On a bleak, cold December night in 1983, the phone woke me from a sound sleep. Reaching for the receiver, I saw by the bedside clock that it was 3:30 in the morning.
A voice at the other end of the line delivered the shocking news. “You’d better come quickly. Your church is on fire.”
As if in a fog, I drove cautiously along the icy streets of Houston in the direction of the church. The city was having one of the worst winters in its history. Night-time temperatures were well below freezing. It was just two days after Christmas and lights from the downtown stores reflected on the glazed pavement.
Turning onto Main Street, my heart sank. Fire trucks were parked at angles in the street, and men were running with hoses. The historic First Methodist Church was engulfed in fire. I’d come to serve this church just six-months before, following in the footsteps of the well-known and well-loved Dr. Charles Allen. Stepping out of my car, I saw flames leaping through a hole where there had been a stained-glass window.
Numb with disbelief, I stepped inside the sanctuary door to watch as firemen fought to bring the blaze under control. A gaping hole in the sanctuary floor had opened, and I could look down into the lower levels of the building. Even as I looked on, the massive pipes of our organ, which had been called “a masterpiece,” caved in on themselves.
Just before I turned away from that fiery disaster, something caught my eye.
In the back of the sanctuary, I saw a banner which we had used on All Saints Sunday. Lit by the light of flames, it proclaimed the great promise of
During the coming months, I held tightly to that promise amid a hail of questions and challenges.
Repairs to our building would cost millions of dollars. We were forced to worship in the ballroom of a nearby hotel while the work went on, causing some marginal members to abandon us for other churches. Once we got back into the sanctuary, others left because they didn’t want to sit on folding chairs for five months while we waited for the new pews to come in.
One difficulty for me was the fact that I was following in the footsteps of a legend. The jury was still “out” regarding the question of whether I could fill the shoes of Charles Allen. One irate individual wrote to a Houston paper and complained: “That fire wouldn’t have happened if Dr. Allen was still pastor.”
I was even being blamed for the fire! Why was all this happening?
To tell you the truth, I never did find concrete answers to my questions — not even the true cause of the fire. Instead, I had to trust in the simple yet resounding assurance of God’s love, right in the midst of disaster. Those words from
Looking back, I’m very proud of those who stuck with the church through the tedious process of rebuilding. Together we were reminded that life is like a pilgrimage, or like a refining process that passes us all through the fire. The question is what will we be like when we come out on the other side?
Now fire in the natural, physical sense can accomplish one of two functions: it can destroy, or it can refine as in the process by which impurities are burned out of gold ore. Tough times can shape a person into a cynic or a saint, into a person who is full of bitterness or fortified with the kind of grace that transcends.
Many today have become cynics. To these unhappy folks, life is gloomy and the worst is sure to happen every time and all the time. To them, God is silent, distant, or non-existent. There are others, even some Christians for whom life is a perpetual joy-ride. All is sunshine and God is ready-at-hand with a quick fix-it solution for every problem. That would certainly be nice.
But for the rest of us who, I suspect, make up the majority, life is simply puzzling. We scrape elbows every day with other people who, like us, are imperfect. Occasionally, tragic circumstances or suffering leave us reeling. We believe that God is real — we just have a hard time knowing how to handle the doubts, confusion and the testing of both faith and flesh.
During my own time of testing I found comfort and insight in the story of three men: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These Hebrews went through the most famous “fiery trial” of all time. Reading it this time, I gained an understanding I’d never had before.
At the time of Daniel the prophet, we find God’s people in Babylonian captivity sometime between the year 597 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and 538 when Cyrus the Persian liberated the Hebrews.
Imagine the scene: We are standing on the plains of Dura, outside the palace of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar. Three Hebrew men — Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego — have risen to positions of prominence. On this day, they are summoned to stand on a platform overlooking the crowds of commoners, among the king’s royal officials. A golden figure, perhaps that of Nebuchadnezzar himself, is carried out by the artisans. The figure is set on a raised altar. The three Hebrew men are facing a moment of truth.
The chief musician lifts his hand, then brings it down to the sound of music — “All kinds of music,” the Bible says — from lyres, horns, pipes, cymbals and the like. At this signal, all the multitudes across this great plain fall to their faces. Likewise, all the toadies of the king’s court fall down, trying to show who could grovel the most.
Then one of these toadies looks up. To his shock — and perhaps to his delight — he sees that Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego are still standing.
Quickly, the three are dragged before Nebuchadnezzar and charges levelled. The Bible says that the king’s face was distorted with rage. He threatens to burn them alive in a furnace. Undoubtedly, the men were beginning to feel a little hot around the collar; I would have.
Quietly, without arrogance, one of them says, “We have no need, O king, to defend ourselves to you. We will not bow to an idol. Whether or not you cast us into a fiery furnace is your affair. Our God is able to deliver us. But even if He doesn’t, that’s all right too. We’ll still trust in Him.”
That got Nebuchadnezzar’s goat. Thinking himself all-powerful, worshipped by thousands upon thousands, he hurls the challenge: “If you refuse to bow, then who is the god who can save you?”
Quite likely, you can recite the rest of the story in your sleep. The music plays again. The three Hebrews will not bow. The furnace is heated “seven times hotter” than normal, and the three men are lifted and carried to it. So hot is the blaze that the guards who throw them in are consumed.
And then the amazing thing happens! An angel of the Lord appears. Their ropes are consumed in flames, but not a hair of their heads is singed. Nebuchadnezzar, realizing he’s blown it big, has them taken from the fire. Their clothes do not even smell of smoke.
That ends it for most of us. We feel a certain distance between us and these other-worldly events that happened in days gone by. But before we allow the issues to get too clouded, let’s ask some very hard questions one at a time.
Immediately, I wonder, “Why do these innocent men — or any good people — have to face trials at all?” It’s a reasonable question, and one that God, through this story in
The first thing I can hear Him saying in response is, “Heat is inevitable.”
Maybe right at this moment you’re facing difficult circumstances. Maybe it’s a problem of relationships — irritations at home or on the job. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by moral temptations that strew your path.
God is not surprised at your difficulties, because Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation.” A statement of fact. He did not acknowledge the sunshine patriots who always have everything going their way. Nor did he make this statement with pessimism, but with the purest realism.
There will come a day when the world has been fully set to rights. The lion shall lie down with the lamb, our moral battles will be won and everything will be as it ought.
But that day is not now. And if we go around expecting harmony and justice without struggle we will be brutally disappointed over and over again. People who hold such high expectations of the world actually allow the world to rule over their emotions. And that is too dangerous in these present, imperfect conditions.
There is a second question I find myself asking: When we’re trying to do the right thing, to be good, decent folks, why are there people who set out to block or harm us, or who seem to intentionally misunderstand our motives?
From experience, I have learned something about trying to be a person of integrity. Whenever and wherever there are people trying to live according to principle, there are also powerful people who are commanding them to bow down and worship an image other than their God. The world could not tolerate people of principle in the days of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and the passage of some 2,500 years has not changed things a bit.
Now there is an entirely different aspect of the story of those three Hebrews, something that distances it from most of us. Threatened with death, the three men responded beautifully. They even made an allowance for divine silence in case He didn’t intervene. In that attitude, they were cast into the flames — and an angel stepped into the fire to save them.
“Of course,” you may say. “Look at the saintly way those men responded, It’s no wonder God sent a search-and-rescue party. They were perfect!”
Yes, their response was remarkable. But I must ask: Were they always that way? Did they always respond correctly even in the beginning days of their relationship with God?
You see, many of us mistakenly believe that some people are born saints — and then there’s the rest of us, milling about in the mob of humanity. The problem with the saints who walk among us is that they’re so saintly. It’s impossible to identify with them, because they always seem to come through with flying colors.
Yet I have to wonder if these three Hebrews were born saints — or if they grew into their faith. More than likely, they were veterans. We can do ourselves a favor by taking a long, hard, realistic look at some of the other characters whose lives decorate the pages of Scripture.
Think about Abraham, who was a “veteran,” handing over Sara to Pharaoh, lying and saying that she was his sister, not his wife, in order to save his own skin. And what about David? He wasn’t always “a man after God’s own heart.” He committed adultery, then tried to cover up his sin by committing murder.
We don’t always respond as we ought to when the heat is on. Only in my dreams am I Johnny-on-the-spot, making the right decision. Only in hindsight is my vision 20-20. In reality, I often see what I’m supposed to do — then I go ahead and bow to the king anyway.
I remember going to a hospital once as a patient, suffering with a kidney stone. The hospital happened to be full, because we lived in a little town which was experiencing a flu epidemic. I was fortunate in that the head nurse was a member of our church and she managed to get me a private room — fortunate, I say, because I was having no luck passing that stone and was in agony.
I was enjoying my suffering in silence, at least, when in the middle of the night she came to my doorway. She was framed in the light from the hall, and she said, “Pastor, every room in the hospital has two people in it except yours. We have an old man with pneumonia who needs a place. Would it be all right with you to move your bed over to one side and to put him in here?”
I could see the old man’s bed outside the door and with him a large entourage of family waiting to come in. My reaction came quick as a flash. “Don’t you have some other place to put him?”
Three seconds after, I wished I could have taken those words back. I still live with the disappointed look on the nurse’s face.
I have replayed that story many times. Every time I fantasize about it, it has a different ending. I don’t make a harsh response at all. I always say something like, “Sure. Bring him on in and I’ll be glad to give him my room. Just give me a straight chair out in the hall and let me lean up against a wall. Put a blanket over me and give me an aspirin once in a while. I’ll be just fine.”
But it didn’t play that way in real life.
So I must ask, on behalf of those of us who would have gone into the fire kicking, does God forsake me when I don’t respond well to crisis? Is God’s presence with me contingent upon my performance? I know there are many who wrestle with that question.
Not long ago, I found myself face to face with a young man who was laboring under a weight of grief, shame and remorse.
Church had just ended one Sunday evening and, as I was saying goodnight to folks this young man, probably in his late twenties, approached me. His eyes looked sad, hollow, as he shook my hand, I learned his name and that he and his wife had been ordained Methodist ministers. He asked whether or not I might remember his wife. Something told me I ought to, but I did not. Out came a tragic story.
He had always marvelled at his wife’s complete dedication to Christ. “A year ago,” he told me, “we were driving along a highway when we were involved in a freak accident. My wife was killed instantly.”
“I railed against God,’ he said, his face red with embarrassment. “I cursed Him. For a long time, all I’ve been able to ask is, ‘How could you allow that to happen to someone who loved you so much’?”
I was speechless in the face of such deep suffering. Feebly, I tried to come up with a satisfying answer. Before I could speak, his eyes searched mine, pleading of a different answer. “I came tonight just wondering if –” his voice faltered, “if I could ever get back into His Church and into His grace.”
The answer came to me all in an instant, surely from outside myself. Taking both his hands in mine, I heard myself say to that suffering brother, “You may feel that you have to crawl in through the back window when no one’s looking — but the door is wide open for you. You may have thought you left His graces, but He never left you.”
We sometimes put unreasonable expectations on ourselves, lacerate ourselves when we don’t come up to those high standards. But God has us in perspective. He knows we aren’t perfect. And because He knows, He understands when we stumble and fall short of even our own expectations.
Shortly after I met the grieving young man, I came in touch with a couple who had also faced heartbreak. This man and woman had been the happy parents of a rambunctious eight-year-old son. Reminiscing, they told me their son was so full of himself he practically turned somersaults up the aisle of the church to hear the children’s sermon. Then one day, the boy woke up with blurred vision. A few days later, he couldn’t walk right. A malignant brain tumor was found.
A few months later, they buried their son.
As they shared their sorrow with me, I was dumbstruck. When I found my voice, I asked, “What has changed most about you as a result of this experience?”
His eyes shining, the husband squeezed his wife’s shoulder and looked at me. “We aren’t afraid of the little things any more,” he replied.
That simple but penetrating answer has stuck with me. When you face a hurt you think you can’t live through — but you do survive — somehow pain doesn’t intimidate you any more. Yes, you can stand a little heat when you’ve been through the fire.
The psalmist puts it this way: “Oh lord, you tested us and tried us as silver. We’ve walked through the fire and through deep water. You, oh Lord, have brought us forth into a spacious place.”
The prophet Isaiah reaffirmed that promise to us from the Lord, saying, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned.”
Do you feel the heat in some area of your life? Do you lack guidance and direction? Do you feel empty, depressed? Do you need wisdom in handling strained relationships? Do you feel you need more faith? Questions and hurts are not a sign of weakness, they are only the beginning of spiritual growth.
The assurance we have, from
And we will learn a more precious truth: In the white-hot heat of trial, when it feels as though our metal will be consumed, we find at our side an incomparable Friend whose love for us has no end.
From Reshaping the Inner You: Being Transformed by the Power of God’s Love by William Hinson. (c) 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. Used by permission. Available at local book stores or call (800) 638-3030.