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
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
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,