November 7, 2009

We stood on the sidewalk in front of our home and watched in silent agony as our daughter’s sports car turned the corner and disappeared out of sight. After swallowing hard in order to stifle a tear, I slowly turned around and headed back indoors. Our little girl was gone. Okay, at twenty-seven years of age she wasn’t so little anymore, and ever since she got married three years ago and moved out of the house, we hardly ever saw her. But this time she was moving to another state, some twelve hours away by car. It seemed as though a significant, life-essential organ was being ripped away from my body.
Her mother, Babs, retreated into a heavy fog of depression while I was left to sort through some conflicting emotions. As a parent, after investing so many years in the life of your offspring, it is unbelievably painful to see them grow up and move away. Yet along with the hurt I was also feeling a hint of pride and accomplishment. After all, this is why we raised her, why we sacrificed so much on her account, why we spent so much time praying over her and pouring our love into her. The academy award for parents is the joy of knowing your children are able to survive on their own. Failure to realize this joy can lead to a far greater pain than separation.
As I was pondering these mixed feelings I was reminded of a passage of Scripture where Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” – John 14:12. I have struggled over this passage in the past wondering what His disciples could possibly do that could be considered greater than the Lord’s accomplishments. But now the Spirit was giving me a fresh insight into what was taking place. The Master was about to do the most important thing He could do for the future ministry of His disciples—leave!
For some three and a half years the disciples had grown accustomed to the physical presence of the Lord. Together they had witnessed some pretty amazing miracles. Water became wine; the lame walked; the blind received sight; those with diseases were cured; even the dead were raised. But it was always Jesus performing the miracles while the disciples watched in wonder. In addition they were able to absorb the greatest teachings the world had ever heard. But now Jesus was returning to His Father. Could the disciples survive without His dominating presence? Would the ministry continue without its Founder?
In truth, the disciples would never have been able to begin the Church had Jesus remained on earth. They would have been far too dependant upon Him and far too reluctant to launch out into new ministries. Yes, I realize He gave them His Spirit to empower them and to give direction. But physically He left, and He did so just days before the opening Sunday service of the new Church. I can well imagine the heartache of separation Jesus experienced as He ascended into heaven. How He must have longed to stay with them and help them through the next few critical weeks and months! Yet I bet there was also a hint of pride and accomplishment. For three and a half years He had been preparing them for this moment, teaching them, praying for them, and pouring His love into them. Finally the time had come to see if they could survive, and the ministry thrive, without His physical presence. Only then could Jesus’ ministry be judged as completely successful.
Thankfully, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples went on to do the “even greater things than these” by carrying the Gospel throughout the known world and planting churches everywhere they went. I believe there is a message here for would-be apostles and church planters today. “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” – Hebrews 3:1. Taking our example from Jesus, the greatest Apostle in history, perhaps the greatest thing we can do for those we are discipling and the churches we are planting is to leave!
Obviously we must rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the best timing for our departure, and in this modern world we can still stay connected and visit occasionally when we feel the need is warranted. But if we fail to leave we run the risk of making people dependant upon us. If they continue to feel dependant upon us they will never launch out on their own and begin to accomplish the ministries for which God has gifted and called them. And our own ministry will be drastically limited in its scope.
I believe that all of the spiritual gifts can and have been abused. A careful reading of Paul’s letters to the troubled church in Corinth will back up this belief. The gifts are abused when more attention is focused on the gifted than the Giver. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” – 1Corinthians 12:7. When the gifted steals away the glory meant for the Giver abuse is inevitable. All gifts are meant to be directed outward, to build up the church, to bring glory to God, not to build up the stature of the one using the gift.
This is especially true for those gifted individuals who make up the five-fold ministry team. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up…” – Ephesians 4:11-12. Far too many individuals who are gifted apostolically continue to gather others around their ministry, fulfilling their personal need to be needed, rather than equipping and releasing the saints to follow the Lord of the harvest wherever He leads. It is a failure to leave when it’s time to leave, to send forth when it’s time to send forth. This is an abuse of the apostolic gift, one which vastly limits ministries and stifles the growth of the church.
I shamefully remember the times when as an institutional church pastor I stood behind the pulpit and exhorted our parishioners to get involved in the ministry. “Every Christian believer is ordained by God and gifted to fulfill a ministry,” I would proclaim. Yet because I also encouraged them to return Sunday after Sunday to listen to me expound from the Scriptures I was inadvertently causing them to become dependant upon me rather than equipping them to follow the Lord and put to use the gifts He had given them. Tragically, I was enabling the very thing I was preaching against!
Letting go is one of the most difficult things to do in the ministry. It is bound to cause pain and heartaches. Yet witnessing those whom God has brought to us to teach and disciple failing to fulfill their potential in Christ is a far greater pain than that of separation. The calling of an apostle, like that of a parent, involves backing away from the spotlight and allowing our “children” to take center stage. It is a rite of spiritual passage, a building up of the next generation to take our places. It is a calling to receive the wounds of distancing ourselves from those we love. But it is also the privilege of knowing the joy of watching them do “greater things than these,” of knowing that the ministry will continue to grow long after our departure. And it will only happen if we learn to let go.

Bill, a child of God learning to let go


October 10, 2009

The instant I opened the patio door he tore into the backyard like a Tasmanian devil barking furiously and running as fast as his little five-inch legs could carry him. A few yards in front of him a grayish brown squirrel thought it best to postpone burying a walnut in the lawn and quickly scampered up a nearby apple tree. While madly circling the trunk of the tree the miniature dachshund kept barking repeatedly in as threatening a voice as he could muster pausing occasionally to leap into the air in a vain attempt to scale the wooded refuge and capture the rogue rodent. I stood in the doorway laughing out loud at the futile actions of our clueless puppy.
“Jabba” has been a member of our household for just five months yet this scene has been replayed perhaps a hundred times. Every day he will sit at the patio door and stare through the glass until the enemy appears. When a squirrel has been sighted Jabba will whine and growl until I come and open the door for him. Never in his sojourn with us has the hapless pooch come any closer than ten feet to one of the elusive varmints. Yet he remains undeterred and continues his daily vigil in hopes that some day he may actually be able to catch one. In order to preserve the peace of our home, not to mention that of our neighbors as well, we have been forced to outfit him with a specialized collar which will give him a good jolt of electricity whenever he barks; the louder the bark, the more intense the shock. Thanks to the collar we have managed to mitigate the barking, but the whining and frenzied frustration continues.
In the last few weeks Jabba has taken his sentry duty to our living room window and now equally divides his time between patrolling the front yard and the rear, always maintaining his vigilance and alerting me with frenetic whining any time an evil, bushy-tailed intruder comes too close to our home. His favorite lookout position for observing the front battlefield is perching atop the back of our living room couch. I’ve seen cats maintain such a position for hours but never a dog. However, since his legs are so short, finding a high vantage point from which to pursue his quest seems to make perfect sense, although he does look a trifle silly.
For the past few days once every morning, almost like clockwork, a squirrel will appear outside the front window. Upon catching sight of Jabba faithfully observing the scene from his chosen lookout post, the squirrel will stop in its tracks, rise up on its hind legs, and stare back mockingly at the beast behind the glass. I am convinced the scheming rodent is fully aware of the chaos it is causing inside our home. Jabba will go absolutely nuts at the audacious actions of the furry menace and begin running back and forth through the house at top speed while whining as loudly as he dares. When he finds me, usually sitting in front of the computer in my office, he will jump at my legs trying desperately to get my attention. Don’t I understand that the greatest disaster ever to face the planet is occurring just beyond the window glass? When I make no move to allow him access to the front yard in order to chase away the tiny terrorist, he just looks at me incredulously and then scampers off to check on the whereabouts of the enemy.
Eventually, long after the squirrel has disappeared, Jabba will grow tired of maintaining his lookout vigil and slowly saunter into my office and lie down at my feet with a defeated sigh. If I could possibly read his mind I’m quite certain he would be wondering why I have so little concern for the squirrels of the world and why I don’t fully appreciate all he is doing to keep our home free from such unwelcome pests. However, glancing down from my computer screen, I just shake my head at him and laugh.
“Why do you always go so berserk over a stupid little squirrel?” I asked him the other day after another such episode of insanity. Reaching down to his miniature dachshund height I took his head in my hands and gave him a reassuring rub. “I know you get upset over the squirrels,” I told him hoping somehow he could understand me. “The next time one of those pesky creatures gets into our yard come to me first and we’ll talk about it. I’m not all that concerned about them. I’m actually bigger than the squirrels and I could vanquish them if I wanted to. It’s not that big of a deal. I am truly more concerned about you than about them. The squirrels can run faster than you, they can climb a tree and you can’t, and you will probably never catch one. So why do you bother to sit perched on the couch waiting and watching and going nuts over something that you can’t do anything about?”
“He looks every bit as silly as you!” proclaimed a familiar voice speaking into my spirit. “Are you all that much different from Jabba when you sit in front of the television ranting and raving about what you see on the news every night? Do you realize how silly you look going berserk over all those news websites you have a habit of visiting daily on your computer? There you are day after day perched upon your couch in front of the TV or stationed at your lookout post in front of your computer whining at what is taking place beyond the glass. Do you suppose all your frenetic complaining will result in any positive change? Don’t you think the enemy knows what gets you profoundly upset and uses this as a ploy to fill you with anxiety, tear down your faith, and distract you from spending more time with me?”
“Do you honestly think I am totally ignoring you if I don’t seem quite as upset as you when you cry out to me over some trial that has raised your blood pressure and sent you into a fit of frenzy? Don’t you understand that I allow adverse situations to come near you in order to draw you back to me and to teach you that barking at squirrels accomplishes nothing? Can you trust me to take care of you, to watch out for threatening intruders invading your life, or will you continue to insist on manning the observation post by yourself and going insane at the first sight of trouble? When you see a trial approaching are you willing to make your first move sitting at my feet for a while and allowing me to give you my perspective on what might be about to happen? Oh, and by the way, I am much bigger than any squirrel, or any trial threatening your existence or the wellbeing of your country! I could vanquish them all in a heartbeat if I so wished. But in truth, I am far more concerned about you than about them.”
Ouch! It certainly isn’t pleasant getting reprimanded by the Lord, especially when He uses my dog to get through to me. Which is why I’m passing this one on to those of you who, like me, have a problem with getting a little too anxious about circumstances over which we have little to no control. Judging from the overwhelming amount of angst I’m hearing about coming from within the kingdom, I’m convinced I’m not alone in my anxiety. Are you in the habit of barking at squirrels?
It’s not that we don’t have anything to be worried about. Lately the economy seems to be getting flushed down the toilet and millions of jobs have gone down the drain as well. The value of the dollar is plunging along with the value of our retirement funds. Just as the war in Iraq seems to be quieting down the conflict in Afghanistan is heating up. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threat to world peace. We live under the constant threat of terrorism. The political climate in this country may be more divided than it’s been since the civil war. We continue to be inundated with prophecies concerning an approaching natural disaster. And some people are convinced that human life on this planet is headed toward extinction due to irreversible climate change. How’s that for a brief list of things that might make us a little anxious!
The Lord has spoken to me about this in the past and has even fitted me with a restraining collar (the Holy Spirit) to warn me when my barking gets too loud. But I still manage to get a little insane at times and whine at all the squirrels I see coming too close for comfort. In truth, other than pray, write my congressman, and vote, I can do almost nothing about the things which concern me the most. So what good does it do to expend so much time and emotional energy going nuts over this stuff? “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” – Matthew 6:27. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:34.
I’m not saying that we should completely drop out of society and simply wait for Christ to return and rescue us from all these tribulations. Indeed, God expects us to do what we can to make a positive difference in the lives of others around us, many of whom are suffering far more than we are. It’s just too tempting, however, to get so caught up in worldly affairs that we spend all our time chasing after squirrels rather than seeking after Christ.
For decades believers in this country have been passionately petitioning the Lord to bring revival upon this land. As the hoped for revival tarries we have blamed the delay on the fact that so many here are living in luxury. People simply do not feel the need for God to rescue them. The soil is just too hard to penetrate with the Gospel. Perhaps this is the reason God has allowed all these trials to strike our nation. Are we experiencing a tilling of the soil? Is this an answer to our own prayers? Are more people finally feeling the need of a Savior? If so, what should be our response? “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.” – Hosea 10:12.
So what should be our primary focus? “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33. Jesus never bothers to tell us what to seek second. There is no need. If our main focus is on serving the King and expanding His kingdom then we will truly be making a positive difference in the lives of others and in our society as a whole. We can either go crazy focusing on what is going wrong in the world or we can be filled with the peace of Christ and focus on bringing the kingdom of God to the world. We can either go chasing after elusive squirrels or we can go searching after lost sheep. We can either maintain our fruitless vigil in front of the glass waiting for the next villain to appear or we can sit at the Lord’s feet and listen for His perspective on the world. We can either act like Martha who, being upset at her sister for spending time with Jesus and overwhelmed with the stuff of life, whined “Lord, don’t you care…?” or we can heed the Lord’s answer: Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:40-42.
The picture I want to leave you with is Jabba sitting at the feet of his master after giving up the chase. Our own Master is calling us to take our attention off of the trials of this world; to give up barking at squirrels. He is inviting us to sit down at His feet, put our trust in Him, and rest in His peace. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” – Colossians 3:1. “Be still, and know that I am God…” – Psalm 46:10. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33.

Bill, a child of God giving up barking at squirrels


September 12, 2009

I used to love putting together jigsaw puzzles. These days I rarely have time for such leisurely pursuits, and if I did I would prefer reading, hiking, surfing the net, or enjoying friends and family. But I still fondly remember the thrill of finding that elusive piece that finally filled up a hole in Mt. Shasta, or allowed me to connect the fishing boat to the dock of the coastal village in Maine, or completed the rose garden beside the English cottage. And then there was that enormous sense of accomplishment when, after hours of back-straining, neck-creaking, and eye-straining effort, the last piece found its home and the picture was complete.
Let the celebration begin! Never mind the fact that I could barely move from my chair and would suffer back pain for weeks. Never mind the fact that all my hard work would soon be ripped apart and returned to the box from which it came. Never mind the fact that I had just wasted a significant portion of my life on such an inconsequential undertaking. The important thing was that the puzzle was finished and every piece fit together exactly as it was created to do. Somehow the world seemed a bit more manageable after such heroics.
My strategy was always the same. First, find all the “edge” pieces and put together the border. Once the area of the puzzle was clearly defined I would go to work assembling parts of the picture that contained sharp contrasts, or straight lines, or similar colors that marked them as belonging together. The more difficult parts of the puzzle were left to the last when searching for the right piece required sifting through fewer other pieces. By carefully referring to the picture on the box I could usually determine the general location of just about any piece. My proven strategy was defeated once, however, when some clever, if not evil, Christmas shopper presented me with a completely round puzzle, a picture of a pepperoni pizza! With no straight edges, no way to determine the borders, no straight lines, and an entire picture that looked exactly the same, assembly was next to impossible. I found myself longing for a pair of scissors in order to custom fit each piece into the location I desired. After about an hour of fruitless effort I gave up and called the pizza delivery service. If you can’t beat it, eat it!
Here’s a puzzle for you. You might want to purchase a larger card table; this one has millions of pieces. Though it is filled with many contrasting parts it has no readily discernable borders, and its shape is continually changing. And get this; there is no picture on the box, only some vaguely worded descriptions on its assembly instructions. The title of the puzzle is, “The Kingdom of God.” Are you ready to start putting it together?
“But Bill,” I can hear you all saying, “no one but God knows how to fit all the pieces of His kingdom together. For a mere human to attempt to do so would be sheer lunacy.”
I totally agree with you. But then why do so many people make that attempt?
For the past week I have been trying to unpack all that took place during the latest house church conference I attended over Labor Day weekend in Dallas. For some reason this one has taken a little longer for me to digest. What the Holy Spirit was trying to download to us wasn’t immediately clear, at least to me anyway. Now after a week’s worth of pondering I believe I know what the Lord was getting at. He was giving us a little glimpse of the picture on the box, a fleeting glance at a portrait of the kingdom. And the picture is much larger than I once imagined.
For the first time the conference included elements of both the simple church movement and certain mega churches. It was billed as a meeting of the micro and the macro, “the rabbit and the elephant.” The ability of rabbits to reproduce is legendary. Unfortunately, they are also known for their unruly, uncontrollable nature. They usually want nothing to do with elephants and have a habit of getting sidetracked by running down doctrinal rabbit trails. Elephants, on the other hand, can move mountains with their strength and size. They can produce huge piles of rich resources, and are capable of carrying much of the kingdom on their backs. Unfortunately, they have a nasty habit of stepping on rabbits, change directions extremely slowly, and take years to reproduce.
What happens when you put them both in the same room? You might think it was total chaos. Instead, guided by the Spirit, we were able to discern some tangible ways of how we can fit together in the kingdom puzzle.
We listened, amazed, as one mega church pastor talked of their vision for planting a million house churches world-wide. Others talked of their outreach into Muslim communities in America by planting simple churches and how that has led to doing the same in Turkey. Since we are experienced and understand how to plant indigenous, house churches cross-culturally, could we in the simple church movement partner with them and assist them in their vision? Would they be willing to help train and finance some of our own people to enter the mission field?
Other mega churches have responded to God’s direction and used their staff and facilities to create resources for the simple church movement by providing children’s ministry materials and producing videos for us, giving away these tremendous resources just to bless our ministry. We also heard from one of the many churches in this country who are in the process of transitioning from macro to micro in order to promote more intimate fellowship and provide the means of reaching into neighborhoods and people groups that would likely never attend a larger gathering. Again, since we have expertise in planting small, intimate fellowships, could we not help them in this process?
I would be untruthful if I painted a picture devoid of controversy. I did hear some grumbling at the conference over this year’s emphasis. Sadly, some people don’t seem to get it. It’s not about the micro vs. the macro, the rabbit vs. the elephant. It’s about the kingdom! Jesus mentioned the word “church” on only two occasions. He spoke about the kingdom dozens of times.
When He first burst on the scene he preached about the kingdom. “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” – Matthew 4:17. He sent out His disciples with the same message. “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’” – Matthew 10:7. One of His favorite subjects was describing the kingdom. “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.” – Matthew 13:24. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” – Matthew 13:31. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…” – Matthew 13:33. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…” – Matthew 13:44. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.” – Matthew 13:45. “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake…” Matthew 13:47. Is the picture on the puzzle box becoming clearer?
We are told to “seek first his kingdom…” – Matthew 6:33. The Bible never tells us what to seek second. When we pray we are to say “Your kingdom come…” – Matthew 6:10. I’m now beginning to understand more of what that prayer is actually about. And we are waiting for the day when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” – Revelation 11:15.
It seems fairly obvious to me that the puzzle of the Christian life is all about the kingdom. The picture on the box is huge and encompasses far more than any single church, or denomination, or movement. It includes both micro and macro and everything in between. Why then do so many of us try to make it all about a tiny piece of the puzzle? Why would anyone draw their own arbitrary borders of the puzzle and exclude others with whom they disagree? Is it just a vain attempt to make the puzzle more manageable, more controllable, more comprehensible? If we make the picture smaller will our own piece seem larger? Are we guilty of trying to take a pair of scissors to other pieces in order to custom fit them where they really don’t belong, next to us in our mini-puzzle?
The kingdom of heaven has only one King, and we would do well to let Him establish His own borders and connect the pieces of the puzzle as He desires, as only He can. It is not a matter of micro or macro, but of building up His kingdom. Within the institutional church as well as within the simple church movement there are some individuals who are kingdom-minded, and some who are minding their own kingdom. The former are my heroes, no matter where they serve, and I am open to partnering with them for the advancement of the kingdom. After all, we still have a lot of work to do. I’m afraid we are a long way from celebrating the completion of the puzzle. There are far too many pieces yet to be found, too many holes yet to be filled, too many unreached people groups and neighborhoods yet to be connected. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” – Matthew 24:14.

Bill, a child of God with his eyes on the big picture


August 29, 2009

The concertmaster strolls across the front of the stage, stops in front of his chair, turns toward the audience and acknowledges them with a bow. A smattering of polite applause rises from the midst of Symphony Hall. Their lack of enthusiasm is understandable. After all, this guy is just one of the musicians. The real maestro has yet to appear and the concert has not even begun.
Turning to his fellow musicians assembled on stage the concertmaster nods in the direction of the principle oboist. The oboist reaches down to the floor beside her chair and strikes a tuning bar. A note resonates; the pitch is precisely A-440. The oboist then plays the note on her instrument matching the exact pitch of the tuning bar. The concertmaster, in turn, lifts his violin to his chin and tunes it to the pitch he is hearing from the oboist. Once he is satisfied that his tuning is perfectly matched with the oboe, he nods to the rest of the musicians who begin tuning their own instruments.
Suddenly, Symphony Hall comes alive with the sounds of pure chaos. String players are adjusting their tuning pegs. Woodwind players are lengthening or shortening the joints on their flutes, clarinets, and bassoons in order to match the standard pitch. The brass players are adjusting their tuning slides in order to make certain they are precisely tuned to the rest of the orchestra. Even the percussion section is busy checking the intonation of the tympani and harp. Of course, the only way to be sure your instrument is in tune is to play it, and that is what every musician does. For several minutes the audience cringes as they endure the total dissonance of a hundred different musicians doing their own thing, making their own kind of music, attempting to squeeze in one last practice session of that difficult passage coming up in the first piece.
To the novice concert attendee it may seem like total anarchy. Couldn’t all this have been done ahead of time, backstage, out of earshot of symphony patrons who have coughed up a pretty penny to hear quality music performed by professionals? Unfortunately, fine instruments, when exposed to varying environments and strenuous playing, will constantly go out of tune and be in almost continuous need of adjustment. Without the final pre-concert tuning regimen, a performance by a professional symphony orchestra could resemble a high school band concert.
Speaking of a high school band concert, I remember attending one not too long ago in our hometown. At the end of the performance I was asked by a member of the audience what I thought about how well the students had played.
“I have good news and bad news for you,” I replied. “The bad news is a third of the band was comprised of percussion instruments which drowned out most of the rest of the band. The good news is a third of the band was comprised of percussion instruments which drowned out most of the rest of the band.” After a hearty laugh I went on to explain that the instruments were terribly out of tune and it adversely affected what might otherwise have been a nice concert.
Being in tune with all the other musicians is critical in a symphony concert. And the only way to ensure that everyone’s intonation is synchronized is to have everyone tune to a standard pitch. Otherwise, the chaos heard during the pre-concert tuning will likely continue throughout the performance. Uniformity of intonation also requires the highly sensitive ears of dedicated musicians who have been trained to recognize when an instrument is in tune, and when it is not.
Last Sunday evening during our home gathering someone brought up the subject of the necessity of regularly recalibrating our spiritual lives. My wife, Babs, talked about her experience working in a county laboratory where one individual was charged with the duty of periodically recalibrating all the lab test equipment. Without carefully adjusting the equipment to exact standards the results of various medical tests, including HIV and STD detection, would be in doubt. Others talked about how various engineers had to recalibrate their instruments and airplanes had to periodically have their instruments fine-tuned. That’s when I called upon my experience as a professional musician and shared about how a symphony orchestra “recalibrates” its instruments just prior to a concert.
It’s easy to draw the analogy of the necessity for Christians to regularly recalibrate their lives to the standard of Jesus Christ. Our daily devotions, our weekly gatherings, our prayer groups, participating in the Lord’s Supper, and even our casual conversations with one another all provide opportunities for us to fine-tune our spiritual lives. To ignore the need for frequent recalibrating in our personal lives is to ignore Scripture and our own faulty intonation. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” – 1John 1:8-9. But it was my daughter, Trisha, who elevated the conversation to a higher plane and carried the analogy one step further.
“It’s not just our own lives that need to be periodically recalibrated,” she offered. “The church as a whole needs to be recalibrated, and isn’t that sort of what the “simple church movement” is all about?”
“Wow, Trisha!” I replied admittedly somewhat surprised that something so profound had emanated from my daughter. “That comment was right on. I think the Holy Spirit has just spoken to us tonight.”
“Does that mean we’re going to read about this in one of your upcoming newsletters?” asked someone else precipitating a round of laughter from everyone.
Okay, so our house church knows me all too well and now you know the source of the inspiration for this devotional thought. Please bear with me as I try to elaborate on my daughter’s comment. Over the last few days I’ve been chewing on this subject, trying to digest what I believe the Spirit was saying to us through Trisha. Does the Church really need to be recalibrated? The answer to that question is a resounding yes! And why is that, you ask? I’m afraid the Church as a whole, particularly here in western culture, has grown terribly out of tune.
All too often we have shown ourselves to be more concerned with making our budget than making disciples; more concerned with building temples than building bridges into the community of the unsaved; more concerned with spending the Lord’s precious resources on ourselves than on meeting the needs of those outside the walls of the church; more concerned with increasing membership than increasing intimacy with the Lord and with each other. The bad news is the percussion of our daily lives and the frenetic drumbeat of our seemingly endless programs is drowning out the music of Jesus Christ. The equally bad news is those who need to hear His music the most, the lost and hurting souls living in the community around us, are often more aware of our dissonance than we are.
Before you decide to burn me at the stake for heresy please notice I said the Church as a whole is out of tune. I am well aware that many individual congregations are diligently trying to maintain their intonation in keeping with the standard of Jesus Christ. However, tragically, almost from the very beginning of the Church, the body of Christ has been in near constant need of recalibrating. The epistles in the New Testament are attempts by the Apostle Paul and others to recalibrate a Church that had gone out of tune. The reforms of Luther, Calvin, John and Charles Wesley, John and Alexander Campbell, and many others over the last several centuries were more attempts at recalibrating the Church. In this country the “Back to the Bible Movement” and the Charismatic Movement were more attempts at bringing the Church back in tune with the Holy Spirit. The first and second “Great Awakenings” were spontaneous, Spirit-led, recalibration movements.
I believe the “simple church movement” is another in a long line of recalibration attempts by the Holy Spirit to bring us back in tune with the standard of Christ. We are attempting to simplify our way of doing church so that practically anybody could do it. We meet in small intimate fellowships in homes, restaurants, conference rooms, lunch rooms, or parks rather than gather in large groups in elaborate church buildings. We are implementing a shared leadership style based upon our gifting rather than relying on seminary-trained, professional clergy. We try to maintain our missional dynamism in following the Lord into the harvest field rather than insist on attracting nonbelievers to our own static, same-time-same-place-same-content gatherings. We have discovered that simple structures facilitate reproducibility which, in turn, stimulates the growth of the kingdom. But mostly we just advocate a return to following hard after Jesus and listening to the direction of His Spirit.
If you listen carefully you can hear the tuning bar ringing clearly throughout the New Testament. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” – 1Corinthians 3:11. “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church…” – Ephesians 1:22. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” – Matthew 17:5. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” – Matthew 28:18. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27.
You might call the Holy Spirit the “principle oboist” of the Church. One of His main functions is to periodically strike the tuning bar and call us to recalibrate to the perfection of Christ. But are we listening carefully for the right pitch or are we too busy playing our own instruments to hear? In the Church, as in a symphony orchestra, two things are required in order to obtain perfect intonation: 1) the presence of an accurate standard, and 2) the highly sensitive ears of dedicated Christ-followers who have trained themselves to distinguish the correct pitch.
I have no doubt but that the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to recalibrate. For some of you, that may involve remaining in the institutional church and working toward individual and corporate re-tuning. Others, like us, once in tune with the Spirit, may be directed outside the walls of the church to impact our communities with the music of Jesus. I’m not trying to tell you how to tune your instrument but rather nodding in the direction of our “principle oboist” and encouraging you to listen. I’m not trying to tell you which string on your instrument is sadly out of tune but rather attempting to help you improve your hearing. And unlike a concertmaster I have no desire to evoke even the slightest smattering of applause. My aim is to help the symphony orchestra of Christ to recalibrate and, beginning with my own instrument, to re-tune itself to the standard of perfection found only in our Maestro.
Don’t be surprised if the recalibration process gets a little messy. When the Spirit calls us to re-tune, our theaters of ministry may come alive with the sounds of pure chaos. Just remember the tuning regimen is essential in order for the upcoming concert to be critically acclaimed. For one day soon, when He is satisfied that His musicians are in tune with Him and with each other, our Conductor will mount the podium and issue the downbeat on the “greatest awakening” the world has ever known. Even now He is waiting in the wings. Even now the Spirit is striking the tuning bar. Are we listening?

Bill, a child of God still recalibrating


August 15, 2009

I just kept thinking how improbable the events of that day truly were and how blessed Babs and I were to be invited to share in them. Earlier we had witnessed our dear friend, the cook at Carrow’s Restaurant where the “Church at Table #2” is located, getting married in a small, civil ceremony in a nearby city. Now the extended family was gathered in his backyard in the East Bay community of San Pablo for a festive barbecue and celebration. Babs and I were the only non-family members present. Yet even though the party was held in honor of the new bride and groom, we were treated as their special guests. Making the occasion even more incredible was the fact that three of the family members spoke little to no English. Neither Babs nor I spoke Spanish. Consequently, conversations were continually being translated back and forth. Despite the awkwardness of our communications, the love seemed to flow freely in both directions.
Since that gathering last Monday afternoon I have taken the opportunity to reflect upon all that led up to this remarkable scene where Babs and I were virtually being adopted into a family from another culture. For two years we had been following the Lord into this bountiful harvest field, cultivating a growing friendship with this family and sharing Jesus with them. At times we had wondered if our efforts would ever bear fruit. Now we were celebrating not only a wedding for which we had been lobbying since we first met them, but also the salvation of four members of their family. Our love for each other had conquered the cultural divide between us.
Over the course of our strengthening relationship we have freely blessed them with some badly needed furniture, assisted them in the renewal of their immigration status, and shared our knowledge of God’s Word with them during church gatherings in their home. We have prayed with them, counseled with them, shared each other’s cooking, stumbled over learning songs from two very different backgrounds, and marveled as God knit together the hearts of our two dissimilar families. Have we been experiencing some freak anomaly of the nature of human relations or have we stumbled upon some principle of kingdom expansion? My vote is for the latter for which I also place into evidence exhibit number two.
For the last two years Babs and I have been meeting regularly for simple church with a Singaporean couple in San Ramon, the community just to the north of our hometown of Dublin. Their daughter is one of my piano students and our growing relationship led to them inquiring as to how we do church in the home. “Could we do church in our home?” they asked after hearing my brief explanation of the benefits of house church and, of course, we gladly accepted their invitation. To begin with they invited only their churched friends to our fellowships. But as most of these strong Christian families fell away from participation they began to reach out to their substantial circle of friends who were nominal believers or non-Christians. Now they have a good mix of veteran believers and seekers who meet together every Friday evening.
This San Ramon group is predominantly Asian, so how did Babs and I manage to bridge another cultural divide? Once again, over the course of two years, we have been patiently growing a love relationship with them. Many of these now dear friends I met because the original couple recommended me as a music teacher for their children. We have discovered that blessing someone’s kids provides a wide open door into the hearts of the parents. It seemed only natural to invite them to the Friday evening church gathering.
Babs and I have spent many months discipling the host couple who are rapidly growing into seasoned spiritual leaders. Already this year we have baptized five individuals from this gathering. Now this group is growing in numbers to such an extent we feel the need to split into two gatherings. What has led to the success of this simple church? Babs and I have opened up our hearts and allowed the love of God to flow freely, unhindered, at flood stage between us. In this case love meant spending time, lots of it. But we are seeing a spectacular harvest as a result. Let’s move on to exhibit number three.
Earlier this year I received a call from a friend ours with whom we ministered some fifteen to twenty years ago in the North Bay. He asked if we could come to their home and help them start a simple church with some of their neighbors. The main sticking point was one of logistics. They live in the community of Olivehurst, some forty miles north of Sacramento and a two hour drive from our home. Yet, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we have been making the journey at least once a month to connect with these families who are intent on drawing closer to the Lord and reaching out to their neighborhood. This gathering is mostly African American, yet the color of our skin has been forgotten in the midst of our passion for God. Once again, the love of Christ freely flowing through us, even to the extent of driving over two hundred miles to meet together, has crumbled the walls dividing our cultures. But wait; there’s even more.
Several months ago, in obedience to what we were hearing from God, Babs and I opened up our home to a mixed race family from Philadelphia. They needed a place to stay for three months until they learned how permanent the father’s new job would be. Compounding the difficulties of joining two diverse families under one roof was the fact that this family had seven members, including a two-week old baby girl. Their passion for simple church had led them to seek out a host family who was already engaged in organic church planting hoping to learn from them.
During the course of our stay together something totally unexpected occurred, something that could only be wrought by the working of Divine hands. Instead of a growing frustration over having too many people sharing life together under the same small roof, we experienced a growing love for each other until our two families became one. In the process God forged an apostolic partnership between us that has already greatly blessed our ministry. In a most unusual turn of events God miraculously answered one of my most heartfelt prayers, not just for workers for the harvest, but for apostolic partners who would be able to assist us in reaching the overwhelming size of the harvest field in this area. Once again the breakthrough occurred because we were willing to sacrificially love people, in this case complete strangers, in order to see the kingdom of God advance.
So what are the principles for kingdom expansion we have learned over the past two years as we have seen our ministry take off? The Lord of the harvest continues to confirm to us the truth that the lost are rarely going to wander into our church gatherings. We need to discover ways to get out into the harvest field. We met the cook at Carrow’s because we were already meeting there for a men’s Bible study and were reaching out to the restaurant staff offering to pray for them. Rather than invite the cook to our Sunday evening gathering in our own home, we opted to take him up on his invitation to do church in his house. Our San Ramon gathering came as a result of getting out into the community through teaching private music lessons. Once again, instead of inviting them to our home we went their direction and planted a church in their place. For the church at Olivehurst we had no alternative but to follow the Lord deep into the harvest field and trust him for the results. “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.
In each case the Lord led us to an individual who invited us into their life and opened up their home to do simple church. “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house…” – Luke 10:5-7. But how do we encourage “people of peace” to open up their hearts and homes to us? Scripture tells us to first bless them. If they are a “person of peace” our blessing them will link us together. And how do we bless them? We do so by allowing the overwhelming, all-pervasive, self-sacrificing, culture-bridging love of God to melt down the barriers between us. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35.
The strategy is to build community with those God brings to us, who appear to be “persons of peace.” That very community, based upon sacrificial love, will bridge any cultural chasm and melt the hardest of hearts. It is a community reflective of our triune God, who exists in community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a community which, wonder of wonders, through the grace of our heavenly Father and the sacrifice of His only begotten Son, we have been invited to join. It is a community which we now open up to share with others. And it is a community for which Christ prayed the night before He was crucified. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” – John 17:20-21.
What kind of community are we talking about? It is a community of the cross where sacrificial love flows from Christ into His body compelling us to pass it on to others. It is a community where individuals surrender their own needs and desires in order to advance the cause of Christ. “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” – 2Corinthians 5:14-15. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23.
What kind of community are we talking about? It is a community of sacrifice, one in which members daily pick up their cross and follow Jesus into the harvest field. It is a community in which we sacrifice our time, our finances, our homes, our hearts, and yes, even our lives. It is a crucified community, led by our crucified Lord and obediently followed by His children who are crucified with Him for the sake of the harvest. And when the crucified community is extended beyond the walls of our churches and home gatherings, it becomes a community whose gravitational pull is nearly irresistible.

Bill, a child of God and member of the crucified community


August 8, 2009

“See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.” – James 5:7.
“My brother has a question,” ‘Juan’ interrupted just as I was about to pray. “He wants to know if there is anyplace in the Bible where it talks about the exact day for the end of the world. Some of his friends in Mexico have been talking about some code in the Bible that will lead to discovering the exact time.”
Suddenly the focus of our simple church gathering changed. Earlier I had given a new Spanish language Bible to Juan’s little brother, ‘Jorge’, and also one to their mom. Together with Juan’s fiancée, ‘Maria’, and her family we had been engaged in a study regarding their upcoming wedding. We had just wrapped up the hastily prepared, informal, pre-marital counseling session when the Holy Spirit took us in an entirely new direction. No surprise here; I have learned to expect this sort of mid-course correction during our gatherings, especially with our San Pablo church.
This simple church was begun in the home of the cook from the restaurant in our hometown of Dublin where we meet as the “Church at Table # 2.” For nearly two years we have been regularly making the hour’s drive to Juan’s northeast Bay Area community and enjoying a growing relationship with his wonderful family. Recently, however, it has become increasingly difficult to find a time to meet due to Juan’s work schedule. After months of thwarted attempts we finally managed to arrange a gathering in his home in order to see his mom and meet his little brother, both of whom were visiting from Mexico.
Back in January of this year the Lord made it clear to us that this family was to be a highway through whom many people would reach the Lord. In a stunning example of divine direction, Juan’s future mother-in-law had asked about a verse of Scripture which had been previously prophesied over our ministry. “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.” – Isaiah 62:10. We have taken this improbable circumstance (How could this woman randomly pick this particular verse out of the hundreds of thousands in the Bible?) to portend an important role for this family in reaching the Hispanic community. However, not since early March have we been able to gather together. During the ensuing weeks I found myself often whining at God about the delay. Was something going wrong with this family? Had we worn out our welcome? Had we not heard the Lord correctly regarding this “highway”? Was our own involvement with them one of the “stones” which needed to be removed? Now, four months later, we had graciously been invited back into their company.
During our time together we learned about the decision Juan and Maria made to get married while his family was visiting from Mexico. This announcement brought us to our study topic of the evening. During our discussion of the definition of Christian love, an attribute absolutely essential to a lasting marriage, we naturally put forth Christ as the supreme example, explaining how His sacrificial love moved Him to go to the cross on our behalf. In the midst of our group discussion on Christian marriage, without our even being fully aware of it, the Lord directed the conversation to include an informal sharing of the Gospel with all those who were listening, most specifically, to Juan’s brother, Jorge, who apparently was listening intently. The Holy Spirit then prompted him to ask the question concerning the time of Christ’s return.
“The Bible tells us that no one knows the day or the hour of His return,” I replied. “However, I believe we may be getting close. Regardless of when the end of the age is scheduled to occur, the truth is the end could come at anytime for us as individuals. My wife and I could be killed on our way home tonight. Then again, we may both live to be a hundred. Not many of us will ever know the exact time of the end of our earthly life. But I think you are asking the wrong question.”
At this point I paused briefly for Juan to interpret for Jorge who knew very little English. I also took advantage of the time to listen for the Spirit’s okay to proceed in the direction I was headed. Feeling a renewed boldness I decided to continue.
“The ‘when’ question is not nearly as important as the ‘who’ question,” I declared. “Who will be ready when He comes? This is the question each of us must ask.” Then, looking straight at Jorge, I asked, “Are you ready?”
“N-n-no,” he responded in English following the interpretation. Nervously he glanced first at his brother, then toward his mother; then he fixed his gaze back on me.
“Would you like to be ready?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied again in English, without hesitation.
The firmness in his voice told me this young man was sincere. After explaining what he needed to do we shared a prayer of repentance and Jorge surrendered his life to the Lord.
While I was driving home that evening the Spirit began to download into my mind what had just transpired that day and what had been occurring over the past several months. God was busy working! In fact He had been working all along. While I was wondering if God had been delaying any action toward the construction of the “highway,” He had been busy setting up the events of that evening. Since we first met we had been suggesting to Juan and Maria that they needed to get married. We talked about this extensively the previous time we met together last spring. The seed we had planted in their minds was finally sprouting. Their unwed relationship was one of the “stones” which needed to be removed in order for the “highway” to be opened. Once that particular stone was removed traffic was already beginning to flow. I believe Jorge is just the beginning of the traffic jam which is to follow.
For some reason, when we don’t see any outward evidence of God working on our requests, we mistakenly conclude He is denying our petitions, or delaying them due to some problem on our part which needs to be corrected or a lesson which needs to be learned. While personal problems and spiritual lessons may very well be included in the mix, it is incorrect to assume God is inactive. He is continuously at work in and around us to bring about His will in our lives and our ministries. “Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.’” – John 5:17.
In an awesome display of His impeccable timing, God arranged for Juan’s little brother, an individual upon whom He had obviously been working for some time, to be at the gathering in San Pablo (The first and only time he has been in this country) at precisely the time when we would be discussing Juan’s upcoming wedding, a ceremony I didn’t even know was in the offing until earlier that evening, a ceremony the timing of which was prompted by the very fact that Jorge and his mother would be visiting. But wait, there’s more!
The morning of the day of our church gathering in San Pablo, before I even knew we would be meeting, I sat in my office having my daily quiet time. My reading in God’s Word included these verses. “Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” – James 5:7-8. These verses leaped off the page at me and I paid particular attention to them, meditating upon them and asking Jesus what they meant for me and my ministry. Before the day was through Jesus had answered my question.
Last spring we planted a seed. Even though we were unable to do anything about it other than fervently pray, God had been faithfully watering the seed as well as irrigating another seed thousands of miles away in a neighboring country. Now, barely a month from the beginning of autumn, additional rain had led to the harvest of a valuable crop. The message is one of patience. Allow God the time He desires to miraculously grow His crop, to bring it to maturity. It’s all about His harvest, not those charged with tending His fields. “…This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain…” – Mark 4:26-28.
The job of a church planter is to plant seeds and pray for rain. Often there is little more we have opportunity to do. Sometimes God, in His infinite wisdom, prevents us from doing anything else to the seeds while we wait for the time of harvest, learning patience, allowing God to pour out both the autumn and spring rains, assuring that all the glory for the crop is directed toward the Rainmaker.
“You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the Lord, have created it.” – Isaiah 45:8.

Bill, a child of God waiting for the rain


August 1, 2009

Since this little communiqué is entitled “Living Hope Update” I thought it might be a good idea to actually give you a current update on our ministry. God continues to amaze us as He leads us in the expansion of our “simple church” ministry. Our Sunday evening gathering has grown to average between 15-20 individuals with several seeking God’s will as to when and how best to launch out on their own and start up additional simple church gatherings. This group is kind of our “flagship” church and was the original simple church we planted over 6 years ago in our home, the remnants of our traditional church plant “Living Hope Christian Fellowship” which was started back in 2000.
We have already sent out one family, Danny and Edie Mileto, who have begun several ministries of their own including a workplace chaplaincy in which Danny is currently involved. We are praying that others from our house church will soon follow the call of God into the harvest field. Since people keep coming into our fellowship and going out to serve it gets a little difficult to quantify what all God is doing. We believe this is all by God’s design as He leads us to simply disciple individuals, whom the Spirit in turn directs into whatever ministry for which they are best suited. Some of these individuals choose to continue to hang with us on Sunday evenings while others, like Danny and Edie, become so busy with their own ministries that they rarely get an opportunity to fellowship with us. We are learning that this ministry is not about numbers. God knows the greater kingdom picture. Our task is to simply obey Him in reaching out to those He brings within our sphere of influence.
The “Church at Table # 2” continues to flourish and reach out to the restaurant workers and patrons of Carrow’s, a coffee shop in our community. Every Tuesday evening we gather at the same booth, ask the Lord to allow His “living water” to flow freely through us to reach whoever might be thirsting that night, and then watch in amazement as He brings people to us needing prayer and encouragement. We usually end up praying with 8-10 individuals (one of whom doesn’t even speak English) who pull up chairs to our table, tell us their needs, absorb our counsel, and wait patiently as several in our core group take their requests before the throne of God.
In recent weeks we have been connected with several waitresses who share a common predicament; they are young, unwed mothers trying to care for their newborns while attempting to earn a living through working at the coffee shop. We are doing what we can to support them spiritually and financially. We give very generous tips and assist them in finding other help that is available. Since the restaurant staff changes from time to time we get to connect with new people nearly every week. In recent weeks we have sat spellbound as many individuals we haven’t seen for months return, pull up a chair, and begin to share their life with us again just as though no time had passed since we last met together. We pray that God continues to grant us favor in the eyes of the restaurant management so that the “Church at Table #2” can continue to thrive. While we are meeting at the coffee shop, my wife Babs gathers with several women for a fellowship, prayer and study time at another local restaurant. This group is also growing in numbers as well as spiritually. One of these women, Karen, comes all the way from Modesto and is seeking God’s will about starting a simple church gathering in her home town.
Carlos, the cook at Carrow’s Restaurant, has led us to other families (Hispanic) he knows who are in desperate need of assistance. With God’s help our small network of churches has been able to assist them with financial help as well as spiritual guidance. A couple of years ago we began meeting for church with Carlos’ family in their home in San Pablo, about an hour’s drive away from our home. We have seen three members of his family accept the Lord as their personal Savior and we are praying that more will respond to the Gospel. Because of the distance and the fact that Carlos works two different jobs and is busy nearly every evening we have found it difficult to connect with his family on a regular basis. We pray that God will open up the doors so that we can do church with them more often. We also are asking God that He would use this family as a gateway through whom we could reach many others in the Hispanic community.
Our Friday evening gathering in San Ramon, a community just north of Dublin, is also growing. We meet in the home of Kevin and Kylie Goh, a Singaporean family who have allowed us to make inroads into the Asian community. While at first this group consisted primarily of friends of theirs from a local institutional church, it now contains many non-churched families. Both Kevin and Kylie are growing in the Lord and gaining more understanding about what simple church is all about. They are eager to see this group grow and hopefully give rise to many other similar gatherings. Earlier this year we baptized 5 people during one of these gatherings.
Once a month we try to attend a simple church gathering we helped to start in Olivehurst, about 30 minutes north of Sacramento. This group is comprised of an African American family and a mixed-race family who are anxious to reach out to their community and see their neighbors come to faith in Jesus. This gathering has many children attending, all of whom love to make noise on various instruments while we sing. We always have a very spirited (not to mention loud) worship time together. We are praying that, in God’s timing, this group will expand to include more of their neighbors.
We also connect with the South Bay Luke 10 gathering which meets twice a month on the first and third Thursdays. This group is made up mostly of seasoned Christians more familiar with the simple church concept. They are interested in encouraging each other and praying for each other as well as learning together what God is doing in the Bay Area and how He might be leading us in the future. Another such group will be meeting for the first time this month in the East Bay.
In addition to all the above gatherings I also meet occasionally with other pastors from the area who are being led into the simple church movement. God seems to keep connecting me with burned out, tossed out, discouraged and depressed Christian servants who are looking for a way to serve God outside of the politically charged, highly stressed world of the institutional church. I currently meet for coffee with two such individuals on Friday mornings in Fremont, a few miles south of Dublin. I also meet with two other guys on Sunday mornings over coffee in order to pray and strategize about reaching the community of Dublin. Of course there is also this newsletter which is now sent out to nearly 200 addresses. God has blessed this little communiqué far beyond what I ever imagined. To God be the glory!
As you can tell, God has Babs and I very busy with gatherings and meetings nearly every day of the week. What does He have in store for us in the future? While we are learning to take things one day at a time, we are also sensing that God is leading us into an even more mobile ministry. With the addition of several strong leaders into our network we are being freed up for the possibility of starting more churches and spending time discipling more individuals. This is a difficult step to take yet it is necessary in order for our ministry to grow any more. If we insist on being a part of every gathering we currently have then we have already reached our maximum growth. Please pray for us as we seek God’s heart concerning when and how to leave some of these gatherings behind and launch out even further into the harvest field.
Speaking of prayer, I must give thanks to God for how so many of you have been faithfully lifting us up in prayer. I am absolutely convinced the success we have seen is a direct result of your prayer support. Thank you for partnering with us in this ministry! God is awesome! And so are you!

Bill, a child of God thrilled to be in His service


July 18, 2009

The email request was forwarded to us by Ross, a close associate in the local simple church movement. One of his acquaintances from Philadelphia was in need of housing for up to three months while the man worked at a temporary job near our home. The job market in his hometown had dried up and this position had become available, but he needed a place to stay while in California. “I’m not twisting your arms,” Ross wrote, “just making you aware of a need.” The request mentioned that the young man’s family might come out a few weeks later, something we took as meaning only a for a brief visit.
After praying about the matter both my wife and I concluded that the Lord wanted us to offer our home to this brother in need. Since our children had all grown up and left home we should have no problem housing one more body. A day after we responded to his email saying we would love to have him stay with us, he replied that we were an answer to prayer! Then he added the bombshell that has transformed our lives over the past several months. Not only would he be staying with us but his entire family would soon be arriving to stay as well including their four children ages three through fifteen. Oh, and one more thing, his wife was nine months pregnant with their fifth child. Suddenly our empty-nest, shrunken family of two grew into a community of nine individuals all sharing the same space.
So how have we all managed to survive? Extremely well, thank you! I must admit when David and Heidi and their five kids moved into our home I spent a few anxious moments (okay, make that days) asking the Lord why He wanted to destroy the peace and quiet (not to mention the house and yard) of two of His more seasoned servants. “What have we done to deserve this?” I whined. “Instead of being able to focus on building our simple church ministry we’re forced to concentrate on entertaining a houseful of strangers.”
But of course, God knew exactly what He was doing. Not only was He providing housing for some of His needy children, He was educating a couple of weary, over-burdened servants about trusting Him and sharing kingdom resources, and He was enlightening us on the blessings which flow when we simply obey what He tells us to do.
Thirteen years ago when we first moved into our present home we were amazed at how all the pieces to the puzzle came together to allow us to live in a dwelling large enough for our own family of five plus room for others to visit. Looking back at it now I realize that was the only time in our family’s history where we could actually qualify to purchase such a home. After we had moved in we gathered our family in a circle in our living room and dedicated the house to God.
“We recognize this has all come from you, Lord,” we prayed. “So we pledge to you that whenever you have a need for this home we will open our doors to your request. This house belongs to you, to your kingdom. Just help us to be good stewards of your home.”
Over the years we have held hundreds of Bible studies in our home, sheltered abused wives and pregnant teenagers, housed many traveling missionaries, counseled many weary pilgrims, held a wedding in our backyard, hosted many organic church leadership meetings, and for the last six years we have used our home for our simple church gathering every Sunday evening. Yet I’m quite certain God still has in store many more opportunities for this home to be used. So Babs and I were not at all surprised when the request came last March to open our home to someone else in need. We were, however, a little overwhelmed at the magnitude of the request once we learned how many would be staying with us. But God always showers us with blessings when we are obedient to His call. And this time the blessings have been manifold.
David and Heidi were hosting a simple church in their home in Philadelphia so when the Spirit seemed to be moving them to California for a season they looked for a network of simple churches with which to connect. They were also looking to learn what the Lord is doing in this corner of world in terms of organic church so they might apply the lessons to their own ministry. They have been overjoyed at what they have witnessed happening around here. At times we found ourselves attending a different gathering nearly every evening. David and Heidi have been profuse in their gratitude over all they have learned in the past three months. But the benefits have been flowing in both directions as they have also proven to be a blessing to us in our ministry.
For years I have been praying the Luke 10:2b prayer. “…Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Even more specifically I have been praying for apostolically minded people to partner with me in the harvest in this area. I just never expected the answer to my prayer would come from three thousand miles away and be temporarily living in my own home. David and Heidi have prayed with us, strategized with us, prayer-walked with us, traveled with us around Northern CA as we visited various house churches, and attended various conferences with us. They have proven in every way to be partners with us in ministry. Had we not been obedient to God about taking in these “strangers” we would not have received the blessing of experiencing the answer to our prayers.
“…I was a stranger and you invited me in…Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:35, 40.
Aside from the blessings to our ministry, there have been the blessings that come from sharing with others the resources with which God has blessed us. Heidi has proven to be an excellent cook and has prepared most of our meals over the past two months. The children are amazingly well behaved and a delight to be with. Even the baby has been marvelously well behaved and hardly ever fusses. In addition, the extra finances they have provided for us in return for their room and board have gone a long way to boost an overly stretched budget. As for our various house churches, the addition of this new family with five kids has been a source of great encouragement to us all and enabled us to connect with and better relate to other young families who have young children.
“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” – Luke 6:38.
Perhaps the greatest blessing we have received is just the rich Christian fellowship we have enjoyed continually. Whether we are sitting down to a meal together, cleaning up the house together, relaxing together after a hard day’s work at our separate jobs, or traveling together to another simple church gathering, everyday has become another church experience. In fact, we have enjoyed almost continuous church since they have arrived.
I’m not advocating a communal lifestyle, but I do think we citizens of the kingdom need to move toward a more intimate fellowship with other Christians. For the most part we in this culture have learned to put on our Sunday-go-to-meeting facades when we gather together and seldom really explore the heart issues that lie cleverly concealed within each of us. Yet transparency in our relationships is essential before we can truly learn how to best minister to and pray for one another. Nine people living together in close quarters are going to learn all kinds of things about each other, some of which we’d just as soon not know. It’s fairly difficult not to air your dirty laundry when it’s lined up in piles awaiting your turn with the washing machine. But such intimacy has brought about a deep-rooted friendship which would not be possible otherwise. And out of this friendship we are seeing each other grow in our relationship with the Lord, and watching in stunning amazement as He causes the kingdom to grow through our collective ministry.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:24-25. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:12-13.
This weekend David and Heidi and their family are moving out of our home to their own rented house about a mile away. I find myself struggling with two opposing emotions. It will be nice to enjoy a little privacy accompanied by some peace and quiet for a change. But on the other hand I will truly miss connecting with this family on an intimate basis every day. It is surprisingly difficult to have them leave our home even though I know in my heart our close friendship will not diminish. However, they need to start developing their own ministry and indeed are already connecting with their new neighbors. And Babs and I have an empty home ready for the next ministry assignments, in other words, guests. We have no idea when the next “strangers” will appear in need of a place to stay, but our ears are attuned to the Master of the house and we are busy preparing the guest rooms.

Bill, a child of God and a steward of His home


July 12, 2009

He was adopted into our family last April and has been a source of near constant irritation ever since. You think I would have learned after previous such adoptions led to heartache and frustration. But no, I had to try it one more time.
“We just can’t put up with him anymore,” my daughter explained over the phone. “With a six-year-old son and a daughter entering the ‘terrible twos’ I don’t need another little one following me around the house vying for my attention. After he dug up my strawberry plants for the second time we came to the decision that he needs to go. I feel sorry for the little guy but I never really bonded with him. Would you and mom consider taking him in? At least that way the kids would get to see him occasionally when we come to visit you. I know they will miss him terribly.”
Reluctantly, against my better judgment, we agreed to the exchange and our family added one new member. I’m speaking of a ten-month old puppy, a reddish-brown, miniature dachshund named “Jabba” (as in “Jabba the Hut”). My grandson, a Star Wars fan, named him. He is two feet long not counting his tail but stands only eight inches high at the shoulders. His out-of-proportion body looks as though someone dropped a heavy weight on his back and his four legs all telescoped in on themselves. I admit that his comical appearance adds to his cuteness factor. Unfortunately, we also have to deal with the nuisance factor.
On his first evening with us he managed to poop in our living room, tear into the trash cans in four different rooms, and escape outside the front door which precipitated a ten-minute chase through the neighborhood. Once he was finally captured he decided to whimper all night until my wife, Babs, finally gave up and slept with him downstairs on our couch. Jabba’s first night with us left me wondering why my daughter took so long to get rid of the incorrigible beast. I pictured her in her home laughing fiendishly at the thought of pawning off her worst nightmare onto her unsuspecting parents.
A few days later Jabba managed to ingest something toxic in our backyard which forced us to rush him to the emergency vet hospital. A few hours and $1,600 later he seemed to be fully recovered. My nerves and our family budget, however, are still suffering from the shock. Meanwhile, the unruly border has shredded our patio screen door, chewed up multiple socks and shoes, vomited on our bedroom floor, and bitten my finger. To top it all off he seems to have an insatiable appetite devouring anything in sight he is able to chew up and swallow.
So why do we still persist in keeping him around? I’ll admit there certainly have been times when I asked myself that question. The only answer I can come up with is, unlike my daughter, Babs and I have both bonded with the little guy. There is a definite tug on your heartstrings when you arrive home to find him absolutely beside himself with joy at your arrival. He whines for us when we’re gone, waits for us expectantly until we return, and lavishes unabashed love upon us when we’re reunited. He begs to jump into our laps, rests at our feet, and insists on being continually in our presence. Being totally attuned to our voices he runs to us when he is called and wags his tail at the touch of our hands. Along with all of the aggravation he has brought into our lives he has also brought an unfailing source of love.
Last night as I fumed in anger over the second time in a matter of hours Jabba managed to get into the bathroom trash my thoughts turned to another Master who is forced to continually deal with a bunch of unruly, undisciplined, incorrigible adopted members to His family. How does God manage to put up with us? We consistently stick our noses into all sorts of garbage even though we’ve been scolded time after time when we do so. We also have a tendency to chew on things not meant for our consumption and to swallow toxic beliefs and unhealthy doctrines which has cost God dearly. And when someone leaves a door open anywhere we are prone to wander away from home.
We have pooped all over God’s creation and the foulest language frequently gets spewed from our mouths. Our lives are spiritually out-of-proportion, long on worldliness, short on godliness. Our appetites for sin are seemingly insatiable. When we don’t get our way we whine. When another family member from another pack gets too close we bark. And when things go wrong in our lives we blame God and lash out at the hand that feeds us. So why does God still persist in keeping us around? He certainly has far more patience with me than I exhibit with Jabba. The question of God’s unfailing grace is all the more puzzling when we consider the extravagant price which was paid for our adoption. Adding Jabba to our family cost us nothing up front. That certainly wasn’t the case when God added us to His family.
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” – 1Peter 1:18-19.
I’m not saying that we are merely pets in God’s eyes kept around for His amusement. Indeed, we are highly treasured by Him and adopted into His family as children and full heirs. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” – Romans 8:15-17.
Our Master purchased us and accepted us into His family knowing ahead of time how unruly we would prove to be. Realizing this makes me desire to be as unashamedly loving toward God as our new puppy is toward us. Unlike Jabba we have many ways in which we can express our love to the Master. We have the privilege of communicating with Him directly, although we don’t often avail ourselves of the opportunity. Sometimes I picture Satan laughing fiendishly at how God gave up so much for a pack of rebellious, sin-prone, spiritually ungainly, too often ungrateful humans. But then Satan never bonded with us. For some inexplicable reason, God has.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” – 1John 4:10.
Could it be that God’s primary motive for lavishing His love upon us is to elicit our love in return? Why else would He put up with so much abuse from His adopted children? Yet how well are we actually returning His love? Are we beside ourselves with joy when we come into His presence? Do we yearn for Him, wait expectantly for Him, and shower Him with unabashed love when we are united with Him? Do we beg Him to allow us to sit in His lap or rest at His feet? Do we insist on being continually in His presence? Are we attuned to His voice and run to Him when He calls? Do we lift our hands to Him in praise when His Spirit touches our heart? Along with all the aggravation and grief we cause the Almighty do we also bring to Him an unfailing source of love?
When Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment, is it any wonder He answered with the command to love the Lord? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” – Mark 12:30. We spend so much time and effort attempting to obey all the other commands and directives found in God’s Word and yet we fail to come close to accomplishing His highest request. We try so hard and fail so miserably at keeping our behavior in line with Scripture. I wonder why we don’t put forth as much effort at simply loving God.
To be sure, Jabba’s actions are nowhere close to being disciplined. But his love has found a way into our hearts. I hate to be chastised by a four-legged, recalcitrant beast, so I figured I would pass along this canine candor to you. May we all learn to exhibit as much unrestrained, unabashed love for our Master as Jabba displays toward his.
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? – Psalm 42:1-2.

Bill, a child of God panting for His Master


July 3rd, 2009

“My boss is really out to get me,” “Sam” revealed at one of our simple church gatherings. “She is demanding the impossible and making me stay later and later to do work I detest. She ridicules me in front of the other workers. She never has anything good to say about me, yet she has praise for other employees even though their numbers are no better than mine. She is forcing me to work harder than anyone else and punishing me when I don’t live up to her expectations—which happens nearly every day. I can’t stand going to work; I dread getting up in the morning because I know I will have to face that woman. I would give anything to be able to quit, but there is no other job available.”
After pausing to choke off some tears he continued. “How am I supposed to react to her when everything within me wants to confront her but I am afraid of losing my job?”
“Have you been praying for her,” I asked. “Have you asked God what you might be able to do to bless her?”
For awhile Sam was speechless. Then, reluctantly, he revealed he hadn’t prayed for her at all. “I’m sorry,” he confessed, “but I’m finding it very difficult to think about asking God to bless this hurtful woman.”
“I’m going to challenge you not only to begin praying for her everyday, but also to tell her you are doing so,” I responded. “And when you tell her, ask her if there is anything specific you can bring before God on her behalf.”
I wasn’t sure how Sam would react to my challenge. He was a relatively new Christian who was personally experiencing a severe financial meltdown. The likelihood of bankruptcy loomed in the near future along with the certainty of losing his home. After being without work for over a year he had finally landed a job with a major bank in a nearby community. Though he wasn’t making nearly the income he had been accustomed to as a mortgage broker, at least the bank was providing a little something for himself, his wife, and their two young children. At last something positive was beginning to happen. But then he was stationed at a branch where the manager seemed to be doing everything possible to discourage him and make him want to quit. I prayed that Sam would have the courage to speak and that God would break up the hard ground and allow the love of Christ to soak into his difficult boss.
A few days later at another simple church meeting Sam had a rather surprising report.
“Bill, guess what?” he gushed excitedly. “I told my manager we would be praying for her at our gathering tonight and asked if there was anything specific she wanted us to pray for. I didn’t want to do it. I fought against doing it all day, but I knew God was prompting me to act. Finally, she stopped by my desk to grill me about how poorly I was doing and as she turned to leave, the Spirit told me now was the time. After I spoke she seemed a little stunned, but she mentioned that I could pray for her son who was having a job interview the next day. Then, after walking away a few steps, she turned around and said, ‘I believe in it, you know. I believe in prayer.’”
“That was awesome!” I replied. “Now, whenever you talk to her, ask how her son is doing and if there is anything else she would like you to pray about.”
Over the next couple of weeks Sam not only was able to talk to his boss frequently about prayer, but he began to notice a rather drastic change in her attitude toward him. The daily episodes of berating began to subside. One day she opened up to him and explained that her own supervisor was treating her unreasonably, demanding the impossible from her branch, and she was having a great deal of difficulty handling it. Gradually, my friend’s attitude toward her began to change from anger and resentment to empathy and compassion. Others in the bank have begun approaching him with their own personal problems and opportunities are opening up to witness to them about His Lord and even to explain what simple church is all about. And, wonder of wonders, God has actually been blessing him with better numbers.
In the span of about three weeks, my friend’s attitude about work has completely changed. Now he actually looks forward to getting up in the morning and going to the bank. What has made such a dramatic difference in such a short time? He has come to understand that he doesn’t work for the bank, nor does he labor for an unscrupulous manager. In reality, he works for the Lord and is under the management of the Holy Sprit. He may receive his paycheck from an earthly institution but his primary employment originates from heaven.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. Since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” – Colossians 3:23-24.
Awhile back this same friend designed a fabric bracelet consisting of yarn in military camouflaged colors tied together with thousands of knots. He and I as well as a few others in our simple church circle are now wearing these “commando bands” on our wrists to remind ourselves that we are members of an elite corps of special forces, dropped off behind enemy lines, and charged with the mission of bringing down opposition strongholds and rescuing those who have been held hostage by the devil. No matter who we are, no matter what we may be doing, no matter where we may find ourselves, we are on mission for our Commander and Chief 24/7. The inspiration comes from Paul’s second letter to Timothy which amounts to his last words written shortly before his martyrdom. “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer.” – 2Timothy 2:3-4.
Being on mission continually for Jesus means we are always on the lookout for opportunities to bless people, to be a witness for the faith, to share the love of Christ, and to expand the kingdom. Whether we are a banker, a music teacher, a student, or a homemaker, as Christians we have enlisted in the Lord’s army and He commands our primary allegiance. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” – Colossians 4:5.
Being on mission with Christ 24/7 makes all the difference in life. Whether you love your job or hate it, the Lord has you there for a reason, and it’s not just to receive a paycheck. Whether you love your neighborhood or hate it, the Lord has you there for a reason, and it’s not just to complain to your neighbors about their loud parties and the unkempt appearance of their homes. Whether you love your school or hate it, the Lord has you there for a reason, and it’s not just to get good grades and receive an education.
We all need to maintain communication with our headquarters and rapidly obey any command we are given. We need to be prepared to act at a moment’s notice, ready and eager to follow our King into battle. Underneath our humble, unsuspecting exteriors we are warriors, battle-hardened, Spirit-gifted, Bible-trained, armed and dangerous. “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” – 2Corinthians 10:4. And we are prepared not only to fight for our King, but to die for Him as well. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20.
Once the current skirmish is finished we return to our worldly identity as bankers, music teachers, homemakers, mild-mannered earthlings, not necessarily incognito, but just blending into the natural camouflage of life, patrolling whatever sphere of influence in which the Lord has us stationed. But always we are on mission, waiting—waiting for the next opportunity to strike, even if striking means simply to ask an unreasonable boss how we might pray for her—waiting for the that triumphal day when the war is over, the victory is won, the Kingdom of our Lord is established, and all His soldiers will be called home.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” – Revelation 11:15. “They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.” – Revelation 17:14.

Bill, a child of God on mission