January 18, 2008

“Grandma, what’s that?” asked Will as he pointed toward the fireplace in our living room.
“It’s just our fireplace, Will,” answered Babs, more than a little perplexed about his question since he had seen it many times before.
“No, Grandma,” responded our four-year-old grandson a little louder. Moving closer to the fireplace and pointing at the glass fire-screen he asked again, “What’s that?”
Crouching down and looking through the glass Babs discovered, much to her horror, the object that had sparked the boy’s curiosity. A couple of small brown eyes were staring back at her! With a gasp she sprang to her feet, ran through the house, and bolted out the back patio door into our backyard where I was engaged in the annual winter chore of trimming our trees.
“There’s a squirrel in our fireplace!” she shouted with an expression on her face that radiated surprise as well as anger over the intruder’s unwelcome visit to our domain. “How are we supposed to get him out?” she asked excitedly, her hands much more animated than usual.
By the tone of her voice and with years of experience in interpreting her requests I quickly concluded that her use of the word “we” most certainly was directed solely at me. With barely a moment’s hesitation I formulated the perfect solution. We have a gas-fueled fireplace inhabited by an unwanted squirrel. Are you with me on this? Are you thinking the obvious?
“Okay, here’s what you do,” I responded with confidence. “Carefully open the glass screen just a crack, light one of the long-handled matches, stick it through the glass, and turn on the gas. Problem solved!”
The look of utter incredulity on my wife’s face told me the obvious solution was not viable in this case. She muttered something about my sanity as she turned around and headed back inside. I wisely opted not to suggest my second solution. Plan B would’ve been to simply turn on the gas and put the furry creature to sleep. Okay, so I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for these pests. They may be cute but they cause me enormous grief by chewing up much of our summer crop of apples, apricots, and plums and then persist in planting unwanted walnut trees in the worst of places. I will admit, however, that the smell of burning fur would not have been all that pleasant, and leaving the gas valve open for any length of time would have been foolishly dangerous. Reluctantly I put down my pruning shears and headed into the house concluding there must be a better solution.
While Babs talked on the phone to our local animal control office I walked over to the fireplace and examined the unfortunate captive. Since we had been out of town for a week I had no idea how long it had taken up residence in our home. It had built itself a nest using fiberglass insulation from the inside of the fire screen and the imitation logs which were part of our gas fireplace kit. I’m guessing it had wandered down the chimney during a recent cold spell and been unable to climb back out. When I pounded on the glass the squirrel disappeared and I heard the welcome sound of the uninvited guest scampering up the chimney.
“Our guest has decided not to stay,” I called out, proud of my ability to save my family from the ferocious wild animal. “Let’s light a roaring fire in here to discourage him from returning,” I suggested. After the fireplace was repaired and a fire started I returned to the backyard to finish my trimming duties content that the crisis had been solved without harming man or beast. Unfortunately, the fun had just begun. A few minutes later a very excited Babs once again came running out into the backyard.
“The squirrel is inside our house!” she yelled, her eyes wide with astonishment. “What do we do now?”
Evidently the squirrel had not made it all the way out of the chimney. Once the heat got too much to bear it had dropped back down into the firebox and exploded out into the room. The next few moments were a blur of furry flurry. The hyper-active rodent made a beeline for every window in the house only to repeatedly knock its head against the glass. Eventually it found its way into our family room where our glass patio door stood wide open. After crashing into the wrong side of the door it finally managed to escape into our backyard. For several seconds it ran around in circles on the grass and then leaped into a eucalyptus tree flying from branch to branch in a joyous display of ecstatic relief. It was a glorious picture of a prisoner set free, a former captive discovering where it truly belonged.
In the few days since the crazy incident of the misplaced squirrel, I can’t stop thinking about how it looked trapped inside our fireplace, and how it must have felt to finally be set free. In my mind I keep picturing the sorrowful eyes of the hapless creature staring back at me from inside the glass. But while I ponder over the sad plight of that poor squirrel the mental image changes and I see myself taking its place as the unfortunate victim held captive.
Not long ago I was that squirrel, trapped inside an environment for which I was not made, held captive by my own ignorance and by a spiritual institution which I had helped to build. Having grown up in the church, the son of a pastor and the grandson of missionaries, I was content to take my place inside the warmth of the Christian firebox. I knew no different. To be outside in the cold world without being surrounded by familiar traditions and the close fellowship of life-long friends was unthinkable. But then Father God, who knows where we each belong in His kingdom and what He has gifted us to do, began pounding on the glass doors of my cage and turning up the heat in the fireplace.
The church which I had served as a senior pastor for over three years unceremoniously asked me to resign. The leadership of the congregation and I were simply headed in different directions. Our separate visions for where we felt God was leading our church were diametrically opposed; our differences seemed to be irreconcilable. Several months later, while preparing to plant another traditional congregation in the same area, the Lord fanned the flames once again. The church planting organization of our pseudo denomination refused to sponsor our ministry. Apparently we were attempting to plant a new church too close to where one of their current projects was located.
Feeling utterly abandoned and totally rejected by the only Christian fellowship I had ever known, my spiritual heritage, I turned to Babs and sadly declared, “The last moorings of our ship have been cast off and we are alone and adrift.”
“Praise God!” she responded enthusiastically. “Now we can raise our sails and be blown by the winds of the Spirit to wherever He wants us.”
Now you know which one of us harbors the greater faith. The screen had opened up and we escaped from the fire, but we were not yet free. For several years we kept bumping into windows we thought were open. Relying on our own training we attempted to plant a church in the manner we had been taught. But with almost no outside help, no place to meet on Sunday mornings, and precious few resources, our efforts met with very little success. Finally, after failing miserably at planting a church our way, we stumbled through the open door and into the freedom of the simple-church movement. Though His methods of springing us from our captivity were dreadfully harsh and frightening at the time, now we can look back on our prison break and see the hands of our loving Lord in action. I’m afraid nothing less than experiencing the fire we were forced to endure could have resulted in leading us into the ministry we now enjoy. I know exactly how that squirrel felt after bursting through the patio door into our backyard.
Why am I sharing this painful experience with you? I am convinced that I am not the only one who has experienced the trauma of being held captive. Please understand that I am not trying to denigrate the ministry of the traditional church in this culture. God continues to use these institutions in many effective ways to further His kingdom. Unfortunately, for centuries we have been insisting that all of God’s children be forced to fit into the same institutional mold, a conformity which simply doesn’t suit everyone’s gifting and passion. The results have been to create an institution which is highly efficient at ministering to those within the firebox, but sadly lacking when it comes to reaching those on the outside. Most of the heat is contained in the fireplace and disappears up the chimney.
I believe our churches are generously populated with a vast number of contented prisoners, unsuspecting spiritual convicts most of whom are oblivious to the fact that they are trapped in a place where they were not created to be. They have built themselves a comfortable nest in their favorite pew and are more than happy to live out their spiritual lives surrounded by the warmth of their familiar Christian fellowship. But deep inside there is a restlessness which they cannot always suppress, a feeling that there is something more that God has in mind for them, a greater purpose than they are currently realizing. So they stare through the glass screen wondering what lies beyond. Please forgive me for pounding on the screen.
Tragically we have perpetrated the erroneous concept that ministry in the kingdom is meant to be performed only by the professional clergy, those who have had the necessary training and experience. But nothing could be further from the truth. In the early church, ministry was conducted by ordinary servants whom God made extraordinary by the presence of His Spirit. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” – 1Corinthians 1:26-29.
Many Christians rely upon the standard excuse of claiming they lack the necessary knowledge to become involved in ministry. However, I contend the average church-attendee in this country has become morbidly obese by feasting upon the Word of God inside the fireplace while their neighbors starve for want of Him. Throughout the world churches are being planted by those who have been believers for only a few days. In places in Africa new converts are told to go back to their villages, gather their neighbors into their homes, and plant a church. Obviously they are sent out without the benefit of a seminary degree. It is not the lack of knowledge that prevents us from obeying the Great Commission, but rather the lack of love for those who are net yet a citizen of the kingdom. “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – 1Corinthians 8:1.
Included among those in the traditional church who are possibly feeling as though they are being held captive are thousands of misplaced pastors, dedicated servants of God who may be better gifted for ministry outside the fireplace. They may be longing to taste the freedom on the other side yet are unable or unwilling to risk the welfare of their family by striking out on faith. Or perhaps they may be totally unaware that legitimate, God-ordained ministry exists outside the chimney. I wish I could spend some time with each one of these tortured souls and share about my personal escape into the freedom of simply following the Lord of the harvest into His harvest field. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:36.
If current statistics are true, some 1500 pastors are leaving the ministry every month in this country. Of course many of those resignations are due to retirement, health concerns, professional malfeasance, and other personal reasons. However, I suspect a good portion of these represent pastors who have come to realize they simply didn’t fit inside the firebox. Today they may find themselves bouncing around the secular workplace, going from job to job, questioning their calling and looking for an open door. My advice is to keep searching; don’t give up. God may have you exactly where He wants, out of the fireplace and out in the harvest. Yes, your calling remains; and yes, there is an open door waiting for you. “…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” – Romans 11:29.
When Jesus began His earthly ministry, shortly after His wilderness temptations, He returned to His hometown of Nazareth and entered the synagogue to teach. He read a portion of Scripture from the book of Isaiah which included the following quote: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” – Isaiah 61:1. I pray that this declaration becomes a reality in your lives!
Once again I ask for your forgiveness for pounding on your fire screens. However, I am trying to coax you out of the fireplace before the Lord deems it necessary to light a fire and remove you more forcefully. When the moorings that have held you back for years are finally removed, don’t fall back in fear. Instead, raise the sails of faith and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow you wherever He wills. For some of you that may mean returning to the traditional church to try to bring about a change, to open up the fire screens and encourage those who are so gifted to be released out into the harvest field to labor amongst the lost. For others it may mean planting simple churches in the homes of your neighbors. For those of you who are still feeling a bit timid I leave you with the image of a grateful squirrel, fresh from captivity in a burning fireplace, now joyously flying through the environment in which it was created to thrive. May you see your own freedom reflected in its joy.

Bill, a child of God…set free

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