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Heart Matters: Holy Arsonist

The phone rang around 5 a.m. The broken voice on the phone cracked, "The church is burning. It's burning down."

Minutes later I watched firefighters combat the bright flames that interrupted the subzero cold and darkness. By late morning the sanctuary was saved, but all the elementary Sunday school classes were burned to the ground. Within hours the police, FBI, and ATF descended on the ashes and declared it arson.

I wonder if the ATF would declare my life in 2000 arson. My workload ignited following the fire. I had to miss the family vacation scheduled a few days later. The next months held the busyness of training teachers to respond to the children's emotional needs, teaching in areas not designed for active learning, and attending meetings to supervise the reconstruction of the old wing.

The incendiary pace of spring was replaced by the blaze of summer. The arson and its aftermath had erupted some slow-burning conflicts in our church. The crisis of the arson subsided, pouring relational fuel on old embers. Within weeks, the church was in the middle of a raging conflict. The church leadership aptly named the tension Our Firestorm.

Autumn came with its annual "pentecost" in the treetops. Our congregation was met with the revelation that one of the arsonists was a teen child of a staff member. More meetings, more angst, more flames, and no end in sight.

Winter has come, and our firestorm continues on. I haven't reached too many conclusions about what's going on at my church. Questions have replaced sentences in most of my prayers. I wonder "Do Satan and God ever brush hands as they both reach for the same tool?" Both use fire for their purposes. Satan uses fiery times to disfigure, scar, and consume. God uses fire to purify, refine, and strengthen. But when you're in the middle of the fire, how do you know who lit the match?

According to Reformed tradition, Satan is God's devil. I understand that. I know there's great value in knowing that God is sovereign and doesn't cause evil. This knowledge is valuable, but I think my greatest learning has come in understanding the nature of suffering. I used to view God's promises to use fire to transform us into Christ's image as a somehow automatic occurrence. If a Christian suffers, then inevitably Jesus' character will shine through that person when the flames subside.

My experience this year forced me to shed that myth. As the year dragged on, I noticed impatience and anger spilling into my relationship with my son Alex. Resentful thoughts toward my co-workers were all too common. Anxiety crowded out God's peace far too often. Change was occurring in me, but not anything I own as Christlike. I had to fight what was happening in me.

Fire is one of Satan's favorite tools because of its ensuing destruction. Yet fire is also one of God's favorite tools because fire accelerates spiritual change. 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 character and makes us susceptible to change. We see the consequences of our spiritual decisions more immediately in a week of suffering than in a year of tranquility. Saints and sinners are forged in fire.

Whose fire is it then -- God's or Satan's? The answer lies firmly in our response to suffering. God will keep his promise to make me like Christ in this hard time -- when I choose to respond in a holy fashion. The fire becomes God's when I am humble and content with God's hand.

I have no answers for most of the questions our church has now. There is one answer I hope to be able to give, though. When asked, "Who was behind the arson at Grace Baptist?" I hope to be able to answer, "It was God."

Larry Shallenberger is a children's minister in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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