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I meet regularly with a number of friends involved in some sort of ministry. Some of them are in full-time ministry and some in volunteer places. Everyone of them have a passion to winsomely bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their spiritual journey.

One of the challenges is that what reached people a few years ago does not touch them today. Our culture has quickly changed and continues rapidly changing, much of it fueled and fed by technology. Technology has shaped how we receive and process information. While much of the church still depends upon a “talking head” at the front of the auditorium, much of the world has moved on to multi-media entertainment centers.

Mount Adams, Washington State, Fall 2012Influence and information does not just come through technological sources, however. Now, it is taken in through personal encounters in one’s “tribal” or affinity group. The breakdown of the family structures and the displacement of family members across distances has caused people to seek out social groups with  which they identify. These play a huge part in filtering information and what is accepted as “truth” among its members. It begins as young as teenagers when they divide into Goths, Emos, Nerds, Jocks, Barbies, Preppies, Punkers, Rockers, Stoners, and Gamers. The list goes on to reflect neighborhoods, ethnic groups and social statuses.

The technolization and tribalization of our culture has created a fractured environment to share the Bible’s message of hope and redemption. This is the “new reality” that American churches face. The question is whether they will be able to quickly adapt to the changing environment or continue to perform old practices that reached bygone eras.

There is a danger in not fighting against the nostalgia of the “good old days.” It is that we miss what opportunities are given to us right now. We can celebrate the past, even grieve its passing, but we cannot be stuck in it if we hope to maintain any missional edge that keeps us relevant and able to relate to the culture we live in today. So, what does this mean – this “new reality” – for American churches?

First, it means we need to rethink our priorities. What is our “kingdom priority”? Is it to preserve our furniture? Is it to maintain our liturgical practices? Is it to shore up programs and ministries? Or, is it to carry a message to spiritually lost people and develop within them hearts and minds that seek after Christ and his kingdom?

As I have talked this dilemma over with ministry friends, one thing has become clear to all of us. The mission is the message of Christ and his lordship or rule. Church history shows us that methods have constantly changed over the centuries. The only difference now is that these  are needing to take place at a faster pace than ever before.

Mount Hood, Oregon, Fall 2012For instance, take the structure of church buildings. The church began with no properties – meeting in the homes of believers and seekers. Finally, when buildings were able to be constructed, they were gathering places for many “home churches.” Finally, these buildings became larger Cathedrals and the focus of the faith community.

Initially, the focus of the building’s interior was “The Lord’s Table“. Any pulpit or podium was to the side, not center stage. Sometimes it was intentionally placed high so that the preacher seemed to be ascending Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s Word to the people once more. Everything centered around the Eucharist.

When the Reformation arrived, it invited new models for church buildings. Some had art, some didn’t and some boasted fancy architecture and some simple. The Word of God became central and slowly the pulpit moved to center stage. The Communion Table remained either in front or behind the pulpit depending upon the prominence a church might give to it (Was there real substance in the food or only symbolism?). As scholasticism played a larger role in Christian education, teaching in preaching became more pronounced. The speaker/preacher/teacher became more important.

With the arrival of Evangelicalism and the Revival movements of the 19th century, churches took on the role of being auditoriums – places to hear a speaker. With the ever increasing role of music in the church, choir lofts, organ machines and pipes all played a role in shaping church buildings and affected how the Gospel message was communicated.

Now, today, in most Evangelical churches, the pulpit has given way to a lectern, music stand, or no prop at all. The worship band instruments are as prominently displayed as the pulpit or Lord’s Table once was a few decades ago. Clergy wigs, clerical collars, robes and suits and ties have given way to button-up shirts and slacks or T-shirts and jeans.

Change. The church has faced it for centuries. How the church today faces the changing reality of its culture will determine how effective it will remain. Sadly, like many church movements in the past, there may be a few today that will need to pass from the scene and become a memory of church history. Many individual churches and denominations will not be able to make the transition toward effectiveness in reaching today’s and tomorrow’s culture.

So, the question every minister, ministry and church organization must carefully assess is what is the main priority? What is “mission critical”? Something that is “mission critical” is absolutely necessary for the success of the mission. Without it the mission would fail. (This is assuming, of course, the centrality of Christ and a deep dependence upon the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.)

I don’t think there is one easy answer to that question. I strongly believe it will depend upon each congregation and each church leader to answer it depending upon their sense of God-given purpose and ministry context.

  • Where are they placed in their community?
  • Who has God given them to reach?
  • What resources has the Lord supplied them to accomplish it?
  • What “gifts and talents” are in its core leadership?

Finally, it means we will also need to re-examine our message delivery system. The message cannot change. Across every culture and every human age, the Gospel remains relevant and unchangeable. However, how it is communicated can change and must.

The new reality in our American churches is that we are facing an ever-increasing biblically illiterate audience despite the preponderance of biblical, theological and spiritual devotional resources available in our society. Many identify this as one of the signs that America has entered a “post-Christian” cultural phase. That may be true. However, that does not give us permission to throw-up our hands in defeat.

I believe that our culture is reverting to a story telling culture. Listeners are less linear in their thinking and how they relate to information. So, handing out and delivering an outline will not effectively reach them. However, story telling will communicate to them. This is a great advantage to the church since our source material, the Bible, is full of stories. Our lead-teacher, Jesus, used story to communicate important kingdom truths.

The danger becomes when our story telling only concludes with moralisms and pop-psychology. Too many of our White Mountain Flowers Flowing Down Rockspulpits and churches have already reverted to this diluted version of the Gospel. The Bible’s stories were given to us for more than to just teach us moral tales or to help us become better humans through positive living and thinking. They are pictures of the cosmic clash between divine righteous wisdom and human moral depravity.

The question remains, how do we most effectively tell this story of human failure and loving divine redemption? I believe that long educational sermons full to pretentious vocabulary is not going to cut it. We are going to need to simplify it – shoot for a 5th or 6th grade vocabulary. When it is necessary to use “big theological words”, then carefully define them. Scholasticism is out. Tribal narratives are the way in. Engage the individuals in the group as well as the whole group in telling the story of God’s glory.

I also believe that we have to begin our message delivery system with the assumption that people do not know anything about the Bible, its stories or is truths for living in God’s world God’s way. At least, whatever they have heard  up to this time is false and misleading. From that starting point, we can begin to shape our message to shape the hearts and minds of our audience.

The delivery system will need to have much more variety. A lone “talking head” delivering information will not capture the attention or the heart of today’s seekers. Contemporary audiences are used to sound bites, short episodic delivery,  and a chance to interact. This changes completely how we view our audience and our message.

Without changing our message, it will require harder work to include a variety of methods to deliver it. This could be everything from video clips, to personal stories, personal response times, discussion time, Q & A’s, as well as team speaker/teachers/preachers. What may seem like a chaotic and disjointed delivery system will make much more sense and have much more meaning to today’s audience.

The new reality in American churches offers an opportunity for the church to stretch out of its old wineskins and see what God is doing in his world and how he is at work. None of this has caught him by surprise. He is not overcome with questions and doubts about the future. He already saw this moment in time and had a “new wineskin” strategy for it. It is our job to discover it, embrace it and go with it.

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone   March, 12 2012

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I consider myself somewhat of a manly man. I like to do physical things.  Admittedly, I am not the best at fixing things.  But give me a chance to hike, fish and hunt, and I am right there.  I have gutted my fair share of fish and deer and various birds and smaller game.  Like most outdoors men, I have had a chance to push the limits of my own endurance and then take pride in retelling the experience.

There is, however, one thing that cowers me into a namby-pamby girly-man. It is the site of my own flesh-and-blood’s flesh and blood.  The experience of being at the birth of my two sons was not inspiration for me.  It was traumatic.  The birthing instructor was a bold-faced liar when she cheerily told my wife and me, “Blood?  No!  There’s almost no blood involved in child birth.”  Yeah, right.  My wife screaming in pain and the sight of blood sent me into a shock that rendered me mute and useless to my poor wife.  Good thing her best friend was there.  She took over.

When our two daughters were born at home with a mid-wife, it was mutually decided that my wife would be better off with close friends and family at her side than her husband. And so it came to pass.  I do not think I missed anything by not being there to “play catcher”.  I enjoyed my newborn daughters shortly after their loudly proclaimed and bloody arrival.  They were handed to me clean and pretty as all newly born little girls should arrive into the world, not wrinkly and bloody like my two boys arrived (which, come to think of it, may be a proper portent of things to come).

Our oldest daughter arrived into the world with a sweet tooth. As soon as she learned to totter on her own two feet, she could easily be called to one’s side with the sound of unwrapping candy and gum.  Her acute hearing for such sounds was a marvel to everyone.  At the sound of any wrapper crinkling, she would come running.

Unfortunately, for the grandmotherly types in our little church at the time, her cuteness and irresistible personality caused them all to disgorge their purses of any gum or candy they had available every Sunday. So, my daughter would return home from church each Sunday looking like she had just gone trick-or-treating on Halloween.  For her, every Sunday was Halloween.  Church was not a place to find God as much as it was a place to find candy.  After she went to bed at night, we would find candy and gum wrappers under her bed and pillow as well as leftover uneaten pieces tightly gripped in her tiny fists as she slept.

This, sadly, did her no favors as she developed really bad cavities in her baby teeth by the time she was three. Several were serious enough to threaten the budding permanent teeth behind them.  Thus, we were advised by our regular dentist to take her to see a pediatric dentist to have the cavities taken care of as soon as possible.  We made an appointment with one in Gig Harbor, Washington.

I was still a young father then and had not yet learned my physical and psychological limits to familial pain and blood-letting. So, I offered to take my daughter to the dentist.  I figured it would be a good father-daughter bonding time as we had an hour-and-a-half drive to the dentist and back again.  I loaded her into our little red Subaru wagon and off we went.

After a long drive of noticing the passing scenery, singing to the “oldies but goodies” on the radio and chattering away upon childhood topics, we arrived at a beautiful brand new building. The pediatric dentist’s office was located on the second floor of the building, which had a large, airy open atrium with a glass ceiling and tiled floor with a coffee barista right in the middle of it.  As we walked into the main doors, the smell of fresh coffee hung in the air along with the sound of an espresso machine working overtime to satisfy the thirsty and drowsy morning customers.

I decided against the elevator, so we walked up the double stair-flight to the second floor. Soon, we were standing in front of the dentist’s office door.  I looked down at my daughter with her blonde golden curls and bright blue eyes.  She looked up at me and smiled her big, wide toothy smile full of confidence.  I smiled back and opened the door.

The large room we entered was made for children. Bright colors, big toys, cartoon pictures on the walls and balloons decorated the room.  There were children playing and parents looking on, smiling, and talking in whispers to other parents.  Needless to say, I was impressed.  What a great place to bring your very young child to have dentistry work done.

I took my daughter’s hand and we made our way over to the registration counter. After acknowledging our names and appointment, I was handed a clip board with a cord’s worth of firewood for paperwork.  I have never liked filling out paper work.  But I found a seat with my daughter and started on the hundred’s of questions.  Every page needed the same information at the top: name, address, phone number, social security numbers, emergency contact and their numbers and the VIN number of the first car you owned.

I returned the filled-out paper work to the kind lady at the counter and took my seat to wait. It was only a few minutes before a nurse called my daughter’s name and my name.  We were escorted into a small dentist’s work room with the same childhood decor that we saw in the waiting room.  I thought to my self that it would be fun to work in such a bright and cheery place.  Such surroundings couldn’t help but bring out the innocent child in all of us.

Soon, the doctor arrived. She was a very beautiful young doctor, well dressed in a bright yellow colored pant suit that accentuated her red hair.  She looked like she was dressed to go to a professional presentation for pediatric dentists, not about to delve into the mouth of my daughter or any other child’s mouth for that matter.  Her demeanor and look reflected a person who had it all together with her prefect hair, make-up and clothes.

She smiled sweetly to my daughter, knelt before her and engaged her in a friendly conversation. Soon, she easily maneuvered my daughter up on to the dentist’s chair and was looking in her mouth.  I thought to myself, “This lady is good!

I felt myself relax and more willing to place my daughter into her care. Shortly, she turned to me and explained to me what she was going to do.  Then she invited, “Mr. Almberg, you are more than welcome to wait in the waiting room or go downstairs and get a cup of coffee.  We will be about an hour.”  I thanked her and shook her hand, turned to my daughter with a reassuring smile and kissed her on the forehead, which was returned with that big toothy smile.

Confidently, I left the room, walked through the waiting room and headed to the atrium to the coffee stand. As I made my way down the stairs to the first floor, I crowed to myself how easy all of this was going.  The warm fragrance of coffee caught my attention and I was soon focused on getting some caffeine in my favorite latte flavor.  It had already been a long day.  The appointment was made for early morning so we had been on the road since 6:30 am.

I paid for my coffee and found one of the overstuffed leather couches located near by. I selected one that was situated with the sun coming through the window upon it.  I picked up several magazines lying around on various tables and finally settled upon an old dog-eared PEOPLE magazine.  I planned on relaxing and enjoying a few moments of solitude before the long ride back home.

Only into the second page of the first article in the PEOPLE magazine, I heard a faint scream come from a far away room.  “Wow,” I thought to myself.   “That must be what the Spanish Inquisition must have sounded like.  Poor person.  I wonder where that is coming from…who that is?”  There was another scream, but this one more discernible.

Suddenly, a sick feeling came over my stomach as if my latte had been served up with sour milk. I recognized the voice in that scream.  There was no mistaking it as another scream echoed through the atrium.  It was most certainly my daughter.  I looked around at the people scattered around the room.  They all looked at one another and then it seemed as if they looked at me with an accusing stair, “How could you!!?”  I stuck my nose deeper into the magazine trying to find some anonymity.

I tried to enjoy my latte but, with every piercing cry, it was becoming more difficult.  I had given up on attempting to read any magazine articles after the first fifteen minutes went by on the clock.  Fortunately, the screams grew more and more less frequent.  However, this only tended to add to the tension.  The silence in between led to an anticipation of when the next one would come.  Just about the time that I thought it would never come after all, there would come another crying echo throughout the building’s chambers.

Pink Wild Flower, Summer 2009

Pink Wild Flower, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Finally, I could not stand the suspense any more.  I drained my now cold latte and headed up the stairs to the dentist’s office.  After a half-an-hour, I was starting to think that they perhaps needed my help.  I did not consider what that help could possibly be, but I had to find out any way.  I entered the office, only to enter another universe.

As I came through the door, the same calmness that had greeted me the first time was still there.  The room had not changed decor, children were happily playing and parents were mildly watching and chatting with one another.  “Don’t they know that my daughter is being tortured in there?” I wondered.  I went to the front desk.

Yes, I am Ron Almberg.  My daughter is being worked on right now and I am wondering if she is all right.”

The polite lady behind the counter smiled at me and said, “Let me check for you.  I’ll be right back.”  Then she disappeared around a corner.  I could imagine her going down the hall and into the little torture room that they were keeping my daughter in.  I waited impatiently for some news.

Finally, after only a few moments, she returned and said, “The doctor said that they have had some difficulty with your daughter but everything is going fine right now.  She said she should be done in about 15 or 20 minutes.”

OK,” I timidly returned.  “I’ll just wait over there.”  And pointed to a chair in the waiting room.

I took my seat. However, moving into the waiting room only made things worse for me.  Not only was the noise level louder, but one could hear the sounds of dentist tools doing their worst.  My hands grew clammy and I started to shake.

Just about the time I thought that I could not take any more, all of the noise stopped. After several more minutes passed by, the door to the way to the dungeon opened and out stepped my daughter.  Her mouth was stuffed with a few pieces of cotton, her hair mussed up, her eyes almost swollen shut from crying so hard.  Later, we discover that she had broken blood vessels in her face from screaming so hard.

I looked up at the doctor as she came through the door behind my daughter. She was the polar opposite of the picture of perfection that I had seen earlier that morning.  Her dress suit’s blouse was askew, her fair fell out in several places and the make-up on her face was worn and blotched like she had just come from someone’s funeral.  She smiled a crooked but victorious tired looking smile.

As you probably heard,” she began.  “We had some difficulty getting your daughter to settle down so that we could do the work on her.  We finally had to put her in what we call a “papoose”.  I was able to treat all the real bad cavities; however, we just were not able to get to the lesser ones.  I would recommend just monitoring them.  As long as they don’t get any worse, she will be fine until they fall out when her permanent teeth come in.”

Thank you, doctor,” I replied.

Without further comment she turned and disappeared behind the door.  “She looks terrible,” I thought.  “I wonder if she’ll take the rest of the day off.

I picked up my daughter with her swollen and Novicained face. We returned to the car for a long ride home.  I had planned on stopping in Silverdale for a treat, but she immediately fell asleep in the car and did not awake until we got home.  Then I laid down and slept the rest of the day.

The next Sunday, an announcement was put in the church bulletin and made from the pulpit.  “Please do not feed the Almberg’s daughter anymore candy of any kind!  She had to have cavities filled in her baby teeth this last week.  Anyone found doing so will be excommunicated and shunned.  May the Lord have mercy upon your soul.  The Almberg’s thank you for your help.  The pediatric dentists of America thank you.”

Except for one little church grandma lady who turned to sugar-free gum, we had no more trouble with church candy coming home.  Thanks to the pediatric dentist who saved her teeth, our daughter, to this day has a wonderful toothy smile.  But you will always find a piece of gum stuck in it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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Off Task

I had another one of those disappointing conversations with someone who used to go to church. I have had many of them over 25 years of leading churches.  However, in the last few years, my conversations like this have become more frequent.  I have also found that I have run out of answers or excuses for these very personal, heart-wrenching stories.

The experiences are as widely varied as the reasons for giving up on church as organized religion. Sometimes there was true spiritual abuse that scarred the individual.  Other times there was gross mismanagement of funds or responsibilities from the leadership.  Of course, the stories of petty in-fighting and ugly behavior come up too.  All of these things have not led the individuals to give up on God or their belief in the salvific work of Christ.  No.  They just cannot bring themselves to try church again.

Granted, there are those individuals who have caused their own problems. They brought trouble to the house of worship and left in a cloud of trouble.  They reaped what they sowed and left an unfortunate mess of weeds behind for others to clean up in God’s vineyard.  I am not addressing those individuals.  I am with the Apostle Paul when it comes to these individuals: “Let them go.”  I like the Apostle John‘s attitude, “They were from among us but were really not one of us so they went out from us.”  That is as it should be, I think.

No.  I am addressing those poor souls who really gave “church” a try; even multiple times. Perhaps they had just a run of bad luck in picking churches or they had anomalous experiences in otherwise great churches.  Not every church can bat 1.000 or even .333 for that matter.  No organization of people can.  We are all prone to make mistakes and miss opportunities.

Still, my conversation with this young man left me wondering.  Are most churches just “off task”? You know what I mean.  It is the same term a teacher uses for the student who is present but not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are “off task” and therefore are not getting their work done and turned in on time.  This usually results in a lot of extra homework and heartache for the parent.

In one blog article I wrote last year, I addressed the issue of the church needing to be “On Mission” – or “on task.” If we are not “on task” – fulfilling our mission as the body of Christ on earth – then we must be “off task” – present but not doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Like a poor performing student, this not only invites potential failure but a lot of heartache as well.  Thus the stories I run into time and again.

A young family in our apartment complex had been struggling financially with this economic downturn. The husband had lost his job and could not find another.  The wife had a part-time job with very few hours that barely kept food on the table.  Soon, the bills started piling up.  Then their car was repossessed, making it that much harder to get and keep a job.  Finally, they were getting eviction notices from the apartment managers.

This young family attended the largest church in our community; a church of a couple thousand. This growing congregation had recently finished building a new multi-million dollar facility and had just launched another campaign to build a 1.5 million dollar gymnasium.  It has all the marks of outward success.

Humbly, the young man approached the church for some kind of help. He figured they had been attending a number of years, had given financially to the church to support its ministries and had been actively involved in a few of them.  When he finally was able to talk to someone about his family’s needs, he was informed that the church had no resources to help them.  He was informed that one of the reasons was because the financial rough times had also hit the church and they were doing all they could just to keep the gymnasium construction going.

He went home desperate and broken. The one place he expected to be able to receive some kind of help and encouragement was gone.  There was no follow-up visit or phone call to offer helping the family connect with community resources.  They were on their own.  Well, not exactly.

The people of the apartment complex heard about this family’s needs. Some of them, complete strangers who did not know even their apartment number, chipped in to help catch up on rent.  One of the apartment complex repairmen, the young man I alluded to at the beginning of the blog, donated one of his cars to the family.  The family at this time is not interested in going to any church.  And it may be some time before they do.  I cannot blame them.

There is also an apartment with two women living in it. It has an elderly daughter taking care of her elderly mother.  Her mother has numerous health issues and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s.  They both looked forward to visiting church on Sundays because it was the one place they thought they could go, get out of their apartment and the about the only place the mother felt safe in a growing unfamiliar environment.  However, one Sunday they were pulled aside by the pastor who asked the daughter not to bring her mother to church anymore because her hearing-aides kept squeaking and disturbing the other parishioners around them.  Now they sit at home.  The daughter tending wounds from a church she and her mother had attended most of her life.

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As a former church leader, I understand that church experiences can be a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. I get that it is full of faulty humans who do not always behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.  I know all too well my own missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes that hurt others.  I also recognize those as times when I – when we – have lost sight of why we exist at all as the body of Christ: do his work and speak his words to reconcile the world to the Heavenly Father.

When the church gets off task, it becomes the worst of civil organizations. It would be better to become an Elks Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club or some other club members.  We are the worst because we so violate the high ideals to which we profess and call one another.  In the world of business, companies that get off task and away from the main product that made them successful in the first place go bankrupt.

When church becomes more about our buildings, positions of leadership, preferences and comfort, then we have gotten off task. When so much is expended to keep so few at ease and comfortable, then we are off task.  When our message is made irrelevant because of the life we model, we are off task.  When the life we model for others no longer reflects the mission of our founder, we are off task.

How do we know when we are “on task”? When our life and words express sacrificial love for God and for neighbor.  This is, after all, “the first and greatest commandment.”  It is the mark by which we will be identified by the rest of the world (“they will know you by your love for one another“).  It is the test everyone must pass to show they truly love (“greater love has no one than this, that s/he lay down his life for a friend“).

The exercises and lessons of this life’s classroom all have to do with teaching us how to love God and others sacrificially. It is the example and standard that Jesus set for us.  It is the command that we are given.  It is the test we must all pass, especially as the body of Christ.

Too many things can take us off task. They are too numerous to count.  It is perhaps one of the main weapons the enemy of our souls uses to distract us from our original task as a follower of Jesus.  However, at the end of the day, whether we were “on task” or “off task” will not be determined by sizable budgets, comfortable buildings or the number of butts in the seat on a Sunday morning.  No.  I think we will be asked only one question on our final test:  “How well did you love me and others?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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I admit that I am not a big breakfast fan. Mainly, it is because I’m not a “morning person.”  I would much rather watch a sunset than a sunrise any day of the week.  I’ve gone to the trouble of excising all of those passages in my personal Bible that have anything to do with referring or suggesting “early in the morning will I seek Thee.”  I am certain that these passages must be later additions by some second century monkish insomniac.

That being said, when I am camping or backpacking, I do like breakfast. Having something warm to ingest on a cool morning is a prize worth the effort.  This is especially true if the day before you have worked hard to hike in to where you are camping with 30 or 40 pounds on your back.  Because a backpacker must carry all of his or her food, the breakfast choices are limited to lightweight meals – usually some type of oatmeal concoction for me.

I recently hiked above of Rosalyn, Washington, around Granite Mountain. Our first destination was a short and easy hike to Hyas Lake.  We found a campsite at the far end of the lake, making the trek in a little over three miles.  The trail is over gently sloping ground and was relatively easy except for the muddy places because of previous rains.  Plus, it was raining the day we started our backpack excursion.  Our goal was a four night, five day trip, up to Tuck Lake and then further up to Robin Lake.

After getting camp set up, my hiking buddy, Dan Tourangeau, and I attempted to get a fire going with wet wood.  I always carry fire starter sticks.  It took a couple of these paraffin fire starters, but we ultimately got a fire going.  Then the rain started to really pour down out of the sky.  It was only 7:30 pm, but I decided to turn in to my tent for the night.

When I woke the next morning, it was still a bit of a drizzly rain. I pulled out a packet of oatmeal and a packet of cocoa from my backpack.  All my camping gear is stored in a trunk, including extra food.  This makes it really easy to get ready for last-minute backpacking trips such as this one.  I simply pull down my backpack, open up my truck and choose my gear, and then collect the clothes I think I will need for that trip.  Simple.

I used my Coleman Peak-1 gas stove to make hot water. Poured the contents of my flavored oatmeal pack in to my backpacking cup and enjoyed.  Dan and I talked about the plans for the day.  His breakfast choice was one of those freeze-dried meals that one simply adds hot water to and lets sit for a few minutes.  After the specified time, one can enjoy steaming eggs and sausage for breakfast!  My breakfast was a little less exciting.  I looked enviously on Dan as he enjoyed his breakfast.

After finishing my one cup of oatmeal, I opened my cocoa pack, poured its contents in my cup and added hot water. The hot, sweet cocoa was perfect for such a morning as this.  I watched as Dan took out a pack of Starbucks‘ Viva instant coffee packs and made a cup of real, hot coffee.  I have to admit that a Starbucks’ coffee would have beaten my cup of cocoa any day of the week.

It was good to be out in the woods and backpacking again. I had not been on a packing trip in some years.  In fact, my meal packs, oatmeal, and cocoa packs were showing their age from sitting in the trunk for so long.  However, they seemed to have held up just fine.  Or so I thought…

Fall Colors and Berries, Pacific Crest Trail Beneath Mt. Daniels, September 2010

Fall Colors and Berries, Pacific Crest Trail Beneath Mt. Daniels, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

About half-way through my cup of cocoa I noticed “floaties.” This is not unusual when one uses a cup to first make oatmeal and then make cocoa without watching it in between uses.  Except that these particular floaties looked odd.  I looked closer into the cup.  There appeared to be about two dozen meal worms squirming around in the warm liquid that now filled only half my cup.  “What the…??” was my first thought.

I poured out my cocoa and checked my cup. There were a few dead meal worms still clinging to the bottom and the sides.  I went to my backpack and checked the plastic zip-lock bag that held my oatmeal and cocoa pouches.  It was full of meal worms!  There was an army of meal worms making their way around in my bag.

I reached in and took out each of the oatmeal packages. There were holes in the sides.  Meal worms crawled over them.  I took out the cocoa packages.  They did not seem to be damaged.  I surmised that this was probably because the cocoa packages were also foiled lightly.  The meal worms that ended up in my cocoa probably got there from the oatmeal.  A few probably took a ride on the cocoa package and fell off when I shook its contents into the cup.

I suddenly didn’t feel hungry at all. My stomach gurgled.  I called Dan over to see my discovery.  Dan started to dance around, shake, and jerk back and forth like a mother-hen who had just laid an egg.  I think he was trying to prevent a gag reflex from overtaking him.

I poured the contents of the oatmeal packs at the base of a tree. I also poured out and cleaned out the meal worms that were in the zip lock bag.  Hundreds of these creatures were now congregating at the base of the tree.  I did not realize that so many little creatures could be all in such a small confined space.  How did they get in there?  Where did they come from?  Have they been hibernating these many years only to come out now to ruin my breakfast?

Mealworms nestled in a bedding of bran within ...

Image via Wikipedia

We continued our backpacking trip. My breakfasts were going to be much leaner for the next few days.  But thatFall Colors and Berries, Pacific Crest Trail Beneath Mt. Daniels, September 2010 was all right.  I was not going to feel like eating breakfast for a while.  One thing is for certain, those meal worms provided the extra protein I needed to make it to Tuck Lake that day.

As we packed up our gear to head up to the next lake, Dan and I returned to the tree that I had feed the meal worms to earlier that morning before hitting the trail.  To our amazement, hundreds of meal worms were attempting to wiggle or crawl their way up the side of the tree.  We both stood watching amazed.  Dan looked at me and shook all over again.  “Hey,” I said.  “My breakfast protein was fresher than yours!”  Dan shook and did a little dance as he headed down the trail.  “Well,” I thought to myself.  “I never did like breakfast anyway.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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White Wild Flower, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

White Wild Flower, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is one of the duties of every dad to teach their sons how to shop for their mothers for special occasions. Someday, they will be taking time to shop for their wives.  It will not due to have an uninformed son blame his father for showing up on such occasions with gifts of hardware or household items as many urban legends go about men.  No, it requires patient instruction and modeling on the part of every father.  This is why I took our oldest son, who was about 14 at the time, with me shopping for a Valentines gift for his mother.

I have always tried to include variety and creativity in my gift shopping for my wife. Over the years I had learned that a steady supply of items from Bath and Body Works was not satisfactory.  Gifts cards were considered impersonal and jewelry was not always a choice due to finances since buying cheap jewelry proved to communicate an opposite message.  The usual candies and flowers are considered “everyday items” and not for “special occasions.”  So, as you can see, the whole shopping mission for special occasions could prove challenging.

This particular year I decided to look for some pretty negligee items, which I had not purchased for my wife in some time. We were home schooling our oldest son.  So, for an opportunity to take a break, I asked if he wanted to come along.

Hey, I’m going Valentines Day shopping for your mom.  You want to come and help me pick something out for her?

Without thinking about it, my son, seeing an opportunity to get away from school work, jumped at the chance.  “Sure!

We arrived at our local mall and I headed to a couple of stores to compare prices and items. It was then that my son began to grow suspicious.

What are you looking for, dad?” my intuitive and inquisitive Middle School son asked me.

Oh, I don’t rightly know yet”, I avoided.  In truth, I was not really sure just what I was looking for at the time.  I just had a general sense of shopping direction.

Finally, we came a cross a wonderful sale of items at Macy’s in the mall. None of the other stores were even close in price and since Macy’s is always considered a high-end store, I figured I could not go wrong.  I immediately dove into the women’s personal wear.

My son stopped in the store aisle at the edge of this particular shopping section and stared at me wide-eyed.

Dad!  What are you doing?!” he cautiously asked.  Alarmed to see his own father boldly going where no Middle School boy dared to tread.  “I’m not going in there!” he loudly whispered.

Oh, come on.  You’re shopping for you’re mother for Pete’s sake.  No one’s going to think you’re some kind of weirdo.  Besides, you’re with your father and it’s a Valentines Day sale so everyone’s going to naturally assume we are shopping for my wife and your mother.  Now, come on,” I goaded him but relished in his unsettled nervousness.

I looked around. The store was practically empty since it was just before noon on a week day.  Besides a couple of checkers, there were only one or two other ladies at the other end of the store.  One of the checkers was an older, grandmotherly looking lady who was seemed to be watching us with some amusement.  I smiled and nodded her way.  She smiled back at me.

I started looking and sorting through a few frilly night gowns and picked out a couple. I looked over at my son who was still standing nervously in the aisle looking away in the opposite direction.  I had the distinct feeling he wanted to disown me at that moment.

Hey,” I called over to him.  “I need your help.  Come hold a couple of these for me.”

He looked horrified.  “What!?!” he protested.  “No!

Aw, come on!” I countered.  “I need you to help me.  This is why I invited you to come along…so you could help me.”

Dad,” he objected, “if I had known that this was what you were going to be shopping for I would have stayed home to do school work!

What!?  And miss an opportunity to help me do something special for your mom for Valentines Day?”  This was turning out to be more fun than I had expected.  He really was afraid of see-through garments!  Of course, I knew this and would have been just as horrified at his age.  Passing the bra or panty section of the local K-Mart store was enough to turn me red then.

Well, the sooner you help me the sooner we can get out of here and get home,” I offered.  “Now, get over here and hold these.  And don’t let them drag on the floor.

Obediently, my son wound his way through garment racks and scantily dressed mannequins until he reached me. I held out the night gowns I had picked out to him.  He gingerly took them as if they were breakable items.  Then he quickly glanced around the store.  I don’t know who he was afraid of seeing.  It was not like as if any of his friends would be venturing into this department.  That is, of course, unless they had fathers like me.  Then it was pretty much ‘anything goes.’

I moved on to another rack but my son stood rooted to the spot I left him.

What are you doing?” I asked.  “Follow me.

He shuffled over behind me and followed, gently holding the garments at arms length in front of him.

Don’t let those touch the floor,” I said loudly enough for the checkers to hear.  I looked at him.  He smiled at me because he suddenly got that I was having fun at his expense.

I can’t believe you’d drag me away from my schoolwork to shop for ladies items with you,” he protested.  “This is just wrong.”

Hey,” I bantered back to him.  “I didn’t twist your arm and make you come.  You volunteered on your own.  It’s not my fault that you didn’t ask what we going to shopping for.”

Canadian Geese Goslings, June 2008

Canadian Geese Goslings, June 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As we wandered in and around the clothes racks, I came upon a table with a variety of ladies lacy underwear. I suddenly arrived at a fun idea.  I picked out several, one at a time, and handed them to my son who took them with his other hand.  Now he was draped with ladies intimate apparel.  Nightgowns held up on hangers in one hand.  Panties gripped in the other hand.  A face of growing dismay glowing red in between.

You’re doing a great job!” I offered in encouragement.  “I think we have what we need.”  There was a look of relief that came across my son’s face.

We approached the check-out counter.  “I am going to buy these,” I said, pointing to the panties.  “Not those,” I indicated by pointing to the nightgowns.  The kindly elderly woman nodded and smiled.

But my son objected, “What?!  Why did I carry those around?” he asked.

Well, because I liked them at first.  Plus, it was fun watching you carry them around.”

The grandmotherly checker snickered.

My son was old enough by now to be on to me and he smiled a sort of wry smile knowing that he had been caught up in one of his dad’s games.  “Oh, I get it,” he replied.  “You better not tell anyone about this – ever!

Sure,” I offered.  “Fat chance of that,‘ I thought to myself.  “This experience is going to have some fun mileage on it.”

Later, we bought a cute little flowery box, rolled and tucked the pretty underthings for his mom into the box. Then we went to a flower shop and asked the florist to deliver the flowers with the box to my wife where she worked – at a local elementary school.  Later, I learned that she received the flowers and special box at her lunch break and to the delight of fellow-teachers in the teachers lounge opened the box with its contents for all to see.

And that,” my dearest son, “is how you shop for the woman you love and show her how much you love her.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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