Furnace Time: Set Apart From, To Be A Part Of

Lessons From the Coke Bottle Factory
By Dr. Ray Pitchard

An excerpt from the author's sermon series, Survivor Babylon: How to Make the Best of a Bad Situation (Part 7 of 8)

I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

The summer after I graduated from college, I worked at a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee that made Coke bottles. I worked as many hours as I could because Marlene and I were getting married in August and then we were moving to Dallas where I started seminary the next week. My job mostly involved cleaning up the area around the huge machines. I spent hours sweeping up shards of glass from bottles that had been discarded during the manufacturing process. It wasn’t particularly difficult, and I loved working late at night, surrounded by the roar of the enormous machines, as the molten glass was pressed into a series of molds, out of which came a long row of translucent green Coke bottles. I forget the precise temperature of the molten glass but it was red hot when it flowed into the mold. As soon as the mold opened, the newly-formed Coke bottles lined up like soldiers in a line, row after row after row, thousands of bottles every hour, carried away on a slow-moving conveyor belt.

The men who worked at the factory warned me never to touch the new bottles, partly because the glass was far too hot and partly because they would easily shatter. The first part I could understand but the shattering part made no sense. Coke bottles were made to withstand enormous abuse. In those days, before plastic bottles and aluminum cans, the bottles were used and then reused, sometimes several times. You could take the empty bottles to a store where you were paid a few cents for each one. If the bottle was in good condition, it was cleaned and then refilled. So how could the bottle shatter so easily right on the assembly line? I remember one man, a longtime worker, who patiently explained that the glass had to be “cured” by heating it to a very high temperature. The manufacturing process involved taking molten glass, pouring it into a mold, lining up the new Coke bottles on a conveyor belt, allowing them to cool for a few minutes, and then passing them through a vast oven that cured the glass. Once the bottles came of the oven, they were hard and strong. To illustrate the importance of the curing process, the man took a few newly-formed bottles off the conveyor belt, using tongs to keep from getting burned. When he pushed them over, they broke instantly. “If we don’t heat the bottles, they will all shatter like that,” he said. That occasional shattering kept me busy sweeping up glass all night long. And the curing process actually made the glass stronger.

The engineers who designed the Coke bottle knew it had to be heated in order to be strong. That curing process was absolutely necessary to produce a Coke bottle that could be used and reused. We might say that the engineers had a hope and a plan for those bottles, they had an “appointed end” by which the bottles would provide a refreshing drink to young kids all over America who would go to the corner grocery store and pay twenty cents for a Coke. The baking in the oven guaranteed that that bottle could withstand heat and cold without shattering.

The memory of that late-night science lesson has stayed with me for over 30 years. The curing of the Coke bottle was necessary and beneficial for its ultimate purpose. Passing through the furnace actually made it stronger. It is the same for you and for me. We cannot skip the “furnace times” of life. They are part of God’s purpose to make us ultimately useful. That may not seem like much consolation when you feel the heat blasting around you. But know this much. You will not be in the furnace a second longer than is necessary. When your trial has come to its appointed end—appointed by God himself—you will come forth stronger than before.

Ever-Increasing Hope

What, then, should we say in response to God's word recorded in Jeremiah 29:11? Our first and greatest need is to submit ourselves to our Heavenly Father and say very simply, “Lord, you know even though I don’t know. You see what is ahead even when all is dark to me. You have a purpose even when my life seems to be going in circles. Nothing that is happening to me has come to me by chance. I bow down before you and say, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Amen.” Surely we all need to pray like that every single day.

If this verse is true, then our position ought to be one of ever-increasing hope in the Lord. I admit that is hard to do when you see your child suffering from cancer or when your marriage falls apart or your career dissolves or you cannot pay your bills or you suffer rejection from those you thought you could trust. We all live in a fallen world, and we ourselves are fallen people, not yet what we could be or should be or someday will be. There is no Bible verse that can take away the pain of this world. But Jeremiah 29:11 leads us out of the darkness into the light.

We are not children of darkness!
We are the children of light!

“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18).

Let us hear Spurgeon's words:

We are not driven into growing darkness, but led into increasing light. There is always something to be hoped for in the Christian’s life. Let us not look towards the future nor regard the present with any kind of dread. There is nothing for us to dread.

When we read a verse like Jeremiah 29:11, we ought to ask ourselves, “What difference does being a Christian make?” We suffer as others suffer. We get sick, we face trouble, and we go through the full range of human experiences. Ask the Christians in Sudan if they know anything about suffering. Ask the Christians in Saudi Arabia what it’s like to follow Jesus. Our brothers and sisters around the world face trouble every day because of their faith. Let me say again that I have no “magic verse” that can remove all your troubles, wipe away your tears, resolve all your conflicts, or bring you quickly out of the furnace. If anything, Jeremiah 29:11 is meant to help us while we are in the furnace with the certain truth that we are there for a purpose, that it won’t last forever, and that God will be glorified and we will be improved by our “furnace time.”

You may have thought before that your unity with your brethren of the other fold is no longer possible when they have closed the door for unity negotiation by filling the position which you could have fit in. But the Lord's plan for you fits exactly to the talents he has bestowed you with and the grace he is sustaining you with.

For now you are being set apart, but when the time comes (after this coming season is over), the Lord shall call you to task and unite you with your brethren and make you a significant part of the fold, and whatever you do in obedience to that call shall exceedingly prosper you, your brethren, and your people in ways unexpected -- for this is the next level of your calling. Many others of the other folds shall also be joined to the fold when this coming season is over. God's way of uniting people is not like the ways of men.

Therefore be like Joseph and learn from his obedience and humility. He was the youngest among brethren. But the Lord set him apart from the rest so that later on in his life he will become a very significant part of the history of his nation and in the life of his people.

"We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)


We Are The Change That This World Needs

CNN Heroes

At 16, Rhandolf Fajardo reflects on his former life as a gang member.

"My gang mates were the most influential thing in my life," says Fajardo, who joined a gang when he was in sixth grade. "We were pressured to join."

He's not alone. In the Philippines, teenage membership in urban gangs has surged to an estimated 130,000 in the past 10 years, according to the Preda Foundation, a local human rights charity.

"I thought I'd get stuck in that situation and that my life would never improve," recalls Fajardo. "I would probably be in jail right now, most likely a drug addict -- if I hadn't met Efren."

Efren Peñaflorida, 28, also was bullied by gangs in high school. Today, he offers Filipino youth an alternative to gang membership through education.

"Gang members are groomed in the slums as early as 9 years old," says Peñaflorida. "They are all victims of poverty."

For the past 12 years, Peñaflorida and his team of teen volunteers have taught basic reading and writing to children living on the streets. Their main tool: A pushcart classroom.

Stocked with books, pens, tables and chairs, his Dynamic Teen Company recreates a school setting in unconventional locations such as the cemetery and municipal trash dump.

Peñaflorida knows firsthand the adversity faced by these children. Born into a poor family, he lived in a shanty near the city dump site. But he says he refused to allow his circumstances to define his future.

"Instead of being discouraged, I promised myself that I would pursue education," he recalls. "I will strive hard; I will do my best."

In high school, Peñaflorida faced a new set of challenges. Gang activity was rampant; they terrorized the student body, vandalized the school and inducted members by forcing them to rape young girls, he says.

"I felt the social discrimination. I was afraid to walk down the street."

Peñaflorida remembers standing up to a gang leader, refusing to join his gang. That confrontation proved fateful. At 16, he and his friends "got the idea to divert teenagers like us to be productive," he says.

He created the Dynamic Teen Company to offer his classmates an outlet to lift up themselves and their community. For Peñaflorida, that meant returning to the slums of his childhood to give kids the education he felt they deserved.

"They need education to be successful in life. It's just giving them what others gave to me," he says.

Today, children ranging from ages 2 to 14 flock to the pushcart every Saturday to learn reading, writing, arithmetic and English from Peñaflorida and his trained teen volunteers.

Video: Watch Peñaflorida and his group in action with their push cart classroom

"Our volunteers serve as an inspiration to other children," he says.

The group also runs a hygiene clinic, where children can get a bath and learn how to brush their teeth.

Since 1997, an estimated 10,000 members have helped teach more than 1,500 children living in the slums. The organization supports its efforts by making and selling crafts and collecting items to recycle.

Video: Take a look at the slums where Peñaflorida and his group spend their Saturdays

Through his group, Peñaflorida has successfully mentored former gang members, addicts and dropouts, seeing potential where others see problems.

"Before, I really didn't care for my life," says Michael Advincula, who started doing drugs when he was 7. "But then Efren patiently dug me from where I was buried. It was Efren who pushed me to get my life together."

Video: Watch Advincula describe how he met Peñaflorida in the slums

Today, Advincula is a senior in high school and one of the group's volunteers.

Peñaflorida hopes to expand the pushcart to other areas, giving more children the chance to learn and stay out of gangs.

"I always tell my volunteers that you are the change that you dream and I am the change that I dream. And collectively we are the change that this world needs to be."

Want to get involved? Check out the Dynamic Teen Company and see how to help.

Brothers, don't be weary in doing well. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don't give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let's do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:9-10)