Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Fire That Does Not Consume: From The Introduction to Primal Fire

I remember the bus ride home from San Pedro High School to our own Palisades High School in 1978. We had just beaten our cross-town rivals  in water polo on our way to another championship for the third year in a row. We were full of excitement and ready to celebrate our victory. 

Photo (from year book) by teammate Bob Baker

From twenty or so miles away, we saw smoke rising on the hills in the direction of our hometown, but we didn’t think much of it . . . until we got closer. Pulling into the school lot we witnessed a long line (ten miles) of fire descending from the ridge above our neighborhood. All celebration ceased.

I grew up in the canyons of Southern California, where each fall the winds shift from the cool, moist Pacific Ocean to blow in from the hot, scorched deserts to the east. These “Santa Ana winds” come after the warm, dry summer months have killed all the underbrush in the canyons, leaving plenty of dead, dry grass. Any fire up in the hills will soon be raging out of control—and often several fires at once.

What makes these wildfires so challenging is the “perfect storm” of conditions. The dry chaparral makes excellent kindling, and the steep hillsides of the many canyons form wind channels that accelerate the already fierce gusts exploding off the desert. The narrow stretches of the canyons also bring acres of tinder that much closer to the ravenous reach of the flames that skip from ridge to ridge as if dancing in the glowing inferno. The fire spreads rapidly, whipped by the strong winds, with no regard for whatever lies in its path. The sight is wondrous and devastating at the same time.

It’s strange that we can know why these fires happen, where the vulnerabilities lie, and even when they will start, and yet we’re powerless to stop them. There is a force of nature that simply laughs at our vain attempts to control its fickle fury.

Photo of 1978 fire taken from Venice by Jeffery Stanton
As a young man, my father fought to save his home from the Malibu fire of 1956. Though Dad was not a small man—standing 6’3” with a trim, athletic build from years of swimming and surfing—he nevertheless felt small and weak as the flames roared above his head on their way toward his house. The intense heat and deafening roar left a scar on his soul he would not soon forget. It was as if the flames were taunting his seemingly futile efforts to stop them. During the Mandeville Canyon fire, in 1978, I remember standing side by side with my dad, hosing down the roof of our house instead of celebrating my water polo victory. Our home barely escaped the destruction.

After the fire was out, I went for a hike through the hills above our neighborhood and felt like I was in another world. For miles in every direction, all I could see was scorched, black earth, with the charcoal skeletons of dead trees reaching up in petrified agony. Not a single green leaf, blade of grass, or smallest of insect could be found. And not a solitary bird ventured over this wasteland. It was like being on the moon.

In 2008, after battling canyon fires for more than fifty years, my father lost his home, his lifetime of artwork, and most of his pets in the Sylmar fire. The flames that had taunted him as a young man, and haunted him throughout his adult life, had returned to claim their final victory. My dad passed away in 2011 at the age of 81. His drawings and paintings of fire are some of his most memorable work. all fires are destructive, of course. Fire is also a gift to humanity—for warmth, illumination, nourishment, energy, purification, and the forging of tools that make human culture possible. In the Bible, fire often symbolizes the holy presence of God. It is this latter fire—the primal fire of God—that we will consider throughout this book.

For some, the word primal may conjure up images of unshaven men in loincloths gathered around a bonfire, beating drums. But primal simply means “original” or “first in importance.” When applied to the fire of God, it speaks of a fire older than time itself, yet always fresh; an eternal flame that is both ancient and immediate. The primal fire of God flares up throughout the Bible, often bringing with it dramatic, world-altering changes.

The first time God appears to Abraham, it is as a smoking firepot and a flaming torch. (Genesis 15:17). It is the same fire that later appears to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), descends on Mount Sinai after the Exodus (Exodus 19:18), and settles on the heads of the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). And on the eventual judgment day, it is the primal fire that will burn away all the chaff, leaving only what is pure and valuable enough to be in God’s presence (1 Corinthians 3:13).

Although the Bible describes God as “a consuming fire” in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Hebrews, there are several remarkable occasions when the fire burns but does not destroy what it rests upon. Whether it is the bush that Moses encountered in the desert; the flames that tested Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Babylonian furnace; the hot coal applied to the unclean lips of the prophet Isaiah; or the tongues of fire and rushing wind that descended on the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, the fire of God brought healing rather than destruction, freedom instead of bondage, and illumination, purification, and divine revelation that were desperately needed.  

Of course, if we step outside the will of God, all bets are off. Let us not forget that the same flames that warmed the feet of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego consumed the men who had tossed them into the furnace. The fire that fell from heaven on Mount Carmel destroyed the prophets of Baal but left Elijah unharmed. And I doubt that anyone wants an up-close encounter with the flaming sword the angel wields to protect the Garden of Eden.

So, the fire of God is at once terrifying and beautiful; all-consuming and yet restorative; deserving of our love and our reverent fear. What seems to make the difference—and this will be important when we get to the topic of the lost gifts of Jesus—is that we remain within God’s purpose as He applies the fire to vessels that are both set apart and willing to be used.

To be clear, it’s not that the receptacles God chooses must somehow make themselves worthy. It wasn’t the bush that made the Moses encounter so special. When you think about it, any old shrub would have sufficed. No, it’s always the fire that is special, and we must not lose sight of that.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three young Hebrew lads living in exile. The prophet Isaiah confessed his own unworthiness and was mortified by his “unclean lips.” The disciples waiting in the upper room were the same guys who, just weeks before, had been arguing about who among them was the greatest, then hiding in fear from the authorities. But what these otherwise flawed and ordinary people all had in common was that they were available and willing to be used by God.

Such is the kindling that can catch fire if the spark is ignited. When the wind of the Holy Spirit blows, the flame will spread. But first we must recognize and acknowledge that the primal fire of God is still with us today—that the fire that Moses encountered and that came upon the first disciples is available to us all. The flame that was in the burning bush was the presence of Christ, just as the flame that fell on the disciples at Pentecost was the presence of Christ’s Spirit. The same person whom Nebuchadnezzar saw standing amid the flames with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is with us now and wants to energize us with the flames of His primal fire. Let him cleanse our unclean lips and replace our own words with a holy message: “Here am I, send me.”
This is an excerpt from the Introduction to my book Primal Fire.

Friday, May 16, 2014

What You Can Expect From A Book By Neil Cole, Part 2: The Positive Remarks

I am blogging about the consistent themes and questions that emerge from those who have read my books over the years. I'm not doing this as a defense or to bolster my self-esteem, but simply to let you in on some of the philosophy behind why I do what I do the way I do it.

In the last post I looked at the negative remarks that typically are raised. They do not bother me. I've been a published author for almost 20 years now, trust me, I can handle criticism...I actually like learning from it and hope I am becoming a better writer as years go by because of it.

In this post I want to highlight some of the positive observations that consistently emerge. Now, I didn't do the last post so that people feel sorry for me and stroke my fragile ego, and I am not doing this one to boast. These articles are strictly to lift up the hood and let you see what is going on inside my writing process a bit.

"Cole is not some ivory tower theoretician. He is a practitioner." Strangely enough, the actual words "not an ivory tower theoretician" come up a lot when people remark about my books. Weird huh? I made a commitment a long time ago that I would not publish something that I didn't prove to work out in my own life first. In fact, I go further than that. It needs to have worked in other people's lives for a few generations before we publish it. I distinctly remember reading a specific book about cell-based church model that was drawn from the expertise of leaders in another nation and culture. It was not the experience of the author and was never proven to work in a US context. While the book was enjoyable to read, and sounded great, it was not doable in a Western postmoden world. I decided, then that I would first do the work and then write on it after I had the chance of proving the ideas. I have held that core value ever since.

This value causes a few things to be evident in my writing:

1. It takes longer to write. I have often had sound ideas and known that I needed to write "that book" but couldn't for many years. Journeys to Significance took 15 years to write so that it had substance behind its theories. Primal Fire was attempted twice with other co-authors before it eventually was published. Frankly it is a better book because of the extra time. Sometimes this means my book is not the first to hit the market on a subject, which is admittedly the downside to this core value.

2. The content is better. There is no substitute for trial by error. Something that is a good idea on paper may not work in real life, but you can't even know this until you put the ideas to work in real life. Unfortunately many books are built on ideas that have never been proven. Because I only write on things that we have actually done, and proven to work, the content has more depth and a sense of reality to it. There are also examples and stories to make the writing more human.

The insights that emerge from experience cannot be manufactured in a study or by reading books. For example, many books describe movements from an outside perspective listing characteristics viewed about them. Church 3.0 however asks questions and puts forward content you can only discover having been in the midst of a real movement. Until you are doing the actual foot to ground work, you don't even know what the right questions are. You learn what is truly important and, perhaps more significantly, what is not, when you actually do the work on the ground with real flawed human beings.

3. The content is practical and proven, and not bound to only one culture. We actually value seeing our ideas work in more than one context before we publish, so the books also translate well into other languages and cultures. Recently a highly respected thought leader, when comparing the genre of missional church books available, mentioned that mine are more cross cultural than most of the others. That is high praise indeed, and not an accident. 

We test ideas in other cultures around the world before we publish them. For us, if what we do works in California, but not in Calcutta than we go back to the drawing board. For every good idea we publish there are ten that didn't work out. We've had a "shelf of shame" that holds the products that we have developed over the years that do not multiply, or work in other cultures and languages. They collect dust and nothing more.

When we have a product that has a restricted cultural application, we will say so in the publication. TruthQuest, our theological learning system, is like that. It only works in literate cultures with theological textbooks available in that nation, but it works incredibly well in those places. We say upfront that this product has limited usage around the world, but we still produce it because there are enough people groups that can still benefit from it. We also have adaptations to some tools so that they work in oral societies and among people who are unable to read.

"Where others are philosophical, Cole's work is very biblical." It is true that the word "biblical" gets thrown around too often to verify one's ideas with Scriptural authority. I hope I am not doing that. But honestly, I think the Bible is the only real authority to change lives and so I want it to speak for itself. I also find that most of the real good ideas can be discovered in the Bible if you look at it with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I once had a rather conservative Bible teacher (who viewed me as "liberal" if you want the right context) say to me privately: "I'll never admit it publicly, and will probably deny it if you ask me later, but I think you are more of a biblicist than I am." This was one of the best complements I have ever received.

My strange little anabaptist/reformed/dispensational denomination (is it possible to be all of these? Probably not, just look at our denomination...if you can find us) did one thing for me, it planted the love of Scripture in me, and for that I am grateful. I remember when I was heading off to seminary a mentor of mine, Randy Creswell, said, "If you spent the same amount of time that you will give to seminary (class time and homework), in simply reading the bible over and over you will probably learn more and save a lot of money." I didn't listen and spent a lot of money and went to seminary. I do not regret it. After I graduated, however, I realized I spent 5 years studying about the Bible and little of that time actually studying the Bible itself. With my mentors words in mind, I then devoted the rest of my life to just studying the Bible itself. I have made it my habit to read 20 to 30 chapters of Bible reading weekly, reading entire books in context and repetitively and that has set my whole life on a certain trajectory, and I believe it comes out in my writing.

"Cole's books look at common ideas with fresh eyes and reveal things we have all missed." This is a passion of mine. I was raised by an artist and received my degree in art as well. I still think of myself as an artist.

For me there is a difference between an artist and a craftsman. A craftsman has a skill to produce or reproduce something. A painter who paints something that looks exactly like a photograph is exhibiting a craftsman's talent. But the photographer who took the picture––who saw the composition, colors and beauty––is the artist. I think imagination and creativity is the difference between a craftsman and an artist (the best artists are both).

I look at life through the eyes of an artist. I do not just want to reproduce what is obvious, I want to see what is not obvious and then bring that to light. I feel that we have been created to create. God delights in His image within us. So while I respect the intelligence of those who have gone before me, I am not content to simply accept their thinking, I want to look beyond that. I want to view things from a new perspective. In my opinion, if my thoughts are not fresh they are not worth publishing. I have stopped writing a book simply because someone else published a good book on the subject and said what I would have said.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What You Can Expect From A Book By Neil Cole, Part One: The Negative Criticisms

I often get the same questions and comments on my books, both positive and negative. There are reasons for this. In these next blog posts I want to explain why my books tend to draw similar critiques and reviews. Let me start with the negatives:

"Cole's books always say the same thing." Honestly, you'll find repetition in my books, though I wouldn't write a book unless it had something unique to say. Why the repetition? Its simple, I have to assume that the person who is reading a book has never read any of my other books. With that assumption comes the need to explain some of the important information that other books contain. I try to state it in a different way related to theme of each book.

I want every book to be able to stand alone if need be, but also contribute to the growing message of our movement. Some things you will find in every one of my books, such as what I believe to be the DNA of Christ's body. Its important enough that it bears repeating. Jesus and Paul repeated themselves often, so I'm not ashamed of it. Each book has fresh material on an important subject, so if you read all my books you will find each one has something unique to say. That said, if you start reading a new book and early on find that you are experiencing a little déjà vu don't give up on the book. Feel free to skim over those parts until you get to the new material. Often the repetition is found early in a book because I am building on those previous thoughts. Let me say up front that this will not change, it is necessary for the movement we are trying to ignite.

Now there are two books with similar content but they were written with different audiences in mind: Cultivating a Life for God (written for pastors and missionaries) and Search & Rescue/Ordinary Hero (written for someone unengaged, sitting in the pews...bored with Christianity). In this case I do not recommend that you read both, one is sufficient. The latter was written a decade after the former so it is more updated, but is a longer book because of it.

NOTE: Ordinary Hero and Search & Rescue are the same book! The publisher re-released it as a paperback with a new title. Do not buy the same book twice! [You heard it from me]  If you read both of them and think I am repeating myself, well then, guilty as charged. Other than the title, the books are completely identical. It is ironic that something as simple as a Life Transformation Group (LTG) has three book titles released to explain it. Yikes!

"Cole's writing is too popular for a serious academic student or scholar." I usually take this type of critique as a complement. It actually means I am doing my job right. I have a calling to empower ordinary people to do the extraordinary work of representing Christ's kingdom in this world. In my view, my primary audience is the common person, which is where movements are ignited and carried. You'll not find a good movement that started in the hallowed halls of academia. Even an idea discovered in those halls didn't launch into a movement until it left the academic world and communicated into the common language of the day. That doesn't mean that I do not do my homework. My writing style will include stories and practical ideas because I am wanting to communicate with people who are not inclined to read academic work.

Simple is not simplistic. I believe that simplicity is actually a step beyond complexity. To truly understand something well you should be able to communicate it simply. If you are unable to say it in a simple and understandable way, then you likely do not fully understand it yet. That is how I see the learning and creation process and I view all my writing, speaking and ministry development with that core value. Others may say things with greater complexity, but that does not mean they are smarter or know the subject better. Just because the water is muddy doesn't mean its deep. Likewise, just because the water is clear enough to see the bottom doesn't mean the pool is shallow.
"The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologians to swim in without ever touching the bottom." ~Jerome
There are a few books in which I have attempted to address both types of audiences (deep thinker and common "Jane/Joe" Christian), which is a challenge but not impossible. Church 3.0, Journeys to Significance, Church Transfusion and Primal Fire all need to communicate ideas to both thought leaders as well as ordinary church goers. Those books will have more notes and research behind them. You will need to visit the back of the book more often to discover the depth of thinking behind the content found in those books if you are a thought leader. Even in those, I will still communicate complex ideas with simple stories and analogies and try to explain things so that it empowers the regular Christian. Other books I've written almost exclusively with the common Christian in mind, such as Search & Rescue (re-released in paperback as Ordinary Hero) or Organic Church. Those books will tell lots of stories and have memorable sayings throughout that summarize important ideas so that the workers carry the movement forward.

"Cole's hermenuetic is sometimes questionable." "Hermeneutic" is a ten dollar theological word that really means one's method of interpreting the bible. I usually get this critique when I am saying something from the Scriptures that doesn't match what people have already been taught (or more likely, they've already taught to people). In other words, I disagree with their teaching so they question my interpretation. I get it. It isn't so much that they have actually checked my interpretation against the Scriptures. Granted, I am often proposing radical new ways of viewing an old text, that's part of my calling. If what I am saying is a new theoretical view of a passage in Scripture and not the only way of seeing it, I will communicate the idea in a more suggestive tone as a potential option and will be much less dogmatic.

I actually view my role as someone who should make you think for yourself, not just tell you what to think, so I will often present alternate options. That said, just because an interpretation is unique does not make it wrong or faulty. There are many things passed down through the ages and given to us through the filter of our experience. When the lenses of tradition are removed we see the biblical texts in new light. There is always more to learn and discover. Don't let the geniuses of previous generations do all the thinking for us. They would want you to learn beyond their teaching.

Monday, May 12, 2014

5 Smoldering Embers That Ignite the Primal Fire

One of my abilities is the skill of simplification. It’s a gift, what can I say? I’m simple.

I take profound and even complex things and simplify them, reducing them to their potent core so that they are easily understood, communicated and transferable to other contexts and cultures. I do so without eliminating the most essential part of the idea.

It is tempting to think that the results of this sort of simplification is not deep or intelligent because it comes across as so simple, but actually the process involves a great deal of thinking and study. You really cannot edit something to simplicity until you understand it in its complexity. This sort of “editing” is only possible after considerable immersion in the concept so that you become so familiar with the idea that its most important core is discovered. After that everything else that is not the core is eliminated so that you communicate the most essential concept in a way that is understandable and easily repeated to others.

After near 20 years of learning about the five gifts of Jesus mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, I have been able to communicate the core idea of each gift with a simple description of only two words in my new book Primal Fire. Below you will find adaptations from Hirsch and Catchim’s excellent book Permanent Revolution addressing these gifts but you will also find my own two-word description of each. The first word for each description is the same. Because these gifts are meant to spread influence by equipping others to do the work, each description begins with the same word: contagious.

Don’t worry, the book Primal Fire goes into far greater depth, describing each gift, looking at both the strengths and the inherent weaknesses of each, and identifying how they were designed to work together. But for the benefit of more immediate understanding and communication here are five brief descriptions of the Primal Fire gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4:11.
He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. [Ephesians 4:11-12]
It is our supposition that the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher were given to the church to bring about the full expression of Christ’s beauty and glory in the world.
  1. Apostles are gifted with “contagious empowerment,” and are tasked with the overall vigor and extension of the church as a whole, primarily through direct mission, apostolic designs of ministry and church planting.  
  2.  Prophets are attuned to the voice of God and how we respond to Him. They are gifted with “contagious insight,” and are called to maintain the body’s faithfulness to God. As guardians of our covenant relationship with God and connecting us all to the voice of the Head of His body.
  3. Evangelists bring “contagious compassion” to their role as the primary recruiters to the cause of Christ, enlisting people into the movement by transmitting the gospel and bearing the conscience of the gospel among God's people.
  4. Shepherds nurture the spiritual health and development of a loving community as they exercise their gift of “contagious unity.”
  5. Teachers convey wisdom and illuminate understanding of the revelation given to the church. These are a gift of “contagious learning” in the body of Christ.
Individually, these gifts reflect parts of a whole that when seen together manifest the full image of God and the full measure of Jesus Christ. 

It is only when all these gifts are released to function naturally in the body and they mature to the point of equipping others that the church will fully reflect Jesus—in all His beauty—to the world. In order for this to happen, we must first discern what these gifts are, understand that they are still active today, and rediscover how they are intended to work together to accomplish God’s purpose here on earth. In isolation from one another, the embers will remain dormant; but drawn together in unity of purpose, they await only the wind of the Holy Spirit to fan them into full flame.

We have seen it happen. We can testify to the reality of the blessings and the benefits that come when those who possess these gifts submit to one another under Christ’s headship. A global movement has ignited and spread when just a few leaders took this to heart and surrendered their own egos and agendas for the sake of the greater cause. This book is about what could happen if the entire body of Christ were to catch the fire, as God intends.