On a dark street in the early 1970s, as three rival gangs went about business as usual, there was a man who took off his shoes after seeing a fire.
At the time, those three troubled, disparate, and man-made congregations were looking for a flame, a spark — something to add light to their dark and heavy hearts.
But the only true solution, in the end, came as the result of a spark — a holy spark.
Meanwhile, God had been speaking, prompting a barefoot man to respond. Called toward the flames, he joined hands with others, and they stepped obediently into the sacrifice.
The flames then fanned a little more to form the Teen Haven Youth Center for the city’s at-risk youth. And then a church formed. And for the past 40 years, Maple City Chapel has been burning in the heart of Goshen.
Our community came together Sunday to celebrate the decades of influence and illumination beaming forth from just one corner of God’s kingdom.
As church members have carried God’s Light to more than 70 countries over the years, the event made room for a live Skype connection and video messages sent from around the world.
During the service, one missionary in a far-off land shared an inspired message, and the imagery gripped my imagination. Describing the genesis of our church, he reminded his listeners of Moses at the burning bush. Many of us, he noted, often wish we could point to a similar burning moment of our own with God.
Yet God has been faithfully burning into our lives and refining us with a far-reaching purpose. The missionary pointed out that, as Moses took those initial steps of obedience, the flame would not remain localized to Moses.
It spread. And it wasn’t long before that flaming bush became a flaming mountain. Just over a month later, God’s Presence descended over Mount Sinai and began reaching out to His children, extending His reach through flames.
In a moment of glory, God began burning closer to reverse the alienating and deadly consequences of the Fall.
Perhaps it was supposed to be a sort of homecoming. But the people were afraid. Those flames seemed to portend certain death. Naturally, they were concerned for their physical lives.
Getting close to God meant dying to something. It meant surrendering their lives to become refined by something bigger than themselves.
It was frightening because their eyes of faith hadn’t fully opened yet. And what a tragedy.
Because just as God was moving near them, they began cowering instead of communing. They cried out for Moses to go in place of themselves.
I am thankful for my church. I am thankful for a community of Christ followers who have responded to the sparks of God. Because the flame is spreading.
This fiery movement has taken a million paths, and has touched the lives of so many with a healing fire.
And I am just one of many burn victims.
At the core of our church, there are many who hold a passion for hearing God’s voice, for experiencing a responsive intimacy with a loving Father. These individuals have made it a priority to provide opportunities to cultivate this intimacy among the congregation.
And so, aided by their service, I’ve been burned and transformed in the process.
Now, I am no longer willing to settle for indirect communion. I am no longer willing to settle down, somewhere, far away from the mountain and then content myself with relying solely upon a translated correspondence from somebody else through sermon, book or a conversation. While those mediums are often helpful and fruitful, the God I believe in isn’t short on communication skills.
He’s seeking to speak to me.
I’m on my journey, and I have a long way to go. I have areas in my life that I’ve kept from the flames. But at least I’m not terrified — or as terrified — of the flames. Instead of running away and pleading for a pastor to take my calls while I’m away on personal business, I’m learning to move closer.
I’m being drawn by lovingkindness because His fire is spreading. And that’s where I long to be.
On earth, we often look to firefighters as heroes. But in heaven, the angels look upon our service with very different eyes. Their worship grows louder whenever they find a congregation offering itself as kindling.
And as those members burn without being consumed, their ongoing service continues to rise with a sweet aroma — one which will outlast even the best 40 years.