Revelation 2:7 New Living Translation (NLT)

“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”

It was a Saturday in July of 2003 when I was reminded of a scene in the movie “Apollo 13”. In fact I thought of it all day long and the more I thought of it the more encouraged I became. I realized the Holy Spirit was laying this scene on my heart. I had a double disc fusion in my neck five months before. I was struggling to recover my strength and get rid of debilitating nerve pain in my neck, shoulders and arms. I now had 2 metal plates and six screws in my c-spine where 2 discs used to be and the surgery was evidently not a success…As in, Houston, we have a problem! I’m thinking of thirteen being the number of rebellion. If you have neck surgery surely it’s because you’re a stiff necked rebel, right? No question. Anyone else ever notice how Job’s counselors never get sick like the rest of us rebels? I really like King David who knew he was conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity (psalms 51). But David was special to God, “a man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Okay, back to the the scene. It is the one near the end of the movie where a guy in mission control named Henry leans to the man next to him and says, “Their heat shield could fail, there is the parachute situation, they have the wrong trajectory, and they are coming down on top of a typhoon.” The man listening to him says, “I know what the problems are, Henry. This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced. Gene Kranz, the Director of Flight Operations, overheard them. After calmly tightening his tie, he looked at them both sternly and said, “with all due respect, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” Both men quickly, and shamefully, concurred with a head nod. Sometimes it takes crisis to reveal,or in this case confirm, the strong leaders. Gene Kranz was where he belonged, in charge. He deservedly had the respect of everyone there in mission control. His motto was, and is to this day, “failure is not an option.”

So God was saying to me my current situation would end in our finest hour together. He is in charge of my mission control. My heat shield of faith is vulnerable right now. my trajectory feels wrong. I’m headed for a typhoon and my parachutes are a question mark. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (proverbs 13:12). I’m a firefighter by trade and making it back to my regular duties seems like telling a mountain to be thrown in the sea (Matthew 21:21). I was reminded of the promise in scripture, “to him overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life in the midst of the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7) Also, proverbs 13:12 goes on to say “hope fulfilled is a tree of life.” I love the connection of those two verses. A friend gave me a word that “my condition was not because I sinned…but that the works of God should be revealed in me.” (John 9:3) These are the thoughts that kept that tree of life in my sights. I wanted to make it back to my job and be physically able to do it. I had no idea at that point just how difficult it would prove to be. I will say firefighters are a strange breed. We go in to places people are trying to get out of. We are at least dressed for these occasions. Sometimes even dressing properly is just not enough (In remembrance of my fallen brothers and sisters of 9-11-2001)

At some point the same day I’m thinking of this movie I walked upstairs and in to the kitchen. As I had walked through the den to the kitchen I noticed my wife was watching a movie on TV. The movie was “Apollo 13” so I stopped in my tracks walked back in to the den and sat down. I was having a God moment. I have those. Within 5 minutes what scene do you suppose came on? I started to cry thinking how God was giving me such a token of His love and encouragement. I could hear Him saying, “you can trust Me, son”. I was going through the fire as they did. Their heat shield held, their chutes opened, they weathered the storm, and they made it home. Would my heat shield of faith hold? Would I weather this storm and make it home to my job? Stand by, Houston, there is more to this story.

As I said before I had no idea how difficult my situation would prove to be. Our new Chief from Seattle was seeing me and my health issue as a liability risk. I was running out of paid leave and not improving. I decided to go to Alabama Fire College and get my Fire Inspector certification. I hoped I could go in to inspections and maybe avoid the physical demands of firefighting. Our new Chief had introduced what is called “fit for duty” and if you’re a firefighter you have to be capable of doing that job… and I was not… and I was almost out of paid leave. That scene from “Apollo 13” was becoming more and more accurate in its degree of difficulty. I had some support from the Fire Department because most of the officers did not like or accept this new Chief who was not allowing me back in his atmosphere, so to speak. I learned that County Policy allowed me to go out on Disability for a year after my paid leave ran out. I took that option. The Chief was livid. He didn’t seem to understand County Policy trumped his opinion on the matter. So I ran out of leave and went on disability for another year. The problem was I still was too weak and in too much nerve pain to go back to my duties. I had maybe a month left before I had to resign or be fired by this Chief who seemingly couldn’t wait. I had written my resignation and gone to headquarters to turn it in when I looked up at the clock in headquarters that said 1:00 PM. I decided to wait 24 hours. I turned and walked out and drove home. The next day a friend contacted me. He was a police officer from Seattle, Washington of all places…same as my Chief. He said, “Bill, yesterday at 10 o’clock in the morning the manifest presence of the Lord came on me to pray for you. I had to pull off the road to continue praying.” 10 A.M. in Seattle is what time in Atlanta, Ga.? That’s right…same exact time I turned and went back home without turning in my resignation.

After that I went to my doctor and implored him, “you have to give me a chance. Give me the required full release to go back to the full job description of a firefighter. I have no other options.” He agreed to give me the release and I still can’t understand why. I turned it in at the 11th hour and County Policy protected me but I had to pass a fit for duty test with a County Doctor. The doctor was a little weak man and I was able to convince him I was capable. I got my assignment to go back to station 6-A Shift. Station 6 had two fire engines and a truck company. I was on truck 6. On my first day back Captain Rob Grunau said, “load up boys..we’re going to do some training.” Rob Grunau and I became close friends over the following years and he is still my favorite Captain to this day. We went to an old abandoned house we had permission to use for training. Rob said, “Ok Hopper, get out on the tip of that ladder and bang me a hole in that roof!” In full turn-out gear, air pack and my helmet etc I took a flat head axe out to the tip of that ladder. My thoughts were, “I’m banging a hole in that roof or my head is coming off…one or the other but here goes.” I was not well. I admit it but I put a hole in that roof and we went back to the station. Immediately, there was a promotional exam for Lieutenant. I made the Lieutenant’s list right after barely making it back to my job. What a turn of events. Soon after the list came out with my name on it I was transferred to headquarters as the first Hazmat Inspector for the County. I was a Fire Inspector and a Hazmat Tech. I was able to define the position and even wrote the SOP for my Chief who had no idea how to write it. At about this same time the Chief who went after me for 1 1/2 years was fired. My heat shield of faith had held. My parachute opened. I weathered the typhoon from headquarters. I even ended up splashing down there myself on the Lieutenant’s list, at the same time my adversary was moving out permanently! Bu bye… Bless him, Lord…God had me overcome, my hope was fulfilled and the fruit from the tree of life is something sweet from heaven. Amen…


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