry. It is no great mystery why these individuals eventually fall away from the tree and are consumed by pests or simply rot away. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… – Jn. 10:14.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that some fruit will become more susceptible to various unwelcome pests like birds, insects, or even deer. The sheer numbers of fruit involved will mean no one will miss a few dozen here or there. But in the church, Christ makes it clear that every soul is precious and it is the duty of the shepherd to guard the flock from predators and go after those who are lost. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? – Lk. 15:4.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that some branches may become so overburdened that they will break off from the main tree and their fruit will be lost. For years we have witnessed this phenomenon taking place in our churches bemoaning the pain of broken fellowship that occurs and the souls who are lost to the world. Our only answers seem to involve dreaming up more programs to prop up our sagging, overloaded ministry. But when such a split becomes evident more programs will be unlikely to solve the problem and may actually do more harm by requiring additional man-hours for those who are already overworked. The real solution involves pruning the branches at the proper time, before they become weighted down by too much fruit.
What do I mean by pruning? Am I suggesting we actually cut off members of our congregations when our gatherings reach a certain size? No, of course not! But I am suggesting we instill in our churches the value of growing smaller, not larger; of forming a plurality of less weighty gatherings rather than insisting that everyone attend one mass assembly in one location; of teaching that every believer in Christ is gifted and called to ministry; of showing by example that leadership in the body of Christ is servant oriented—bottom-up, not top-down; of affirming that every attendee, no matter their worldly or spiritual status, is vitally important to Christ and His body and should be given every opportunity to grow and encouraged to bear fruit. No Christian believer should be allowed to go to their grave with their fruit still green. We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. – Col. 1:28. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. – Jn. 15:16.
I am advocating that we equip our members to minister and then send them out to do exactly that, giving birth to new ministries, planting new churches, and bearing fruit wherever God leads them. Insisting that they remain firmly connected to our particular “tree” is endangering all the other fruit and only serving to inflate our own egos. Jesus was not much of a gatherer. He was, however, a great sender, a great commissioner. He often tried to avoid the crowds opting instead to spend time with a select few of His disciples. He sent out the twelve. Later He sent out the seventy-two. Then He sent us all out. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… – Mt. 28:19.
We need to tear down the defensive barriers we have erected between the church and the world, not to allow the world to infiltrate the church, but to allow the church to invade the world. A fruitful orchard grows not by trying to produce the largest tree, but by planting more trees and keeping them carefully pruned. The church grows not by congregating in the largest gatherings possible, but by equipping the fruit and casting them out to plant more churches. As I’ve said before, the goal of the apricot tree is not to produce fruit, but rather to produce more apricot trees. Bearing fruit is just the natural by-product of progress toward the main goal. And that goal will never be reached unless the fruit falls from the tree.

Bill, a fruitful child of God


July 6, 2007

“Raise your right hand and repeat after me, ‘I (state your name) do solemnly swear…’”
A chorus of voices echoed the words of the mayor as over a hundred police officers, civilian employees, and volunteers of the San Ramon, California, Police Department were sworn in. The carefully choreographed ceremony took place in a middle school gymnasium packed with proud family members, local dignitaries, and well-wishers from the community. The official “swearing of the oath” provided a dramatic finale to the lengthy program which included a grand processional by all those in uniform, a presentation of the colors, speeches from the mayor and the chief of police, and the awarding of badges and service pins to all those being sworn-in. It was a great deal of pomp and circumstance for a small-town police force, but the pageantry was a long-anticipated kick-off to a new era of law enforcement for this bedroom community located in the East Bay Area of San Francisco.
So why was it necessary to go through all the trouble and expense of holding such a swearing-in ceremony? Were not these dedicated officers already at work patrolling the streets of the city? Had not the civilian staff and volunteer force already been hard at work serving their community, some of them for many years? Yes, all that is true. But this ceremony represented much more than just a glitzy program and another opportunity for politicians to spew profundity.
For the last twenty three years the City of San Ramon has contracted with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office for police services. It was an arrangement which worked fairly well until the town began a substantial growth spurt in recent years. As of the first of this month the community now has its very own, first ever, dedicated police department. Such a milestone needed to be celebrated and those who comprise this foundational force of servant-hearted souls needed to be given the opportunity to pledge their faithfulness to the community, the state, and the country. A swearing-in ceremony allows the participants to publicly declare their commitment to serve. It is a morale-boosting, loyalty-igniting, unity-building, faithfulness-generating, and support-inducing celebration which is well worth the hassle of donning dress uniforms, sitting through political speeches, and enduring all the tradition and formality of such a solemn occasion.
As a volunteer chaplain for the community I was honored to participate in this auspicious event. It did get me wondering, however, why other occasions just as momentous if not more so, do not always engender the same amount of desire for ceremony.
Take, for instance, marriage. If ever there was a cause for a “swearing-in ceremony,” a solemn, public declaration of commitment, certainly this would be it. Of course modern weddings have carried pageantry to the utmost extreme giving rise to an entire industry surrounding what used to be a simple, yet profoundly meaningful event. I can certainly understand why many couples, wishing to avoid the anxiety and incredible expense involved, would opt out of any ceremony whatsoever choosing instead to save their money toward the purchase of a home or other more practical pursuit. Yet those who so choose miss out on the many benefits which come from beginning their life together with a public exchange of vows.
Declaring one’s faithfulness and undying commitment in front of many witnesses, including God Almighty, has a way of preventing a hasty exit from a relationship at the slightest sign of turbulence. There’s something about saying “I do,” declaring, “’till death do us part,” exchanging rings, and signing on the dotted line that makes one think long and hard about dissolving such a sacred union. The Church has long frowned upon those who would cohabitate before the official wedding ceremony, and rightly so. Such behavior diminishes the wedding vows, decreases the level of commitment between partners, and increases the likelihood of failure in a relationship. That which is easy to come by is often not highly regarded.
So tell me, if we can make such a big deal out of two lives coming together to form one or place such a high regard on a swearing-in ceremony for police officers and community servants, why do we approach the new birth of a Christian believer with as little pageantry as possible? Is this not the most important commitment an individual could ever make? If so, why have we relegated the “swearing-in ceremony” to an option, a take-it-or-leave-it event depending upon whatever is most convenient for the new believer? I’m speaking, of course, of the Biblically commanded, Christ demonstrated, apostolically practiced ceremony of baptism.
Okay, I’m certainly aware that ever since the days of Martin Luther the prevailing cry of the Church has been, “Salvation by faith alone!” And I am certainly not suggesting that any outward ceremony can save us from our sin. I am, however, endeavoring to point out that over the centuries since Luther we have perhaps swung the pendulum of faith vs. works in the opposite extreme. By pushing the actual “swearing-in ceremony” into the optional background, no matter how well-intentioned our motives, we have done new believers a terrible disservice. Rather than providing them with an opportunity to publicly swear their allegiance to a new Sovereign, we have made coming to Christ as easy as reciting a few short sentences or offering a silent prayer.
Again, I’m not suggesting that those who have accepted Christ through repeating the “sinner’s prayer” are not truly converted. Conversion is, after all, a matter of the heart, and only God knows what has truly taken place in our hearts. I’m just wondering what has happened to the swearing-in ceremony.
In Biblical times all covenants were initiated by an oath swearing ceremony usually involving the death of an animal by cutting it in two, lengthwise. The parties of the covenant would stand facing each other on either side of the sacrifice. They would exchange their outer coverings symbolizing the putting on of each other’s identity. They would exchange weapons swearing to defend each other. They would declare all their earthly belongings stating that it was all now mutual property. Then they would walk in a figure-eight pattern through the halves of the animal pointing toward heaven saying, “May it be done unto me…” and then pointing down toward the sacrificial animal saying, “as it was done unto this animal if I should prove unfaithful to this covenant.”
They would often take a knife or flint stone and make a cut in their hands. Then they would clasp their hands together to symbolize that their blood was intermingled. Reaching down to the ground they would take some dirt and rub it into the cut on their hands to make sure a scar would remain and serve as a reminder that a covenant had been made between them. They would sit down to a covenant meal where they would serve each other bread and drink wine from the same cup to symbolize that their bodies and blood were now one.
This is exactly what our Lord did when He initiated the Lord’s Supper on the night before He was crucified. The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ – 1Cor. 11:23-25. His death on the cross represented the slaughter of the covenant sacrifice, and as our covenant partner He forever bears the scars of the covenant upon His hands. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. – He. 7:27. The Apostle Paul refers to this “swearing-in ceremony” and equates Christ with the sacrificial animal. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? – Ro. 6:3.
In baptism, the immersion in water of a believer in Christ, we have the dramatic portrayal of a covenant oath-swearing ceremony where we literally pass through the death of the sacrificial animal (Christ). In so doing we are pledging our allegiance to Christ and swearing our undying faithfulness to Him. It is a public demonstration of the sincerity of our faith. It is a morale-boosting, loyalty-igniting, unity-building, faithfulness-generating, and support-inducing celebration of our commitment to serve the Lord. It is a dynamic demonstration depicting the death, burial, and resurrection of a new believer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! – 2Cor.5:17. It is a beautiful portrait of a believer’s union with Christ. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. – Ro. 6:4. And every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper it is a reminder of our Lord’s sacrifice and the day when we swore the oath of faithfulness to Him.
So why would we downplay the importance of our swearing-in ceremony, and relegate the Lord’s Supper to a once-a-quarter event (if we happen to have the time)? Given the lack of commitment emanating from so many Christians today I wonder if we have propagated a lackluster faith by declaring baptism to be totally unnecessary? We have made becoming a Christian a matter of joining a church rather than enlisting in an army; signing up for a one hour, once a week lesson in life rather than a 24/7 adventure in life transformation; supporting others to do the work of the ministry rather than discovering our own ministry gifts and putting them into practice; looking forward to an eternity in heaven rather than faithfully enduring hard work, trials, rejection, self-denial, and persecution in this life; accepting a Savior rather than surrendering to a Lord. That which is easy to come by is often not highly regarded.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and Christian martyr, puts it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian…As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This sounds to me like an invitation to a swearing-in ceremony.

Bill, a duly-sworn child of God


June 29, 2007

“We have a need for someone who lives nearby to provide housing for one of our guests,” announced Tony Dale, one of the facilitators for the regional house church conference which had begun that evening.
I looked around expecting others to volunteer. No one did. Eventually, after a prompting by the Holy Spirit, I raised my hand. Thus began an inspirational and thoroughly enjoyable, six-day adventure into the heart of God and His will for His servants. I had been regularly praying for some time that God would provide ministry opportunities for me outside my normal sphere of influence and that I would be alert when such occasions arose, but the Lord’s answer and His timing caught me by surprise. Since the last of our children had left our home months ago we had plenty of room for an overnight guest.
“He can stay with us,” I offered as I moved forward to meet the man in need of a night’s lodging, wondering why someone would register for a three-day conference without a place to stay. When I discovered he was traveling totally by faith, trusting in God to provide, my curiosity was turned into admiration.
Greg is an unassuming, free-spirited, youthful-looking, middle aged man with a passion to serve others and a deep personal faith in God. What started out to be one night’s stay turned into an entire weekend as the Lord knit our hearts together and our relationship blossomed into Christian love. On Monday Greg was unable to get a flight home and he ended up staying in our home until Thursday afternoon. The extra time together proved to be a blessing as we learned more about this simple man whom God was using in mighty ways.
He is given to wearing colorful, loose-fitting tunics, normal clothing for the central African nations where he ministers. Yet aside from his clothing there is nothing about the man that would cause you to take a second notice. He has no seminary degree, carries no titles, owns few earthly belongings, and commands no widespread following, at least in this country. He has a small heating and air-conditioning business headquartered in Indiana which doesn’t come close to meeting his personal needs. What little profit he gains from this, if any, is immediately turned over to his mission concerns.
He has been divorced by his wife, disfellowshipped from his home church, and generally ignored by the Christian community in this country. He works for no sending unit other than the Holy Spirit and serves under no official covering other than the body of Christ. He is in most respects a truly ordinary man, yet God is using him in a remarkable way to transform at least four countries in the heart of the Dark Continent. Just three years ago he was approached by a missionary in his home church and told he had gifts which the Lord could use in Africa. After receiving confirmation from God, Greg stepped out on faith and traveled to the nation of Burundi where he began a teaching ministry.
About two years ago, following the leading of the Holy Spirit, he began to work with a native evangelist with whom he started a house church. Soon the one church became three, grew to seven, then fourteen, then twenty, then forty. The growth overwhelmed Greg and his ministry partners and they scrambled to train pastors fast enough to keep up with the demand for more churches. In some cases churches were multiplying in their first week of existence! Just this year they have expanded into three additional countries planting new churches in Rwanda, the Congo, and Tanzania. To date he can count over three hundred churches which have begun in a little over two years, although he admits he doesn’t really know for sure. These new churches are growing and reproducing so rapidly they cannot keep track and so he has given up trying to do an accurate accounting. It is precisely at this point, when a movement is experiencing rapid expansion, growing exponentially in a manner impossible to quantify, that we can call this a true church planting movement.
Thousands have been won to the Lord and testimonies abound regarding miraculous healings and demonic deliverances. It is significant to note that not long ago this region of Africa was embroiled in a devastating genocidal war which took the lives of millions of people while the world, for the most part, stood by and watched in relative apathy. But God is not indifferent to the cries of these hurting people. What man seems unable or unwilling to accomplish, God is doing by dramatically transforming these countries from the inside out by first changing the hearts of the people.
“But that is Africa,” I hear you saying. “God won’t act in the same way toward us in this country. Besides, Greg is a very special individual who the Lord is using in a unique and powerful way under extraordinary circumstances.”
Excuse me, but here is where you’ve got it all wrong. There is nothing special about Greg. He is a very ordinary man, but he had ears to hear the heart of God weeping for Africa and he had the faith and courage to answer the call. I ask you, does God not also weep for this country? Does His heart not ache for those who are lost no matter where they may live, whether in the lap of luxury or the pit of poverty, in the relative peace of the western world or in the throes of tribal warfare? Would it surprise you to learn that I have felt the heart of God weeping for Northern California? And that I am far from alone in this feeling?
“Then why has He not poured out His power on this region for revival?” you ask. “Why do we not see hundreds of churches being planted in the Bay Area and Northern California?”
Maybe it is not so much due to God’s favor on one area or lack of the same on another, but rather because not enough of His children have answered the call to the mission field right here. In actuality we are beginning to see many new churches planted throughout this region. God’s power is already being poured out in many areas of Northern California although we are not yet seeing the exponential growth of His kingdom which Greg is experiencing in Central Africa. But I believe such growth is on the way. Over and over the Spirit keeps telling me, “Urgency, urgency, urgency!”
Perhaps God is unwilling to wait for expansion to take place using the traditional models of church planting—researching the need, engaging in a demographical study of the area, recruiting church planters, assessing and training those recruits, preparing a detailed strategy, raising the necessary funds, sending in an advance team to scout out facilities and make contacts, producing a marketing campaign. The traditional approach can take up to two years and cost half a million dollars. It would appear God may have a better plan—choose an ordinary individual, someone who looks less than qualified, bless them with the necessary gifts, speak into their hearts, give them a burden for a particular region, lead them to the methods used in the New Testament for planting churches (Mt. 9:35-10:20, Mk. 6:6-13, Lk. 9:1-9, Lk. 10:1-20), and let them know all the resources they need are waiting for them in the harvest.
God’s plan removes the excuse so many of us have used in the past. “The Lord chooses those rare individuals who are especially qualified, gifted, called, and trained to send to the mission fields,” we conveniently rationalize. “The rest of us are given the task of providing the funds for their needs and praying for their success.” But what if the Lord intends to call us all into His ministry? All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… — Mt. 28:18-19. Notice this command is based upon the Lord’s authority and our obedience. Nowhere is this qualified to apply to just a few specially gifted individuals. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. – James 1:22. For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. – Phil. 2:13. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. – Phil. 4:13.
What if His strategy is to qualify and empower those who are called, rather than call those who already appear to be qualified and especially gifted? Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. – 1Cor. 1:26-29.
If history is any indication God seems to delight in calling those who are the least likely candidates to accomplish His mission. Just ask Gideon whose clan was the weakest in his tribe and he was the least in his family. Just ask David who was the youngest and smallest of all his brothers. Just ask the twelve disciples who were all uneducated, ordinary men (with the exception of Judas, that is, who was the only one of the twelve who appeared to be qualified in human terms). How can we possibly claim that God’s methods are any different today than they have been for the last four millennia? All of which brings us down to you.
It is my conviction that everyone who is reading these words has been called into a specific ministry by their heavenly Father. The question is not whether you have been called, but where, and to whom? Whether you feel qualified or not makes little difference to God, nor is He overly concerned about your past nor worried about your apparent lack of talent. Your heritage doesn’t matter. Your family tree doesn’t matter. Your birth order doesn’t matter. Your denomination doesn’t matter. Your home church doesn’t matter. Your IQ doesn’t matter. Your financial resources don’t matter. The only thing that really matters is your willingness to follow where He leads. All it takes is the courage to lay aside the assessment which has been placed upon you by yourself and others, and listen to what the Lord is telling you.
As I have learned this week from Greg, God is wonderfully capable of taking the ordinary and using it to create the extraordinary. What do you suppose He desires to create through you?
Lord, grant us ears to hear and the faith to obey!

Bill, just an ordinary child of God preparing for the extraordinary


June 22, 2007

It had been a particularly dismal Sunday. Our traditional new church plant had been in decline almost from the beginning. Without any denominational backing, very limited support, only a small handful of committed members, and no real home of our own, we had little chance of success. For the past two years we had been meeting in another church facility on Sunday evenings. Though we ministered to many people who came to our services and found what they needed at the time, they typically chose to move on to what they deemed a “real” church with all the programs, bells and whistles that come with a well established, much larger congregation. With little means to attract new visitors our numbers had been steadily plummeting.
But this Sunday evening brought out fewer than a dozen people and my own tithe check comprised the vast majority of the offering. I had finally had enough. Our vision, which I was convinced had been received from God, was to be a church-planting church. We wouldn’t have to worry about passing the dreaded “two-hundred attendance barrier” which plagued most congregations and stifled their growth. Long before we reached that boundary we would farm out several of our families to begin a new church in another neighborhood. It was a strategy I had been dreaming of for years, but one which looked like it would never materialize. What could we do with so few numbers?
In a state of despair and bitter disappointment following our evening church service I drove up the hill behind our home to a parking lot which overlooked the valley. Alone in the darkness I wept, grieving for the loss of a dream, the death of a ministry, my failure as a church planter, my inability to provide for my family, and for how God had seemingly abandoned his servant. I can’t do this any more, Father, I prayed. It is far too difficult for me and I haven’t the strength to go on. The numbers just aren’t there, and apparently neither are you. I feel so alone. I am so sorry that I have failed you. And then, in a statement that I would never forget, one that would come back to haunt me, I cried out loud, “Lord, I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
The very next morning I was startled by a phone call from the Contra Costa Sheriff’s dispatch center requesting my services as a police chaplain. This was the first call out I had received in several months and I was not at all thrilled about the interruption to my continued wallowing in the pit of depression. An elderly woman suffering from muscular dystrophy was being abused by her adult daughter who had been living in her home. Apparently this had gone on for quite some time as the woman was reluctant to ask for help fearing she would never be able to see her grandchildren again. In desperation she had picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1 and then changed her mind and hung up. This had triggered an automatic welfare check response from the local police who, upon arriving at the scene and assessing the problem, had called for a chaplain.
At the home I was briefed on the situation by a police officer and introduced to the despondent woman. She invited me into her kitchen where we sat down facing each other across a small wooden table. I began by asking her what I could do to help. The very first words out of her mouth nearly knocked me off my chair.
“Chaplain,” she began, wiping her eyes with a soggy tissue, “I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
The fact that this call out was so unusual and came within hours of my exact same heart cry left no doubt in my mind that this was a divinely instituted appointment. Still in shock over the woman’s choice of words I somehow managed to minister to her pressing needs and in the process, felt strangely comforted. Later, back at my own home I was drawn to a study of the prophet Elijah. He is looked upon as perhaps the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets and afforded the honor of representing all such prophets on the Mount of Transfiguration along with Moses and Christ. Yet almost his entire ministry was spent in relative obscurity. He lived for a long time alone in the wilderness after which he was sent to minister to one widow woman and her son. For three and a half years he labored to a congregation of ravens and two people.
On the top of Mt Carmel he was at last able to have his moment in the limelight. 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah were slaughtered there in a dramatic, fiery contest in which Elijah was gloriously triumphant. Perhaps he thought all would now change in Israel and he would be afforded the respect due to a prophet of the Lord. Maybe he envisioned a life of ease preaching in palaces and dining on royal delicacies. However, one encounter with Jezebel sent all his dreams crashing to earth. With a death sentence hanging over his head Elijah fled to the desert where he sat under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He may as well have said, “Lord, I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
Strengthened by an angel’s provision he ran further into the desert for forty days and nights until he reached the mountain of God. In a fit of despair and bitter disappointment Elijah complained to God in a whining tantrum that sounded eerily similar to my own hilltop rant. God’s answer to his discouraged prophet had always been somewhat difficult for me to comprehend, until I found myself standing in Elijah’s sandals.
What are you doing here, Elijah? – 1Kings 19:9.
When Elijah repeated his list of complaints God also repeated His question, not in the whirlwind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a gentle whisper. What are you doing here, Elijah? – 1Kings 19:13.
The implication of what the Lord was saying finally began to dawn upon me. God had not told Elijah to run away to this remote mountaintop. Why had he done so? There were still many tasks left which God had called the prophet to complete, but they couldn’t be accomplished on the mountain of despair. Oh, and by the way, he wasn’t alone in his calling. Seven thousand others were still allied with him in his battle against false gods.
The Lord seemed to be saying to me, “What are you doing here, Bill? I didn’t call you to the mountain of despair. I still have many tasks remaining for you to finish, but you can’t accomplish them on this mountain.”
I also learned that success has nothing to do with numbers, nor does it imply recognition and invitations to speak at conventions and mega churches. Success in God’s eyes is simply listening to His voice and obeying what you hear. Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. – 1Samuel 15:22. Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it. – Luke 11:28.
A few weeks after my encounter with God through a desperate woman’s cry for help, I again whined to Him complaining about the vision I believed He had given us for being a church-planting church. “How can we plant churches with only a dozen people?” I inquired of the Lord.
“Reproduce what you have!” I clearly heard Him answer.
Once again I was forced to rework my idea of success. The vision I had received from God was still valid, but the strategy was clouded with years of doing church in the traditional format, striving for greater and greater numbers. In obedience to God we moved our small group back into our home and began a four-year process of reprogramming ourselves, learning how to be the church 24/7 rather than just do church once a week, learning how to obey God’s voice and be faithful in ministering to the one rather than preach to the hundreds. Oh, and by the way, we are certainly not alone in our calling. Millions across this country are following the Lord’s direction into similar ministries.
By God’s grace we have finally realized our vision of being a church-planting church, several times over. I am convinced there are many more daughter churches on the way soon to spring up all over Northern California and beyond. Will these all be small group fellowships? Probably, but God doesn’t seem to be much impressed with numbers. Does this mean God is calling everyone to accept and implement the house-church model? No, it simply means He is calling everyone to listen to His voice and obey what He is specifically speaking to each individual. I do, however, believe the Lord would have us not be overly concerned with numbers. Such an emphasis is too easily born of pride rather than an honest desire to see the kingdom of God advance. If only we would be as obsessed with hearing God’s voice as we seem to be with achieving a larger attendance!
Tragically, the body of Christ is filled with discouraged servants weary of the struggle for greater numbers. Before you would ascend the mountain of despair heed this lesson from a couple of enlightened mountain climbers. As Elijah and I would both readily testify success is all about hearing His gentle whisper and doing what He says, not in building a larger following; it’s all about obedience, not numbers.

Bill, a child of God striving to listen and obey


June 15, 2007

The message came via an early morning email a few days ago.
[We] went by and saw my Dad last night; he seems to be in pretty bad shape. I get the impression from him that he is giving up. [He] keeps asking for someone to cut the cords. He realized I was there but what he was saying did not make any sense. My mom said that he was alright Sunday after the operation, but when his blood pressure dropped [he] started to talk almost like you are part of a strange dream he is having. We had Kurtis [grandson] come sing him happy birthday last night as his 70th birthday is today. Just thought I would let you know.
The letter was signed by a close personal friend and frequent attendee of our home church gathering. His father had been battling the cumulative effects of advanced sugar diabetes. His kidneys were failing requiring him to undergo dialysis treatments three times a week, his eyesight was becoming increasingly impaired, and poor circulation had led to stubborn infections on his feet. A few weeks earlier he had suffered the loss of the big toe on his right foot. Now surgeons had just removed his left leg below the knee. I can’t imagine how devastating it must feel to experience your body being dismantled piece by piece and be helpless to do anything in your defense. The fact that this man had given up the fight was no surprise.
For years we had been praying for Walt, not just for his physical healing but also for his spiritual rebirth. To the best of our knowledge Walt had never asked Jesus to be his Lord and Savior. So when I heard of his deteriorating condition I felt compelled by the Spirit to visit him in the hospital. Throughout that day I prayed that God would give him more time and give me an opportunity to share with him the good news of Jesus Christ.
It was early evening by the time I was able to make it to the hospital where he lay in the intensive care ward. While finding my way through the maze of corridors looking for his room my soul began to be deluged with doubts. It has been years since I have been in his presence; will he even recognize me? Will he be conscious enough to carry on a conversation with me? Will he be able to comprehend what I say? After rejecting Christ for seventy years will he be receptive to the Gospel? Despite my misgivings I surrendered to the Spirit’s leading and upon finding his room took a deep breath and entered.
The room was small even for hospital standards with the main source of light coming from a single window through which the setting sun bathed the cubicle in a warm orange glow. Walt and I were alone save for a Mylar balloon dancing on its string proudly proclaiming, “Happy Birthday.” I was surprised to see no medical tubes or IV’s attached to his body. The instant I walked in his eyes lit up in recognition.
“Hi Walt, I’m Pastor Bill Hoffman,” I began, hoping he would remember me.
“Yes, Bill,” he answered forcefully, “I know who you are. Come on in.”
“How are you doing, Walt,” I asked as I approached his bedside thankful that he seemed awake and alert.
“Oh, I’m not doing so good, Bill,” he responded. “I’m not doing good at all!” Then, after a prolonged sigh, he added, “All I ever wanted was to make it to seventy.”
“Well, you made it,” I announced, sounding like a TV game show host. “Congratulations and happy birthday! But perhaps it’s time to set another goal,” I mused searching for a way to cheer him up. “Seventy-five sounds like a nice number.” Judging from his lack of response I gathered he was in no mood for levity. I opted for another approach. “I’ve sent your name out on our email prayer-chain and people, most of whom you don’t even know, from all over the country are praying for you. Plus, you’ve got a lot of family members who love you very much and are looking forward to seeing you break out of this joint and go back home.”
“That’s nice to hear, thank you,” he said appearing grateful yet less than enthusiastic.
“Walt, if you don’t make it out of this hospital bed, if this is your time to go and meet God, are you okay with that?” I asked, probing for some insight into his relationship with the Lord. “Do you believe God will accept you?”
“I don’t know, Bill,” he answered. “I don’t know.”
“I can help you know,” I proclaimed. Then I proceeded to explain to him what Jesus had done for us by dying in our place and opening up the way into heaven for all those who accept Him as their Lord and Savior. “If you believe in Him you just need to invite Jesus to come into your life…and He will come!”
At this point Walt interrupted me and cried out, “I believe!” “Jesus, come into my life! Jesus, come into my life! Jesus, come into my life!”
As I prayed with him he continued to cry out, “Jesus, come into my life!” Then, after assuring him that he was indeed a citizen of heaven, I anointed him with oil and prayed for his healing. I left the hospital rejoicing in having been given a front-row seat for a miracle from God.
The next morning I learned that Walt had been moved out of ICU and into a regular room. The crisis was over and his physical condition had much improved. I praise God for his salvation and for his resurgent health. The Almighty has shown amazing mercy for an old man who has lived his entire life outside of Christ. How sad it is, however, that Walt may have so little time left to enjoy his new life. And how sad that his own goal for his life was so limited! God’s goal for Walt far surpasses seventy years, or even seventy-five. Indeed, God has eternity in mind for this wounded, weary new saint.
Is Walt so much different than many of us? Haven’t we all placed limits on what God desires for our lives? We limit our good works thinking God can’t really use someone as ungifted and untalented as we appear to be. Yet God’s Word proclaims: We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. – Eph. 2:10. We limit our witness thinking we are unqualified, unschooled, and ill-prepared to share our faith. Yet God’s Word doesn’t make witnessing an elective activity (Mt. 28:18-20). We limit our Christian growth by paying scant attention to the Word, relying instead on paid professionals to spoon-feed us our weekly rations from the Bible. Yet through Christ we all have equal access to the Father (He. 10:19-22).
We limit our giving (and therefore our receiving) by hording the many blessings God deals out to us. Yet God’s Word says: Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. – Lk. 6:38. We limit our worship by having too many inhibitions, being too self-conscious to allow our heart to be caught up in a passionate embrace of our amazing Lord, or by being too critical of how others might be expressing their love for God. Yet God’s Word advocates a worship that is heartfelt and Spirit-led (Jn. 4:23-24). We limit our relationship with the Lord by cramming our lives so full of less-important matters that we have no time left to pursue the God who proclaims: I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. – Jer. 31:3.
We limit our ministries by failing to trust the Holy Spirit to lead relying instead on our seminary training and the latest books on the market. Nor do we believe God actually moves in power today as He once did in the past. Yet God’s Word tells us: Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church… – Eph. 3:20-21. We limit how God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and love is shown to others by refusing to believe God actually cares for them in the same way He cares about those who are more like us. And we limit His love for us by refusing to accept that He really cares that much about someone so seemingly insignificant, so obviously unworthy. Yet God’s Word proclaims: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – Jn. 3:16. Yes, we have a nasty habit of placing human boundaries around how we believe God chooses to bless us. Yet God’s Word says: No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. – 1Cor. 2:9.
Why would we ever think of limiting God when he promises to freely give us: Life to the full (Jn. 10:10); love that never fails (Ps. 107:1); joy that lasts forever (Is. 35:10); peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7); mercies that never end (Lam. 3:22); hope that does not disappoint (Ro. 5:5); power that is incomparably great (Eph. 1:19); grace greater than our sin (Ro. 5:20); glory that never fades (2Cor. 3:18); treasure that never spoils (Mt. 6:19-20); riches without reservation (Phil. 4:19); righteousness without stain (Eph. 5:27); holiness without blemish (Col 1:22); flesh that never ages (1Cor. 15:53); a body that never dies (Jn. 11:25-26); a world without darkness (Rev. 22:5); a Father who will never forsake us (He. 13:5); a Savior who will never leave us (Mt. 28:20); the Spirit without partiality (Acts 2:17-18); every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms (Eph. 1:3); and the ever-popular, “all things” (Ro. 8:32).
You can put all these blessings together and file them under the category: Life without limit! This is God’s goal for us. Why should we settle for less? Why on earth (or in heaven for that matter) would anyone ever want to place a limit on what God has freely given us in Christ Jesus?

Bill, a child of God without limit



They are among the most courageous and faithful Christian servants in the history of the Church, though rarely are they given much praise. With few possessions and scarce companions they thrust themselves into a vast wilderness answering the call of God to carry the good news about Jesus Christ to unreached people groups. Trusting in the Spirit’s guidance they valiantly created a new road into the heart of unexplored territory blazing their way by carving crosses into the trees to mark the route for others to follow. As they traveled northward they established small mission stations one day’s journey apart. These outposts of light became the strategic centers for reaching into the surrounding darkness of paganism and spreading the glory of God.
No, I am not talking about some foreign mission venture in a distant land. This pioneering evangelistic move of God took place right here in California over two centuries ago. You can still follow the journey of these intrepid missionaries. The road they built is called “El Camino Real,” “The King’s Highway.” U. S. Highway 101 traces the same route first established by these Christian explorers. Of the twenty-one mission stations they established up and down the coast most are still standing today, proud monuments to the manner in which this state was settled. Their names still appear on contemporary maps and their history is studied by every elementary student in the state all of whom are required to construct models of the missionaries’ architectural handiwork. The amount of influence these early evangelists managed to instill upon our contemporary culture is staggering. Yet it could have been so much more.
One of the best preserved of these mission stations is in the tiny community of San Miguel on the Central California coast. Our daughter Tiffany and her family reside there and we have often driven by the sight of the ancient structures thinking that one day we would like to take a closer look. A few weeks ago we finally took the opportunity to do so.
Mission San Miguel was founded in 1797 and was the sixteenth mission to be established in California. Construction on the main sanctuary didn’t begin until 1816 and was finished two years later. Its adobe walls are six feet thick and forty feet high. In its time it must have been a magnificent structure for even today it remains an impressive edifice and a marvelous example of mission architecture. In 1836 the property passed into the hands of the United States government. During recent years great efforts have been undertaken to restore and preserve the site. Tragically, in December of 2003, a powerful earthquake severely damaged much of the facility. Since then the sanctuary has been closed to the public and deemed unsafe. Huge cracks are visible in the walls and one side is propped up by wooden braces. Large areas of white plaster have fallen to the ground exposing the dull-grey, decaying adobe bricks.
We were disappointed at not being able to tour through the sanctuary but were fascinated at the rest of the buildings. The primitive existence of these faithful Christian servants and the hardships they willingly endured for the sake of the Gospel is on exhibit for all to see. In one place a portion of the trunk of an ancient oak tree is displayed with a scar clearly visible outlining a cross. Woodcutters had taken down the tree unaware that hidden inside its bark lay the remnants of one of the trail blazes cut into its flesh over two centuries earlier. The bark had long since grown over the scar obscuring its existence until the axe brought it back into view.
As I examined this amazing preservation of our history I couldn’t help but wonder why this great evangelistic venture ceased moving forward. Why did “The King’s Highway” come to a stop in the Bay Area and proceed no further north? Why did the work to establish mission stations in this wilderness come to an end? History books speak of the westward expansion of the United States and the accompanying geo-political changes in the territory as being the primary reason. However, I would like to advance another theory.
I believe somewhere along the line of church outposts, at some point along “The King’s Highway,” the original purpose of advancing the kingdom of God into a region yet to be reached with the Gospel changed. The zeal for evangelism which was so much a part of the motivation of the early missionaries transformed into a zeal for creating grandiose buildings. Although much of the architecture is similar throughout all of the California missions each one displays its own unique character. I wonder if, instead of competing against the devil for the souls of men, the later mission workers found themselves competing against each other to see who could construct the most magnificent buildings. Perhaps this great movement of God died away, not so much due to outward pressures, but inward vanity. Each station became a mission which had lost its mission. Therefore the Lord allowed these incredible edifices to fall into disrepair and this great missionary movement stopped moving.
The crumbling walls of Mission San Miguel are a testimony to what can, and will, happen when the Church loses sight of its primary purpose. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. – Lk. 19:10. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. – Jn. 20:21. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. – Mt. 28:19-20.
Sadly, much of the body of Christ in western culture has forgotten its mission. In denominational churches and independent gatherings, in mega churches and one-room country chapels, in magnificent cathedrals and simple house churches, there is a common tendency to turn inward, to focus on ministering to ourselves rather than reaching out to the dark world which surrounds us. Rather than fighting against our real enemy we have sparred with each other giving rise to a spirit of envy and competition. No matter how diligently we prop up our churches with man-made programs the plaster continues to fall from our white-washed façades and huge cracks are opening up in our walls through which our members are escaping to find meaning and purpose for their lives. We have become obsessed with preserving monuments to the past rather than creating new ways to promote the Gospel to reach our post-modern culture. We have become missions that lost their mission.
In front of the Mission San Miguel there is sign advertising the need to raise funds to repair the damage caused by the earthquake. The thermometer painted on the sign reaches toward a goal of fifteen million dollars. The red marking on the thermometer calibrating how much has been donated to date rises only to the one million dollar level. As a lover of history there is a part of me that longs to see them reach their goal. Yet as a child of God I realize there are more pressing causes vastly more worthy of our support. The task of evangelizing this dark territory is far from complete. In fact, we are nearly as pagan now as were the native civilizations the original missionaries were sent to reach. Those funds could kick-start a new evangelistic movement and help give birth to many more mission stations.
I am heartened to know that a small church still meets in a part of the mission left undamaged. The mission has also recently been used to facilitate a unity gathering of the surrounding Christian churches. As long as there is life there is still hope that one day the mission will recapture its original purpose. Though hidden beneath two centuries of growth the cross was still present in that ancient oak. Yes, the church in this land is cracked and in danger of collapse; yet even though we may have tragically lost sight of our mission, Christ has not abandoned His Church. I just pray we get the message before He sends the tremors of an earthquake or the axe of the woodcutter to adjust our focus.
I can’t help but long for the days of those courageous missionaries. Where are the daring souls who are willing to lay aside the comforts of home and risk their lives to answer the call of God? Where are the intrepid pioneer evangelists who are anxious to carve out a new road in this dark wilderness giving their all to travel “The King’s Highway?” Where are the heroic and faithful soldiers of the cross committed to following the Spirit into enemy territory and blazing the trail for others to follow? Where are the lionhearted warriors of righteousness planting new communities of believers in the midst of this moral wasteland? Where are the modern day mission builders dedicated to taking up the cause others have abandoned and continuing the mission to carry the light of the Gospel into the surrounding darkness? And where are the local gatherings of believers eager to commission, support, and send out the missionaries of the current age?
Praise God, they still exist! Even now God is calling them into the wilderness to plant new mission stations. Even now He is empowering them to accomplish His purpose. Even now “The King’s Highway” is being built. Even now He is creating missions that have not forgotten their mission, their walls strong and sturdy; their crosses clearly visible; their focus squarely on their King. Even now the mission campaign begun over two centuries ago is continuing—and history continues to be made!

Bill, a child of God still on mission


June 1, 2007

The fact that my wife and I love to travel is no secret. Usually when we are on the road we are in a hurry to get somewhere. Push the speed limit; forget the pit-stops; just get there on time! So it is not often that we get the opportunity to explore the countryside as we rush to our intended destination. But when we have the time we love to take the little side trips which lie in wait for the patient, curious, nature-loving, thrill-seeking traveler. Natural wonders, intriguing historical sites, state parks, antique shops, glorious sunsets, and cheesy tourist traps have all beckoned us to abandon the highway and loiter along the back-roads.
However, when it comes to ministry I have always preferred a straight-line, pedal-to-the-metal, achieve-the-goal-as-soon-as-possible approach. Now, after thirty years in the ministry, I am beginning to understand that God is often much more intent on taking the scenic route. As I look back on all the twists and turns of my life in Christian service I can see the hand of God, my Tour Guide, inviting me to slow down and explore all the interesting sites along the way. Whenever I have felt I had a handle on the next direction in my ministry I would charge forward, exceeding the speed limit, refusing to make a pit-stop, rushing to accomplish the objective. Then, suddenly, the Tour Guide would put up a road-block and escort me on a frustrating detour taking me away from my goals and onto a winding, narrow, dusty trail through the wilderness. As soon as I was allowed to find my way back to the highway I would once again put everything in high gear in a vain attempt to make up for lost time only to suffer another frustrating delay from a new construction zone a few miles down the road.
What’s the message here? I believe God has been showing me that He is far more concerned about the traveler than the destination. His focus is on the weary wanderer, not the fulfillment of our goals. With this in mind, the journey becomes His tool for shaping His pilgrims into the man or woman He desires. He will take us on any detour, lead us down any scenic byway, and guide us through any off-road adventure that will accomplish His purpose.
Serving the Lord is not about building a local church, creating a new ministry, advancing one’s own agenda, or even reaching the lost. And it certainly isn’t about following the same pathway as every other servant. It is all about building a relationship with the Tour Guide. He is rarely in a hurry and He loves taking the scenic route. Only by prayerfully, faithfully, diligently following where He leads will we ever be able to accomplish the mission He has mapped out for each one of us. …let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus… – He. 12:1-2.
I believe this is a good time to describe the road we are currently following in this ministry. I’m asking you to ease off on the gas pedal, roll down the windows, breathe in the fresh air and take a little side excursion with me. Allow me to show you the scenic route where our Tour Guide is leading us.
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. – Is. 43:18-19. This is the passage of Scripture which began our one-day, regional house church gathering two weeks ago. After a time of prayer we asked those present to share what the Lord had been pouring into their hearts and what they believed the Lord was anxious for us to hear. Where was He leading us in this ministry? The above passage was read followed by several others. Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you. – Joshua 3:5. Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint. – Is. 40:31.
The feeling seemed to be unanimous that God was about to do something huge in this area, that a fresh wave of God’s Spirit would soon be poured out in overwhelming abundance, that a powerful revival was on its way. We all realized the need to wait on the Lord for direction and guidance. One member of our gathering described a vision she had seen of “waves of God’s glory coming toward Earth,” but also cautioned about an enormous upheaval in the kingdom as God’s people transition from an inward, local-church focus to a more kingdom mindset.
Another participant reminded us that God has no grandchildren. Every child of God has equal access to the Father and is called into an intimate personal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the tendency in most traditional congregations is for the pastoral staff to fulfill the role of spiritual fathering prompting the members to allow the professionals to do the work of relating to God on their behalf. This results in propagating spiritual grandchildren rather than raising mature children for God. The pathway the Lord is leading us on must encourage everyone to form their own deep personal relationship with the heavenly Father, without any go-betweens.
There was much discussion on how to reach out into our communities. Simple churches, like many legacy churches, can easily become ingrown and self-absorbed. We were led to study the four passages in the Gospels which deal directly with the apostolic calling, Matthew 9:35-10:20, Mark 6:6-13, Luke 9:1-6, and 10:1-20. As we read these Scriptures we wrote down the following words and phrases through which we felt the Lord was trying to communicate specifically to us:

1. “Compassion” (Mt. 9:36). This must be our motive for reaching out to others. The closer we draw to the Lord the more we can feel Him grieving for Northern California.
2. “Ask the Lord” (Mt. 9:38, Lk. 10:2). This is the only resource we need. Everything we require for the journey is waiting for us in the harvest, including the workers who will partner with us. Asking God for the souls of the lost is part of this request. But be careful, in praying this prayer God may lead you on a detour through the scenic route.
3. “Lost sheep” (Mt. 10:6). This is our focus. It is not our aim to draw people away from legacy churches, although this will likely happen as God calls those He has chosen to be a part of this special ministry. Our mission must be primarily to reach the lost.
4. “Sheep among wolves” (Mt. 10:16, Lk. 10:3). This mission is not for the feint of heart. We must stick close to the Shepherd.
5. “Given what to say” (Mt. 10:19). There are no modern blueprints for how to do this ministry, nor can there be. Every location, every situation will require different approaches. Again, we must rely on the Lord every step of the journey.
6. “The Kingdom” (Mt. 10:7, Lk. 9:2, Lk. 10:9). This is our message. It is not about building our own empires, championing our favorite doctrines, or lobbying for our favorite social concerns. It is not about drawing denominational boundaries between groups of God’s children, encouraging other believers to join us rather than some other gathering, or pointing our fingers at all the flaws we happen to see in the traditional church. It is about advancing the kingdom of heaven on the King’s terms, in the King’s power, and for the King’s glory!
7. “Sent them…where He was about to go” (Lk. 10:1). In recent months God has been raising up an increasing number of believers who are feeling called into the simple church ministry in this area. I’m guessing the same is happening elsewhere as well. He also seems to be calling out those who appear to be apostolically gifted in order to plant networks of simple churches throughout Northern California. The Lord strongly spoke to us through this verse suggesting that He is raising us up to help prepare the way for a powerful visitation from Him.

If this last point is true it is likely that there are many others who are now or soon will be receiving a similar calling. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. – Lk. 10:2. Perhaps the Spirit is speaking to you as you read this. Is there a signpost in the road up ahead that says, “Detour,” or “Exit Here for a Scenic Drive?” If so, please slow down, turn off the highway, and follow our Tour Guide. The task ahead of us is daunting, but the views on this scenic route are incredible! Please contact us and let us know how we might encourage each other along the journey.

Bill, a child of God enjoying the view


May 25, 2007

“Honey, the garage door is open,” shouted my wife from the entryway of our home.
Moments earlier she had just hurried out through our front door on her way to work concerned that she might be a little late for the nine o’clock opening of her office. But as soon as she discovered the gaping aperture on the front of our house and our exposed garage she rushed back inside to inform me of the crisis. I was upstairs in our bedroom going through my morning exercise routine when I heard the disturbing news.
“Sorry to bother you but I thought you would want to know,” Babs explained. “I wish I could stay and help you close the door but I don’t have any time. Bye.”
“That’s okay,” I answered. “I’ll get it. Good bye.”
As I heard our front door slam shut I reluctantly postponed my sit-ups, threw on my warm-up jacket and headed downstairs toward the garage. The wind had been blowing fairly hard during the night and probably jarred loose the latch which was holding the garage door shut. The door is a wooden relic that was original equipment for our forty-three year old home. Over the years it has warped and sagged to the point where it no longer fits the opening. The bottom of the door scrapes the floor of the garage making it impossible to latch in the normal way. During the eleven years we have lived here we have kept it shut by using a couple of latch bolts, one on each side of the door.
A few days ago I noticed that the latch on the right side had sprung open leaving only one side left secure. Since closing the door can be a dirty, time-consuming job I opted to take care of it later. My unwillingness to promptly deal with the problem led to my being inconvenienced during my morning work out.
Closing the door is usually a two-person task requiring one on the outside to push inward on the door until the latch bolt becomes properly aligned and one on the inside fastening the latch. But I have discovered a technique that can be applied by one individual using a claw hammer for leverage. Unfortunately it involves getting dirty and running the risk of losing your life by being attacked by one of the man-eating spiders which love to hide out in the vicinity of our garage door. I shuttered at the prospect of having to face such frightening creatures so early in the day. However, there was a danger here more potentially devastating and far more serious than sinister arachnids. I am speaking of our neighbors!
No, I’m not really afraid of our neighbors, per se. I’m just terrified of having them see inside my garage! And no, I’m not all that concerned that someone would help themselves to any of the exposed contents since there is little of any value hiding there. Actually, having a few such contents end up missing would be a blessing. Confused? Allow me to explain my paranoia over an open garage door.
We have just recently finished painting the outside of our home. The ugly, pea-soup green exterior has been banished forever. For the first time since we moved here our house is a showpiece rivaling the other homes on our block and eliciting rave reviews from our neighbors. For once in our lives we are living in a home that truly sparkles…at least on the outside. The inside of our garage is an entirely different picture. From wall to wall and floor to ceiling it is packed with a universe of disorganized clutter.
Box upon box of Christmas decorations are stacked high along one wall. The opposite side is adorned with boxes of old books, camping gear and tools. Another wall is lined with the remnants of various house-cleaning, anti-clutter campaigns waged prior to past remodeling projects. Where else are you supposed to store things which you no longer have room for or may not immediately need in the house? The center of the garage is taken up by a myriad of items left over from the lives of three children who have grown up and left home, but left much of their belongings behind. Let me share a word of pessimism to those of you who are looking forward to eventually enjoying a home free of children—the empty nest is a myth!
Also taking up space in the center of our garage is a mountain of just plain junk awaiting removal by our local garbage handlers. Unfortunately, we are required to bundle our refuse, transport it curbside, and call for a specific appointment before it can be removed. Obviously none of these steps have been taken. What’s my excuse? I can’t reach the junk pile; there is too much clutter in the way!
All of this would be amusing were it not for our neighbors. As long as the garage door remains closed our home shines in freshly painted glory. But once it is opened the ugly interior is exposed for all to see. Now you know why I was willing to interrupt my morning routine and place myself in mortal danger just to close that door.
Okay, I admit it. This is nothing more than a ridiculous case of pride. I know for a fact that all of my neighbors’ garages are just as cluttered as mine for I have seen them with their doors open. Well, I must make an exception for the ones who live directly across the street from us and are actually able to park their car inside of their garage. However, I refuse to count them since I am convinced they are planetary aliens who haven’t yet discovered how garages are supposed to be used.
If we were energetic and had the time we could move the contents of our garage out onto the lawn and hold a yard sale. That way our clutter problem would then be shared by the rest of our neighbors. The problem with that scenario lies in our tendency to frequent all the other garage sales and bring home their clutter piles to add to our own. I wonder if we could form a pact with our neighbors and, in lieu of holding garage sales, just rotate the contents of each garage counter-clockwise, one address to the left once each month. After twelve such rotations we could all rent a truck together and haul everything to the dump. Since everyone would know what lies hidden in each other’s garages we could unashamedly keep our doors open for all to see.
Such an open door policy would undoubtedly lead to a very messy neighborhood, but it would do wonders for the Church and give rise to a very intimate, spiritually powerful, dynamically contagious, yet inherently messy body of Christ. Let me explain.
Once a week the Lord’s family gathers together in small groups and large, in crystal cathedrals and one room chapels, in denominational gatherings and independent congregations, in Sunday best and everyday casual, hoping to connect with the Almighty and glean some help to endure another week on planet Earth. We sit in our places in freshly painted glory, couched in our pride, searching for answers, yearning for fellowship, garage doors securely closed. As we survey the others we notice how beautiful they all look on the outside, yet we can’t help but wonder what is hidden in their garages. Is their mess as bad as ours? Are we the only ones so hopelessly cluttered with worthless things of the world?
On those few occasions when some brave soul dares to open their garage door we catch a glimpse of unbelievable squalor and shutter at the horror of it all. But in reality we know everyone’s garage is messed up, including and especially our own. So why do we spend so much time and effort fixing up the exterior knowing all the while the inside is becoming more and more repulsive? And why are we so terrified at having the wind blow open our door? The answer is, of course, pride.
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble…Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. – James 3:6,10. Allow me to propose an open door policy for the Church. Do we not understand that God is fully aware of all the contents of our garages and that one day the doors will be flung open for all to see? Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – He. 4:13.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in… – Rev. 3:20. I suggest we hold a grand opening celebration. Allow a fresh wind of God’s Spirit to shake loose the latches. Let’s fling those doors open wide and drag the contents outside. Perhaps as we see what lies in each other’s garages we can discover some unnecessary burdens we might be able to help lift. Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2. For certain we will know far better how to pray for each other. And as we realize how cluttered all of our garages have grown I imagine we will become far less harsh in our criticism of one another. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. – Eph. 4:32.
But wouldn’t this make our church gatherings far less programmed, far more unpredictable, much lengthier, dangerous, and very, very messy? Why, we wouldn’t have any time left for a sermon, or announcements, or taking up an offering, or listening to a professionally trained worship band. Exactly! But our garages would become far less cluttered, our fellowship vastly stronger, and our ministries far more fruitful. Which would you prefer, leaving church feeling entertained or cleansed, with your pride intact or your burdens lifted?
Quiet! Is that someone knocking? You might want to take a look in your garage. I think the wind may have blown open your door.

Bill, a child of God, garage door open