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Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

I have long had a love affair with all things Greek: Greek cuisine, modern and ancient history, the ancient Koine language, mythology, as well as its ancient philosophers, playwrights, and important figures to European development.  I find these ancient connections with the development of modern thought in philosophy, politics, arts, and sciences fascinating.  It is a part of the world that holds a unique place in the development of Western civilization.

However, it has been some time since I delved into much of anything dealing with these subjects. My eclectic interests of late have taken me into 18th and 19th century American and European history.  This period, of course, has direct ties with and influences from the ancient Greek civilization.  I find it all fascinating.  Little did I know that this fascination would come into play with my dealings with a troubled young man recently.

For anonymity sake, we will call this young man Stephen. I had just recently taken a part-time administrative position at the church we attend (Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington).  I was posting some things on the bulletin board near our main entrance when this young man walked in with one of our church members, Bill.

Bill and Stephen walked up to me and Bill said to Stephen, “Hey!  Here’s is someone you can talk to.  He used to be a pastor.”

Turning toward me, Bill introduced his new companion, “Ron, this is Stephen.  I just met him on my way in and he really needs someone to talk to, do you have time to talk to him?  I’m in charge of Celebrate Recovery and we’re just about ready to get started.”

Bill turned back to Stephen, “If you want, after talking to Ron, why don’t you join us in the Fellowship Hall right around the corner over there?  We have dinner together and you are welcome to come eat with us.”  Bill pointed to a hall off the entry way they had just passed.

Stephen, looking down at the floor, timidly replied, “We’ll see.  Maybe.”

As Bill turned to leave us, I held out my hand to Stephen and said, “Hi, Stephen.  I’m Ron.  How can I help you?

Stephen, with his eyes not leaving the floor, replied, “I just need someone to talk to.  Is there some place private we can go to talk?

My office is not a private one. It is a center of activity.  My mind quickly turned to one of the many rooms located on an upper floor of our building.  “Sure.  Let’s go upstairs.  There’s bound to be a quiet room up there we can find.”

As I led our way up the stairwell just around the corner from us, I tried to make Stephen feel at ease with some small talk.Bill is a great guy.  The ministry he helps lead, Celebrate Recovery, is wonderful.  They start out with a meal together.  If you’re hungry and want to discover some new friends, I would highly recommend going.  You’ll find a lot of good people there.  We are all recovering from something and that is a good place to deal with whatever it may be.”

I entered the first empty room and turned on the light. Then I stepped aside as Stephen entered the room.  I gently swung the door shut but left it partially open in case of an emergency.  It was already apparent to me that Stephen was really struggling with something.  We seemed weighted down by the world.  The air in the room grew heavy.

As we each found a seat, I started by asking, “So, Stephen, how can I help you?  What do you want to talk with me about?

Stephen hesitated.I just came here because I needed someone to talk to.  I don’t know the difference between a pastor or a priest.  I haven’t been to church since I was really little.”

He let his words fall to the floor and became quiet. I waited.  After a few moments, he continued, “I really don’t know where to begin.”  He paused.  Then blurted out, “I guess I just need to say it.  What do you think about suicide?

I thought to myself, “Wow.  What a way to start work back at a church!”  However, I kept my composure and remained calm and reassuring.  I did not know at what stage of threat Stephen was to himself or if he was even referring to himself.  So, I probed with a question to get Stephen to talk and be more specific about what he was thinking and feeling.

I answered, “I’m not sure I understand.  Do you mean, what do I personally think about suicide?  Or, are you wondering what God thinks about suicide?

Then, trying to lighten the approach to a very heavy subject, I said, “As for myself, personally, I think death in any form sucks…except, perhaps, in my very old age in my sleep.”

Stephen cracked a small smile.I guess I’m wondering what God thinks,” he replied.

Well, without going into a long and boring theological explanation,” I began, “the Bible paints a picture of what God had in mind for humanity from the very beginning.  It is pictured in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.  Humankind lived in perfect harmony with God, nature and one another.  However, humankind’s rebellion brought not only separation from God but also division and conflict with one another and even with nature.  One of the outcomes of this is also division and conflict with our own self.”

I paused and asked, “Do you kind of understand that picture?

Stephen nodded.

I continued, “Jesus was sent by God to reveal to us what God had in mind for us.  Not only that, but Jesus made it possible that we could be healed and restored in our relationship with God, one another, and even with ourselves.  In fact, Jesus promises a restoration of that perfect harmony one day.  Until then, life is a spiritual battle of restoring God’s order as he intended it from the beginning.”

I paused for a second to see if Stephen was tracking. He seemed deeply interested in what I had to say.  So I went on.

Stephen, I believe that many who attempt suicide do so out of the desperation of their brokenness.  It is not what God wants for any of us and it grieves His heart when we destroy what he created.  At the same time, I have to recognize that every individual is unique and the reasons that lead someone to such desperate action cannot be judged by any human.  So, God will deal with each individual out of His own mercy and love for them.  If you’re wondering if I believe that a person is automatically destined to hell because they commit suicide, I would say, ‘No.’  Only God is judge and only he knows what is going on in a person’s heart and mind at that point.”

I turned toward Stephen and asked, “Many times thoughts of suicide are driven by a sense of great loss.  Have you experienced a great loss or sense of loss lately that makes you feel like life is hopeless and purposeless?

Stephen thought for a moment and then said, “No.  Not really.”

Then what do you think makes you feel like life is so pointless?” I asked.

Stephen grew quiet. I could tell he was pondering what to say.

Finally, the words spilled out, “I guess pretty much my whole life.  My parents ruined themselves financially and so I am not able to go to college even though I and my sisters did really well in High School.  My sisters and I don’t have anything to do with our parents.  Their lives are all screwed up and we’ve realized that we grew up in a really messed up family.  So we are all angry at our parents.”

How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.

Nineteen,” he answered.

Well, there is still plenty of time to go to school and there are lots of creative ways to pay your way through school,” I offered.

Yeah, well, there is something more.”  Stephen grew solemn again as he gathered his thoughts.  “I did something really awful to someone,” he finally said.

What was it that you did?  Did you physically hurt someone?  Did you steal from them?  What was so awful?” I asked.

It was nothing illegal.  But it was something really bad.  I had this friend that I worked with and did something really bad to him.  You see, he was the manager of the store and we got to be really good friends.  We did a lot of stuff together outside of work.  I thought we were having a great time but then he started to grow really distant.  Pretty soon he didn’t want to spend any time with me.  He was pretty much the only friend I had…have had.”

Stephen fell silent for a moment and I could see tears in his eyes.I don’t know what I did to make him angry.  But he would not talk to me or anything.  I would call and he would not answer.  I left messages but he never called back.  So, I thought the only way to get his attention was to make him think that I was dead.  So, I had my sister call him and tell him that I had committed suicide because I was so sad.

Stephen looked at me to see if I would react to this news. I calmly replied, “Go on.  What happened next?

Well, my friend became really upset because he thought that he had caused me to kill myself.  Then, when I finally let him know that I was really alive and had not killed myself, he grew even more angry.  Now, it’s worse than our relationship was before and now I’m thinking that it would have been better to actually have done it.  I’ve screwed up my life.”

 

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I let a moment go by before responding.Stephen, when we began I asked you if you had experienced any losses in your life.  At that time you told me that you did not think so.  However, listening to your story, I am hearing you tell me of three very great significant losses in your life.  All of these have happened very recently:  First, you are grieving the loss of your family and the relationship you thought you had or wish you had with your parents.  Second, you are grieving the loss of a dream; a dream to go to school.  Third, you are grieving the death of a relationship with a very close friend.  Stephen, that is a great amount of loss for anyone to have to deal with in their life let alone someone as young as you.  It is no wonder to me, then, that you feel life is pointless, hopeless and purposeless.  Do you understand what I am saying and do you think what I am saying is hitting home?

Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.

You are only 19 years old.  I’m 49.  I can tell you that there is a lot of life yet ahead of you.  Life is rough and tough.  No one comes out unbroken.  In fact, the reason why I am in a faith community is because I believe that broken lives can be mended and put back together again with God’s help.  I believe Jesus not only shows us the way but also provides the way to become whole again.  Our whole church is full of broken people.  We are all at different places along the road to recovery.  You cannot get through life without experiencing brokenness.  That is what you are experiencing.”

Stephen, I cannot offer you any quick-fix formulas, but I can tell you that you are just beginning to write your own life story.  I believe that God wants to be a part of writing the stories of our lives.  I don’t think your story is over yet.  It seems hard now, but this is not the end of the story.  It might be one of your darkest chapters, but it is not the final chapter.  I want to encourage you to consider allowing God to be a part of your life so that he can help put the broken pieces your life back together.  He has a different story to write than the one you may be thinking of right now.”

What do you think about what I’ve said so far?”  I wanted to offer Stephen a chance to respond.

People have been telling me that maybe I need to consider religion,” Stephen began.  “Some of my friends say that it would help me a lot.”

Well, if you mean by ‘religion’ a formulaic way of living your life within religious ritual, then I cannot help you there.  Personally, I have not found that satisfying.  However, I like to talk less in terms of the word religion and more about relationship.  It is all about having a relationship with God that heals the division and distance between us and God, us and others, and even us and our own selves.

I wanted to draw some kind of story or parallel that might capture his attention. It was at this point that my love for Greek invaded my consciousness.

Personally, I think that without God, life is like a Greek tragedy play by Euripides.  Humankind stands no chance against the chaos of life and capriciousness of its gods.  We are all doomed.  This would make life seem pointless.  How can we ever win?  Why keep going?  We are no better than Sisyphus trying to endlessly push the bolder up the mountain only to have it come crashing down on us again.  Is our only meaning to be found in the eternal struggle?  Is that all that is left of life is to get up again and start pushing the bolder back up the mountain?  I don’t think so.  I think that there is a better way.  For me, I have found it in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in community with other believers who are on the same journey.  We are all at different places on that journey, but we all see with hope the opportunity to be healed and made whole again.”

I knew that I had just unloaded a lot, so I wanted to take a moment to see if Stephen was tracking with me or if I had just lost him with all the Greek history and mythology.

What do you think about what I’ve said?” I offered.

You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” he replied.  “I need to take some time to consider it.  I appreciate your time and don’t want to keep you any longer.  You have really helped me.”

I’m glad that I was able to help,” I returned.  “I really want to encourage you to consider taking Bill up on his offer for dinner.  I think you’ll have a great opportunity to meet some new friends there.  Also, we have a counseling center here and I would also encourage you to seek further counseling and help with a professional.  Would you like me to help you with that?

Stephen smiled a weak smile, “No.  I’ll be alright.  I just needed someone to talk to and this really helped.  By the way, do you always teach Greek when you counsel people?

I chuckled, “No.  I’m sorry.  I have an odd education background and love pretty much all things Greek.  I got really caught up into it when I was in collegeI don’t usually try to bore people with Greek history or philosophy.”

That OK,” Stephen replied.  “You see, that is my favorite subject and it is the direction I wanted to go into for college and then graduate studies.  My dream is to one day teach Greek history and philosophy.  So, I loved your reference to Euripides and Sisyphus.  I’ve not heard many people refer to them before in a conversation.”

I was surprised.You know.  I don’t think you’re meeting me today and, out of all the people here at the church that you could have talked to you, that you talked with me was by accident.  You see, if God is actively writing my story, which I believe He is, then part of my story for today was a divine appointment with a young man named, Stephen.  Can I pray with you before you leave?

Sure.  I would like that,” Stephen replied.

The room seemed a little lighter when Stephen left. To be sure, his troubles had not vanished and there was still a rough course in front of him.  I think about him and pray for him each day since our encounter.  Stephen reminds me that our world is full of people who live completely or partially broken lives.  We are all in need of repair and renewal.  At the same time, even people on their own journey toward wholeness can be used to point out the path to healing for others who are searching.  And they may even engage Euripides to help do it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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So, I have another birthday coming up. This yearly event stopped meaning anything special to me years ago – somewhere after 40.  This birthday will mark my last year in the decade of the 40’s.  Next year I hit the big 5-0; that will be a much bigger deal to me.  There’s just something inauspicious about hitting and moving beyond 50.  Of course, those who have moved way beyond that mile-marker will tell me otherwise.

Believe it or not, the biggest decade markers that were downers for me were the younger ones. Turning twenty was traumatic.  Somehow, in my mind, it meant leaving “youth” and entering into “age.”  Not old-age per se, just an age where the responsibility stakes went up ten-fold in my mind.  It was, in my thinking, leaving the care-free stage of life and entering the care-burdened age.

This is one reason why I always warn my children not to worry about growing up so fast and “getting out on their own.” So far, none of them have listened to me.  I suppose it is the optimism of youth that helps us to launch into our independence.  Of course, complete and total ignorance of what really lays ahead helps too.

The other decade marker that was a downer was thirty. I was depressed for a week.  This seemed to mark me as the entrance into “old.”  All youth is gone and spent, now all that was left was aging and more burdened responsibilities.  In retrospect, however, I do have to say that my thirties were quite fun and fulfilling.  I had some real rough years closing out the decade, but for the most part they were enjoyable times.

Turning forty did not faze me all that much, for some odd-ball reason. I had some friends who made the event a lot of fun (at my expense, of course).  At the same time, there was a positive stride into the decade of the 40’s with a certain sense of maturity, wisdom and life-experience.  These have been good years with lots of good experiences.  It has held enough life adventures to keep it interesting.  So far, I think I am well on my way to fulfilling my life’s mission of “finishing strong and finishing laughing.”

This life goal or mission helps me to focus on what is important: finishing strong in my relationships with God and my family and friends and to do it all with great joy and no regrets. It is that last point that is the sticky one.  It is truly hard to finish life without any regrets so that one can end life with great joy – laughing.  Perhaps approaching the age of fifty has made me more retrospect than ever (as if I could be any more retrospect…I’m wired to be an internalizer, meditator and processor).  I had a friend tell me one time, “Boy, Ron.  The stream of thought sure runs slow through you.  But I have to say, it does run deep!”  We still laugh over that observation as there have been many funny applications to it over the years.

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

I have been witness to many people who, at the end of their life because of disease or death, spend a few moments replaying their regrets.  There seems to be a need to attempt to correct any mistakes before one leaves this life.  Sometimes, this is not always possible.  According to Bronnie Ware, an Ezinearticles.com contributor and palliative care worker, when questioned about any regrets, the dying had five common themes that surfaced again and again:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These all strike me as having to do with my life goal to “finish strong and finish laughing.” A life well-lived and full of joy up to the end of it strikes me as something the Creator would take great pleasure in as He witnessed our leaving this world and entering the new creation He has awaiting for us.  Each of these five things recalled by Bronnie Ware reminds me that life is full of risks that present opportunities and pitfalls.  One cannot live life sheltered in hopes of coming through with no scrapes or bruises.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a message on risk-taking. It was inspiring as well as challenging.  What would we be doing differently right now or attempting to do if we knew that we could not fail?  There lies the stuff of dreams and visions.  In the message a quote was shared:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!”

What a daring statement! Like me when I heard it, you are probably wondering what brave soul, perhaps famous, made such a declaration.  Our speaker pointed out some of the risk action ideas in this quote: danger, exposure, adventure or nothing!  The quote is from Helen Keller.  What a statement from a deaf, mute and blind hero for whom getting out of bed everyday was an adventure and a risk!  The speaker pointed out that, willing to do so, she changed her world as an author, activist and even lecturer!  Suddenly, I find myself in short comparison to someone born with so many “handicaps.”  Certainly, I in accompaniment with my full faculties have a long ways to go to catch up with her.

I suppose that there is no way to completely avoid end-of-life regrets. Clarity of vision seems to be the privilege of only those at the terminus of their life’s journey.  We could all stand to learn more from them.  The words of Jesus could also help to prod us: “Playing it safe and guarding your self will not help you in the end.  Only risk-taking and self-sacrifice will help you discover who you were made to be and the reward that will await you at life’s end” (my own paraphrase of Luke 9:14).

So, to “finish strong and finish laughing” is going to require more work on my part it seems. Every day as well as every decade will be an adventure.  It reminds me of Frodo‘s recollection to Samwise of Bilbo‘s wise words in The Lord of the Rings: “Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to‘.”  Who knows what’s around the corner of 50 – or 60 or 70 for that matter.  Might as well finish them strong and laughing with no regrets.  If anything, it will leave the devil frustrated over me and my friends wondering.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Restructuring Discipleship

I am a bibliophile.  I’ll freely admit it.  I am a reader and collector of books.  My wife, Kelly, would say too many books.  Alright, I probably have a couple thousand too many.  However, each one is special to me.  I have a connection with each one.  That is why when I went to “weed-out” my library a couple years ago I could only part with a box full of books out of my whole library.  And some of those in that box were painful to part with as I donated them to the local library for their book sale.

Out of all of the books I have read over the years, while I have received enjoyment and learned a great many things from them, only a handful of them have truly been life changing and transforming.  Those special books along with their authors still provoke my thinking and reflection to this day – no matter how long ago I read them.  Some of those authors include Richard Foster, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Phillip Yancey, Leslie Newbigin, Thomas Merton, Detrich Bonhoeffer, and few others.

One recent book I have read that is having a lasting impact is “The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives” by Peter Scazzero with Warren Bird and Foreword by Leighton Ford (Zondervan, 2003).  The whole premise of the book is to propose a restructuring of the way discipleship is done in the local church.  It takes you on a spiritual journey with pastor Scazzero as he discovers what was missing in his own spiritual formation and how he led his church into what he discovered every Christian needs to grow and mature.

While the book is written for Christian leaders, most specifically pastors, it addresses issues that affect everyone in the local congregation.  The church that I attend, Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington, just went through it church-wide in its small groups.  Many people benefited from the study and found some of the truths discussed in the book transforming.  The issues discussed throughout the book are universal and apply to every walk of life so that they could be applied in the corporate world or individual lives who are looking to grow and mature as persons beyond where they are presently.

The emotional part of our humanness is rarely dealt with in our society.  Most of us were taught to “stuff it” and hide our emotions.  Peter Scazzero points out how this has had an ill affect upon all of us and especially upon spiritual formation with the church.  The tendency is to think that if we are having troubles that what we need to do is apply the right doctrine or spiritual truth; or put more effort into a spiritual disciple like prayer, fasting, worship, prayer in the Spirit or Bible reading; or search our hearts and souls for hidden sins and unforgiveness; or look intently in the Bible for a Scriptural promise that will give us hope.  While all of these are good things they are not always the answer.  There may be deeper issues that we need to address.

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The author then takes his readers on a journey of considering the hidden emotional components of our lives that may be interfering with our growth as spiritual and emotional beings.  He suggests five steps that he devotes a chapter to each.  They are, briefly,

  1. Look Beneath the Surface.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches take the time to look inside their hearts and ask, “What is going on that Jesus Christ is trying to change?”  The author uses the picture of an iceberg to portray how a person’s life show’s very little of what is really going on upon the surface.  The vast majority of who we are lies deep beneath the surface.  So, the first step is to invite God to bring an awareness of what those “beneath-the surface” issues are and transform them so that we will become more like Jesus.
  2. Break the Power of the Past.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches recognize how their past – individually and collectively – affects their present ability to love Christ and love others.  There are complex ties to the past and the present.  All of these pull at us and shape us.  For instance, the family we grew up in is our primary and most powerful system that shapes and influences us – for good or for bad.  Recognizing what those and who those are and dealing with them so their negative power over us is broken is important to moving on and growing up.
  3. Live in Brokenness and Vulnerability.  Contrary to our societal model that teaches us to “lead from your strengths,” Peter Scazzero asserts that the Jesus model is to live and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability.  Emotionally healthy people and churches understand that leadership in the Kingdom of God is from the bottom up – a place of service.  It is the ability to lead out of failure and pain, question and struggles, and letting go of the need to control that empowers individuals and churches to grow and mature.  By far, I found this chapter the most challenging and, at the same time, the most freeing.
  4. Receive the Gift of Limits.  This truth directly coincides with the previous one.  Emotionally healthy individuals and their churches accept the limits God has given them.  Whatever and however many talents they have been given by God – one, two, five, or ten – they joyfully accept them.  This sets them free from the frenzy of a covetous life of trying to be like someone else or another church.  Such individuals and churches are marked by a contentment and joy about how God has made them and purposes to use them in his Kingdom.
  5. Embrace Grieving and Loss.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches embrace grief as part of the journey to become more like Jesus.  There is an important discipleship component in learning to grieve our losses – dreams, relationship, tragedy, death – because it is the only path to becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Covering over our losses only disfigures us and stunts our growth toward becoming whole and healthy individuals.  It shapes all of our future relationships and the way we lead others.  We are often too quick to try and ease the pain when God is attempting to use it to shape our souls.
  6. Make Incarnation Your Model for Loving Well.  This simply means intentionally following the lifestyle of Jesus.  Peter Scazzero asserts that there are three dynamics to Jesus’ model for us: entering another’s world, holding on to your self, and hanging between two worlds.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches will learn how to fold all three of these dynamics into their lives.  God changes us as we engage others and learn through them.  This keeps our feet in the real world spiritually.

As with all life-transforming books, when I put them down I always ask, “Where was this 20 years ago?” I could have used this book a long time ago!  I look back over the years and see how I have frustrated my own growth as a person – spiritually and emotionally.  I am thankful for it now.  Although I finished reading it some months back, I find myself constantly going back to it and “chewing” on some of the points that have really impacted me.

Like many formational books of its kind, it rubs against the contemporary approach to success and wealth and health.  I doubt that you will hear Oprah Winfrey or Doctor Phil using this book in any of their approaches to life.  Nevertheless, there are life-changing truths that can shape our lives and spiritual journeys from here until the end.  It will affect not only us but our world.  As Richard Foster notes, “…the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Celebration of Discipline).  True that.  And so perhaps it is time some of us consider restructuring how we do spiritual formation.  I know I am in.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healing Haiti

Another catastrophic disaster hits a part of our world.  It is something that we never get used to witnessing via newspapers, news magazines, television news cycles, or internet pictures and videos.  The suffering is overwhelming.  The feeling of uselessness from our living room chairs suffocating.  Some of us pray.  Some of us give to our charities of choice hoping that our dollar will go where it is needed most.  All of us wonder, why?

There is a human propensity to try and make sense of our world; especially when struck with natural disasters.  In some ways, we deal better with blatant human evil that reeks suffering and destruction.  The “why” is answered for us.  We see the results of twisted evil human nature every day.  We recognize evil in one another.  When it spills over into our lives, we at least have some semblance of a reason for our suffering; there are mean, evil, wicked people in the world that cause pain and suffering.  However, what reason do we have when it is impersonal “Mother Nature”?

Natural disasters catch us in a web of meaninglessness like Victor Hugo’s fly in the spider web of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There is no one to blame.  It is just how nature works.  It is “the circle of life” at work in our world.  Death and birth continue on in an unfeeling, meaningless cycle.  There is no rhyme or reason.  Whether tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, disease or cancer, nature takes its course in all our lives.  Even if we live our lives without succumbing to disease or accident, we will end our days in a “natural” death.  We are the products of natural courses at work in the world.  We are also subject to the work of natural courses in our world.

In our modern, scientific age we like to arrogantly think that we can control or predict nature.  And, while our ability at prediction has gotten better, we are constantly and painfully reminded that nature is full of surprises for us.  We are far from reaching the limits of human knowledge.  We are constantly discovering what we do not know.  After all, that is part of the mystery of human science and discovery:  We do not know what we do not know!

Nevertheless, there are still those who like to attempt to negate the mystery of creation by offering a “cause and effect” answer for every event.  The recent example of Pat Robertson’s explanation for the disaster in Haiti is a great (or perhaps, better, tragic) example of this pernicious human trait.  He claims the mythical legend of Haitians making a pact with the devil to be free from French rule is the cause of Haiti’s troubled history as well as present disaster.  Not surprisingly, his comments have created an uproar.  Unfortunately, he has had a history of “foot in the mouth” disease.  His reason for the tragedy of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and New Orleans destruction from Hurricane Katrina’s?  American abortions.

All such attempts at explain or come up with a “cause” for disasters in the world will always be controversial.  It may very well be an effort in futility as well.  When biblical Job suffered the loss of everything through one disaster after another, his well-meaning friends attempted to come up with a reason or cause.  It was the very same one that Pat Robertson uses.  It is the result of sin.  While personal sin has its consequences, it is not always the case.  In fact, God brags about Job’s righteousness.  In the end, Job’s friends get a rebuke from the Creator for their lame attempt to explain what God was trying to do in the world and in Job’s life.

While Job’s friends wanted to find some personal sin for the cause of Job’s sufferings, Job wanted to blame God.  He assumed that he deserved God’s total and complete protection from every trouble.  He attempts an in-your-face chest bump with God.  God puts Job in his place simply by pointing out that the Creator does not need the advice of his creation on how the universe should run.  The courses of nature were established by God without Job and his “wisdom”.  In the face of God’s creation and grandeur, Job does the wise thing.  He shuts up.  Oh, that our modern day commentators and wisemen of God’s ways would do the same thing!

In Jesus’ day, there were two tragedies that captured the attention and heart of the country.  First, apparently, an evil ruler brutalized and massacred some people in Galilee (Luke 13:1 – 5).  Second, a tower in Siloam fell down and killed some people in a tragic accident.  One was a tragedy by human evil.  The other was a tragedy of meaningless accident.  Jesus exposed the futile human attempt to explain these events by blaming human sinful conditions by asking, “Do you think they [the ones who suffered and died in these events] were sinners more than anyone else?”  Jesus’ answer is in the emphatic.  “Absolutely not!”

Jesus offers us no explanation for these disasters.  He seems to be content to let the mystery of the “why” to rest upon his listeners and us.  Instead, he does offer a universal explanation for humans everywhere and in every age.  “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Huh?  At first his answer – or explanation – comes across very cryptic.

Jesus does offer us a parable.  He tells of an owner of a fig tree who finds it not bearing fruit.  He wishes to cut it down but at the intervention of his arborist decides to give it another chance.  This story, like a laser beam, is aimed at Israel.  However, it speaks to us all too.  God delights in showing mercy.  He is not put off by “giving more time” to those who are due judgment.  Jesus’ point to his listeners is that we are all due judgment!  Therefore, we all had better discern our spiritual condition and turn to God.  Jesus uses the tragic stories of his day to point out that the sudden demise of these people should remind us all of our frail condition and existence.  It should remind us all to look to our own spiritual conditions instead of looking to point fingers and blame such events on someone’s sin.

Red and White Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Fire and Ice Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Haiti’s suffering should be a reminder for us all.  We all have our own “pact with the devil”.  If Haiti’s suffering is the result of such a pact then we are all under the same judgment and deserve the same, no less.  Likewise, we are all at the mercy of the natural forces at work in God’s creation – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, disease and cancer.  These strike the righteous and the unrighteous.  There were many believers in Jesus who died in the earthquake and many who continue to suffer today.  Are we more righteous than they because we were not there and did not experience it?  I think not.

Instead of wondering why, it is perhaps more constructive to take a personal spiritual inventory and ask ourselves, “If something like that were to befall upon me today, am I spiritually ready to go into eternity and meet God?”  This would help us far more than sitting in the seat of self-righteousness and pronouncing judgment upon the sin in the lives of others.  It only makes us as useless as Job’s comforters and deserving of similar rebukes from God and the suffering Jobs.

Instead of looking for a cause for such suffering, it is perhaps more constructive to approach these situations with the same attitude that Jesus did on similar occasions.  When faced with overwhelming human suffering around him, Jesus did not attempt to explain the reason for human suffering.  He, instead, looked for ways in which God could be glorified in such circumstances.  This was the case of a man blind from birth (John 9:1 – 5).  The disciples, so like us today, wanted to know the cause or reason for this person’s suffering.  “Rabbi.  Who sinned?  This man or his parents so that he was born blind?”  Jesus’ astonishing answer is that it was not because of sin.  Instead, “This happened so that the work of God could be displayed in his life…we must do the work of him who sent me.”  Could it be the same with Haiti?

Perhaps the best response to Haiti is not looking for reasons or causes.  Perhaps the best response is, instead, to ask, “How can we do the work of God in this situation?”  On this side of eternity, we might not know all the answers and reasons.  However, we do know that God has a work he wants to do.  Perhaps the best response to such tragedies is to seek to do God’s work of healing and restoration.  In the end, God is not going to quiz us with, “Did you come up with a plausible explanation of why this happened to them?”  Instead, he’s going to want to know, “How did you do my work in the midst of such sufferingDid you bring healing to Haiti?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Celebrating Freedom

A pastor went for a walk and came upon a group of about a dozen young boys between 10 and 12 years of age.  The group surrounded a dog.  Concerned that the boys were tormenting the dog, he went over and asked, “What are you doing with the dog?”  One of the boys replied, “This dog is just an old stray.  We all want him, but only one of us can take him home.  So, we’ve decided that whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie will get to keep the dog.”

Of course, the Reverend was taken aback.  “You boys shouldn’t be having a contest telling lies!” he exclaimed.  He then launched into a ten-minute sermon against lying ending with, “Why, when I was your age, I never told a lie!”  Well, there was dead silence for about a minute.  Then, just as the pastor was beginning to think he’d gotten through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and said, “All right, give him the dog.”

Sin is a part of all of us – even the best of us.  No one is immune to its effects.  We cannot escape its history in our past or its threat to our futures.  However, God set in motion a plan to set prisoners to sin free from its entanglements and death sentence.  This is a plan for everyone, no matter the depth or shallowness of sin in which one is caught.  The plan was completed through Christ’s death on the cross and victory over death and the grave in his resurrection.

Jesus came to set the prisoner to sin’s addictions and bondages free.  Freedom starts when we begin to acknowledge the truth and live by it:  “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32, NIV).  The truth he calls us to hold to is God’s plan to rescue humankind from their sin condition through his death and resurrection.  This truth sets us free not only from sin but also from its effects – guilt, condemnation, shame, disgrace, blame, and remorse among many others.

Pink Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Pink Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There is only one answer for freedom from sin’s hold upon a human being and that is in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Our world tries to sell us on self-improvement, self-actualization, self-control, and self-realization.  We have been too often duped into thinking that the world and its guru’s have the answer.  But listen to what the psalmist tries to tell us:  “Don’t put your life in the hands of experts who know nothing about life, of salvation life.  Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them.  Instead, get help from the God of Jacob, put your hope in GOD and know real blessing!”  (Psalm 146, The Message)

Everything we need to be victorious in this life is provided for us in what Jesus did on the cross and in His resurrection.  There is nothing more that we need, and nothing we need to do, but to freely accept it and apply it to our lives by following the way of Jesus everyday.  That is why Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be [completely] free indeed” (John 8:36, NIV).

The true Christian lifestyle celebrates the freedom we have in Christ from our sinful past and sin’s threat to our future.  We can live everyday free from sin’s domination and damnation.  How?  Paul said, “Count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus . . . offer yourselves to God . . . as instruments of righteousness” (Ro. 6:11, 13, NIV).  “Now that you have been set free from sin [by Christ’s death upon the cross and resurrection from the grave] and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:22, 23, NIV).

Whatever moral failure is in your past, the devil will keep throwing it in your face.  However, God saw everything you did.  He wants you to know that he loves you in spite of your actions and that he will forgive you if you will only ask him.  There is no sin too great that disqualifies you from this offer.  There is no sin too small that is disqualified from the need of his forgiving and cleansing act through Jesus Christ.

A confessed sin is a forgiven sin.  You can be free from the awful bondage of repeating your past, fearing your future or even death!  Live everyday to celebrate the freedom that Christ bought for you with his own life.  Live a life that worships God and praises him for freedom from sin’s captivity.  Be free.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Reflections on Quilcene Bay, Washington

Reflections on Quilcene Bay, Washington ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

We are made
if not by accident
then by intention.

We are made
if not be the moment
then by aspiration.

We are made
if not by incidents
then by reaction.

We are made
if not by environments
then by inclinations.

We are made
if not by God’s hand
then by our hand
or by fate’s hand
we are made.

We are made
by the potter
by the wheel
by the furnace
or our own zeal.

We are made
then
one day
unmade.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Glowing Leaves, Fall 2009

Glowing Leaves, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I have often wondered where our breath goes
after it leaves us.
We exhale a vaporous cloud into the atmosphere
and then what?

I imagine billions of beings breathing in, then out
in unison like one great lung.
Creation’s atmospheric breast swell’s with life, then
exhales the carbon-dioxide poison.
Where does it all go?

Breathing in, breathing out like a great big accordion
with no sound played.
Life giving, life taking is sucked in then out
in each breath we take
from the atmosphere around us.

Perhaps like pouring a bucket of water into the ocean
our breaths are only absorbed into
the great, impersonal atmosphere all around and about us
neither adding nor subtracting from its substance.

I much rather hope that breath is added to breath
to make up an ethereal choir
the cacophony heard singing the vitality of living beings
like whispers in the tops of pine trees .

All our years of breathing in fresh atmosphere and
exchanging it for used up gas.
Do we leave more behind than we take in
our lifetime or are our breaths measured out carefully
in finite supply.

When that last breath is taken then released
emptying the lungs one final time
the wind and spirit no longer return because
they are forever released to freely float, mingle, and wander among the
atmosphere, winds, and clouds.
One breath joined with all breathing.

Perhaps one day my spirit will float upon the breath
of creation, carried along by its winds to places
I have not yet been.
Released from the hardened form of my body and mind,
my spirit, like my breath upon the wind, then
may blow wherever it wills.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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