Readers, it's my turn to offer the mediation. I'm between trips to South Carolina and Chicago. I hope you'll forgive me for posting a rough experience that I went though a little over nine years ago instead of offering a new post...
Shortly after 5 AM on Martin Luther King Day, 2000 a desperate phone call shattered my sleep. “The church is on fire. It’s burning down.” By the time I arrived, the flames claimed the children’s wing. The staff watched from our cars in the sub-zero temperature as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. Unable to do anything, we each returned to our homes and waited for Al’s instructions.
The instructions came, instead, from ATF agents. In 1999, there were as rash of church arsons in the south resulting in federal agents leading the response. I was summoned to meet a brawny ATF agent in the early afternoon in the ash filled remains of the cinder block children’s church room. Firefighter had ripped the roof open. I breathed in artic air and surveyed the scene. Plastic seats melted and drooped around their steel chair frames.
I found the hideously ugly canvas painting of Jesus and the children, painted in bright rust and oranges, that I had hidden back stage. The painting had been commissioned in the seventies by a generous patron. As such, I’d been denied permission to throw it away. I joked with the agent about my poor luck about the painting surviving the fire only to be met by a grim stare. When the agent finally spoke he asked me questions about the contents of the supply closet and about my whereabouts Sunday afternoon. It was only then that I realized the fire was being considered suspicious and that everyone on staff was a potential suspect.
The staff met in the private room of a nearby all-you-can-eat buffet and mapped out the next several months of activity from how we’d communicate the fire and suspected arson to the church and community, how we’d meet to worship, how we’d rebuild, and how we’d clean up the fine soot that had settled all over the worship center. My responsibilities were to move the children’s ministry in the adult education space and to train the volunteers on how to talk to the children about the potentially traumatic events. Naturally, my family vacation scheduled for the following week would need to be cancelled.
The crisis temporary diverted everyone attention away from the conflict that had been smoldering in the church over worship styles and leadership. Elders, staff, and congregation rallied around the immediate need to restore the campus. Yet when the children’s wing reopened and the urgency of the moment subsided, discord returned. The elder board began to split over the issue of leadership the church spiraled deeper into chaos. Fall came with its tree top Pentecost and with it new revelation: One of the arsonists was the teenage child of a senior staff person. The new information fueled more speculation and gossip in the church. The church’s descent continued for another full year and only reserved itself with the help of a Christian conflict mediator, one that qualified to do mediation for the United States Postal Service.
The experience forced me to rethink the nature of suffering in the Christian life. The scriptures are full of references to God using fire to refine and purify his people, to burn away impurities, and to free them from their impurities so they look more like Jesus. I mistakenly had assumed the outcome was inevitable; the flames of suffering would subside and, viola, Jesus’ character would shine.
My own experiences during this time forced me to shed this myth. I was changing, but not in a way that looked anything like Jesus. I was more familiar with anxiety than I was God’s “peace that surpasses understanding.” Insomnia was a regular occurrence. I had little appetite for food and lost weight. I found myself wrestling with feelings of resent with my coworkers. I infected my home with a surly disposition. Outbursts of impatience and anger occurred far too often.
Over time I came to understand that both God and Satan use fire for their purposes. God refines and strengthens while Satan scars and disfigures. Why do both God and Satan value fiery experiences? In the physical realm, fire agitates molecules and speeds up chemical reactions. The same is true spiritually. The fire of suffering is a spiritual accelerant. Suffering speeds up the stuff of our characters and makes us susceptible to change. Our decisions made during a week of suffering yield their consequences more quickly than those made during a year of tranquility.
So was the fire "of God" or "of Satan"?
I hope that by my actions I can say the fire was from God.