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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Founding Faith

I really enjoy reading good history books. Since my interests are pretty eclectic, so is my library.  The startling thing about reading history is how much is not new to human experience.  It almost makes one believe that life is an endless cycle that experience death and rebirth or reincarnation.  Still, learning from people who have gone before us and the histories they leave behind can be very instructive.

Recently, I finished Steven Waldman’s national bestseller, “Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical a New Approach to Religious Liberty” (Random House, 2008).  I have read conservative writers and historians take on this period of American history as well as extremely liberal writers and historians treatment of the same period.  Both sides seem to want to use this common history to push a political or religious agenda.  Waldman’s treatment of this formative period of American history and its major players was far more balanced (he takes shots at both sides’ attempts to use this history to prove their points).

I appreciate an historical perspective that allows the characters and events to be complicated. Steven Waldman does just that with how he portrays the beliefs of the different Founding Fathers.  They were complicated individuals who changed their religious and political opinions throughout their life times.  Some mellowed with old age, while others hardened with it.  Some began with a very narrow view of religion and then ended their life with a much more liberal view of it, while others had just the opposite experience.

The formation of the founding documents that all these key players had a stake in reflects a part of all of their journeys toward maturity. However, being a part of a political process, they also reflect the various and many compromises that all of them had to make concerning religious and political views.  They did this to bring unity.  Thus, necessity, once again, proves to be “the mother of invention.”  Individuals who found themselves at odds and even hostile to others’ opinions came to believe that compromise was needed to accomplish a larger mission.  After the revolution’s dust settled, then the gloves came off and parties returned to their factious ways, which made for some truly colorful politics.

Hot Rod, Pickup, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rod, Pickup, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Whatever one has studied about the faith of the Founding Fathers of the United States, one thing is pretty certain from Steven Waldman’s book: they defy easy definition or categorization according to our present political or religious definitions.  In other words, the words “conservative” or “liberal,” whether religious or political did not mean the same thing at the end of the 18th century as it does in the 21st.  At the same time, our present understandings or assumptions concerning the Masons, Unitarians, Puritans or Congregationalists are not completely adequate.

Just like the hot button issues that drives our political agendas today; the Founding Fathers had their own hot button issues surrounding politics and religion. Thus, they reacted against the perceived abuses of both spheres of influence in human affairs.  The common perceived threat was a political or religious authority that interfered with the liberty of a person to act according to his or her conscience. Thus, politics and religion was the battle ground then as much as it is today; perhaps it will always be a part of American politics.

The diversity of religious expressions throughout the colonies demanded liberal documents that would not too narrowly define religion or faith. The various economic experiments that the colonies had gone through since their foundings also demanded broadly worded documents that allowed states to continue their systems of governance.  Of course, the power struggle between states and the federal government continue up to this day and have had some interesting developments over the past almost 250 years.

In short, the seeds of the religious and political dramas being played out today were planted in the soil of this country by our Founding Fathers. Just as compromise marked their work, so it will and must mark our work today.  There is a larger ideal in the formation of the United States of America than what particular religion or faith must be expressed.  The critical issue for the Founders and for us today is the question as to whether any religion or no religion at all contributes to the moral character of our self-government.

As such, the Founding Fathers guaranteed that the game of politics in the United States would also be a rough and tumble sport. This can be witnessed in the lives of our very first leaders.  Politics is not for the faint of heart.  We need people who are willing to contend for issues that are central to the way we live and the way we govern ourselves.  At the same time, let us remember the larger principles for why we exist as a nation.  These can be seen in our founding documents.  Of course, this will require a faith in our Founding Fathers, whatever side of the political or religious aisle they stood.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, I was in a gathering of community pastors praying for our nation, national leaders, military personnel and community. The emotions among all of us were raw and ranged from bewilderment to anger over the act of terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on that terrible September day.  The overall consensus was that the United States needed to pursue the masterminds behind this attack on our soil.  In short, everyone favored attacking/invading Afghanistan.  I found myself in the minority.

It was not that I stood against military action to seek out the perpetrators of this heinous act. Rather, I strongly believed then that only military action, and military action gone awry in particular, would do the U.S. more harm than good.  I had read history books that detailed the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms and nations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.  So far, the success rate was abysmal.

One can go back to the ancient Babylonian, Mede and Persian empires to see how quickly control of governing power in that part of the world can change hands. Alexander the Great lost a great portion of his army and ultimately died in that part of the world.  The Romans and their military machine never really fully conquered or controlled it.  Violent tribalism raged for centuries.

In more modern times, the Ottoman Empire succeeded only when it ruled these areas with an iron fist. Then, the British Empire was more than willing to give up control over these areas after World War I and the close of the colonial period.  It had paid a heavy price economically and militarily to just maintain a presence in that part of the world.  Its attempt to bring “civilization” and Western style government to these areas almost bankrupt it.  The nation building that followed World War I and World War II did little to bring about actual, viable governments.  The results of these efforts are what we are still dealing with today.

I may be wrong. Time will only tell; more so because the military work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (with unstable Iran in the middle) is not yet done.  The most wanted of the 9/11 conspirators are still at large.  It looks to be possible that America’s longest war will linger on another few years at least.  So far, the success of building a strong government in these areas is spotty at best.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

At the same time, I am delighted to discover that others are taking a different approach to addressing the struggles and needs of this part of the world. One such person is Greg Mortenson.  After reading his book, “Three Cups of Tea,” I started right into his most recent book (2009), “Stones Into Schools.”  It continues the tale of a mountaineer’s failed ascent of K-2, becoming lost in the wilderness and recovering in a very small, remote Pakistani village.  Greg is that mountaineer and “Three Cups of Tea” details his adventures that end in the building of a school for that village, along with the promise to build many more in the remotest areas of this part of the world.

This is the story continued in “Stones Into Schools.” However, the setting switches from Pakistan to Afghanistan.  Through contacts made with the people from the most remote parts of Northeast Afghanistan, called the Wakhan Corridor, Greg Mortenson and his team of unlikely heroes do the impossible.  They build schools for liberal arts education – math, science, reading and writing – in the most remote and poor of parts Afghanistan; the places where its own government will not go.  These schools, while open to boys and girls, specifically target the education of girls.  This is something that challenges the radicals of Islamic extremism – Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

By including village elders, tribal leaders and local workers, Greg Mortenson has guaranteed that these schools are locally owned and controlled. The finances provided for materials and some of the labor come with the caveat that the education will focus on reading, writing and math and that at least half the students will be girls.  Not only is the idea of a school enthusiastically embraced by the villagers, but so is the promise of educating their girls!  They are so committed to both of these that they are willing to defy the Taliban who threaten the teachers, students and their school buildings.  Not only are they doing this, but they are succeeding at it.

The success of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan has captured the attention of many world leaders. The book “Three Cups of Tea” became required reading for all military leaders involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The approaches that Greg has taken to build relationships with village elders and allowing them to be decision-makers is now the approach the military personnel is taking toward building solid local governments in the communities in which they are placed.

The military leaders who have read “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” is a list of “Who’s Who”: General David Petraeus, Admiral Eric Olson, General Stanley McChrystal, Major General Mastin Robeson, General James Conway, Colonel Stephen Davis, Major Jason Nicholson, Major General John Macdonald, Major General Curtis Scaparrotti to name just a few.  Likewise, these books are well-known among some of our governmental leaders: Rep. Mary Bono, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Rep. Jean Schmidt, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Senator Max Baucus, Senator Olympia Snow, Senator Mark Udall, Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Ben Cardin, Senator John Kerry, among many others.

Whatever the future may hold, I believe that anyone who has strong opinions or cares about what happens in this part of the world owes it to themselves to read these two books. They are delightful reading.  Besides a captivating and moving story, they give you an insight into a culture that is terribly misunderstood.  More importantly, I believe these stories can show us another way of bringing peace and stability to this war-torn part of the world.  Instead of creating more enemies through military action and violence against innocence, this is a model for a way to build healthy relationships with people who are far removed from where and how we live in the U.S.  It will take “Three Cups of Tea” to turn “Stones Into Schools.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It has become a part of American pop-theology that the Christian life is to be one that is safe for the believer.  We are told that “God will meet all your needs” and “He will never give you more than you can handle” or that “All things work together for good.”  The longer down this road of following Jesus I have gone the more convinced I am that such trite approaches to our faith, while comforting, should be jettisoned.

In fact, I appreciate more than ever John Bunyan‘s take on the Christ-follower’s journey in his allegorical story “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” He wrote it while in prison from 1660 to 1672.  (He later served another short six-month stint in 1675.)  He was put there because he dared to have religious services outside the auspices of the Church of England.  It turns out that he was a forerunner to John Wesley who got into the same trouble with the Church of England when he dared to preach the Gospel in the out-of-doors.

In John Bunyan’s story, the main character, Christian, embarks upon a journey from the “City of Destruction” (i.e. “this world”) to the “Celestial City” (i.e. “heaven”).  Part of Christian’s struggle on his journey is the burden he constantly carries, which represents his sin.  However, his largest problems come by the way of distractions and obstacles that meet him all along the way.  It’s a great story and I encourage you to read it in a modern translation.

I believe John Bunyan’s description of the Christ-followers life and journey is a lot more accurate than the 20th century version that many American evangelicals have grown up with in their generation.  My personal experience is that the Christian life and journey truly is a long-distance race or a Greco-style wrestling match as described by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.

In fact, I am convinced that following the way of Jesus is one of the most dangerous things a person can do.  It certainly does not fit into the mainstream of the rest of culture – or it should not anyway.  Following Christ means that he will lead you to a cross that you must pick up and carry just as he did (Luke 9:23).  This is called the cruciform life; a life formed after the crucified savior that dies to self and sin.  We want to celebrate the victorious resurrected life, but it turns out that the journey leads us to a cross before it leads us to a resurrection and glorification with Christ.

Jesus did not seem to be too greatly concerned with his follower’s safety.  In fact, he made it plain that if he was persecuted, so would his followers be persecuted.  If he was reviled and rejected, so his true followers would be reviled and rejected.  A servant is not greater than his master and should not expect better treatment he teaches us.  Still want to sign up to go on this journey?

Following Jesus is certainly not for the faint of heart or the second guesser.  You are either all in or all out.  You are following someone who kept moving, had no regular bed, no home and no promise of the next meal.  His journey with the Heavenly Father was one of faith and obedience too.  He expects no less from those who call him Master.

When Jesus prays his High Priestly prayer in the Gospel of John we should not be surprised then that he prays for his followers protection (17:11, 12).  Why?  Because just as the world hated Jesus so they are going to hate and abuse his followers (17:15).  However, in his prayer he specifically asks, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but protect them” (17:15).  This reminds me of the angel who came to the Apostle Paul in the middle of a fierce Mediterranean storm and told him, so he could tell the crew, “We’re going to shipwreck!  But it’ll be OK!” (Acts 27:23 – 26).  I would not know whether to be scared spit-less or relieved!

It seems to me that “the narrow way” is meant to be difficult precisely because it is, well, “narrow”. On the other hand, “the broad way that leads to destruction” would be smoothly paved with comfort and convenience.  If you have ever traveled a really narrow mountain road, you know what this is alluding to here.  If you have hiked the narrow inclines of a mountain peak, you know there is not a lot of room for error.  Still, he prays for our protection and offers his presence.  I am inclined to wonder sometimes, Why “this way”?  Could there not be an easier one?

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When Jesus sent out his disciples to minister in villages he made no promise for their safety.  In fact, he told them, “Go!  I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).  No wonder he assigned the journey and did not ask for volunteers.  It turns out that he was sending them to towns and places he was preparing to go to anyway.  Why not just hang back with him and go with him?  At least, that would have been my choice.  But no, he sends them ahead of him.

I think that this is his modus operandi and that it has not changed in two thousand years.  He is inviting all those who would follow him to take a dangerous journey.  It is not safe.  All your personal resources (“purse or bag or sandals” – v. 4), you are not to take along.  You are to completely rely upon him – his guidance and unseen presence and available power (Luke 10:9, 16).  When you get where you are going, you are to await his arrival by announcing to everyone who will hear, “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11).

So, I propose that we change the popular message of American evangelicalism to say, “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life that takes you to a cross and ends in a resurrection.”  In John Bunyan’s tale of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian and his friend, Hopeful, make it to the Celestial City.  However, it was a dangerous and adventurous journey.  It is the kind of dangerous journey that is more similar to what we get from the New Testament anyway.

When a person has a chance to visit other parts of the world where Christians live in hostile religious and civil environments, the pop-theology of the America evangelical culture does not fit.  A reading of a magazine such as The Voice of the Martyrs will clearly portray just how dangerous it is to live a Christian life and profess a Christian faith in many parts of the world.  The life and journey that Christ calls us to is not a safe one.  It is not an easy one.  It is a dangerous one.  His only guarantee is that you will lose your life; but doing so will allow him to save it.  It is a dangerous journey following him.  It is your decision:  all in or all out?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)


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Towards A More Civil Public Discourse

One of the strengths of a true democratic system of government is the ability to have open public debates concerning the issues that matter to our nation.  No one individual, political party or system of thought controls or sensors the discussion; even to the point of publicly protesting before governmental buildings, outside political gatherings and in town meetings.  In many other countries of this world, such open protestations would be met with government oppression, brutality and even imprisonment and possibly death.

American citizens should appreciate these freedoms.  I strongly believe that they should be guarded and practiced.  However, I also believe that there is a danger today of allowing this form of public debate and open protest to degenerate into a deconstructive melee that will damage our system of public debate rather than promote it by the way we conduct ourselves.  Too often in today’s political climate the open discussions in our newspapers, talk-radio stations and sidewalk protests devolve into a hostile mob that demonizes everyone who does not think like they do.

This is group-think at its worst.  There is no open and honest dialogue with the opposing viewpoint in many cases.  Instead, they are rallies to cheerlead a particular political or social agenda without regard to the other side of the argument.  The other side is not even welcome to the table.  They are seen as “the enemy”.

This is not about the political left or the political right.  It is not about Republicans, Democrats, the Tea Party or Coffee Party advocates.  I am more concerned about America’s tone and tenor in the discussion.  Where is the “civil” in our civil public debate and discourse?  What happened to dealing with issues rationally and objectively?  Is there really an honest discussion taking place for the benefit of all people if one side of the debate is not present?

I am not suggesting that debate be dispassionate.  Neither am I suggesting that individuals or groups should not boldly and strongly affirm and assert their position.  What I am suggesting is that there is a way to do that without demonizing and alienating the other side of the debate.  When our debate descends from dealing with issues and facts to finger-pointing, name calling and generating misinformation about the other side’s position, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we really accomplishing?”  I would venture to answer, “Not much.”

Granted, from America’s earliest political days, public discourse has been heated and mean.  (Something I address in an earlier Blog Post: “Let’s All Calm Down!”)  For a great picture of how mean it could get, I recommend William Safire‘s book Scandalmonger.  After the colonies won their independence from England, some of our earliest leaders were dismayed  how fractious and uncivil American politics quickly became.  George Washington despaired over the hostile divisions of the American political arena.  Individuals who were compatriots in the Revolution became bitter enemies afterward.

Another period of American history that turned into civil war instead of civil discourse was prior to and during Abraham Lincoln’s term in office.  The issues of states rights, federal government powers and slavery were issues that consumed American politics from its earliest days.  Reading the diatribes of the times, one senses a growing hostility between parties to the point that by the time Abraham Lincoln gained office he despaired whether the divide could even be healed.  It turns out he was both right and wrong.  The great divide in American politics and society could be bridged, but only by war.

It is precisely this type of “war” language that we are hearing once again on the fringes of the public discourse surrounding American politics and the accompanying agendas.  Whether it is the Health Care Reform Bill, abortion, socialism versus capitalism, taxes, gun ownership or any of the other number of “hot button” issues, the divide between the sides is growing into an unbreachable wall that will not permit constructive dialogue and problem solving.

History teaches us that the “fringes” of public thought soon become the primary movers for social reform.  Therefore, it would be wise for us to pay attention to how our public discourse is being shaped by them.  Again, I am not addressing the issues or topics discussed.  I am more concerned about the way in which they are being discussed.  The process of debate shapes us as much as the actual decisions that come out of it do.  How are we allowing the way we discuss and debate these issues shape us as a people and nation?

I am particularly dismayed and shocked at how Conservative Christians, or just Christians in general, conduct themselves in this public discourse.  We most often come across as the most angry and hostile.  Our points, which are very good ones, are lost in the screaming and yelling at the opposing side.  However passionate one might feel about a particular political issue, as a Christian, one must ask, “How does the way I conduct myself and communicate my message reflect the Kingdom of God and its King?”

Christians live in the tension of existing in two kingdoms: the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God.  We are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.  Therefore, as citizens and ambassadors of that Kingdom to this earthly one, we should be concerned with how our actions and words portray the Kingdom of God and its King.

I am not suggesting that silence is the answer.  Neither is not caring what happens to and in this world.  We are called to bring the Kingdom of God to the world in which we live through our lives and our witness.  The issues of righteousness and justice are central to this mission.  However, the manner in which we strive for those things is just as important as their substance.  For by the way we conduct ourselves we reflect the nature and character of not only the Kingdom of God but also the nature and character of its ruler – our Heavenly Father.

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My experience has taught me that the one who begins yelling the loudest has already lost the debate for he or she has no further substantive content or cogent arguments to make to prove his or her point.  There is a more civil way to conduct a civil public discourse.  Let me humbly recommend a few action points that may help us towards a more healthy and constructive public debate:

  1. Have a first hand knowledge of the issues and their facts.  Do not depend upon the pundits or politically slanted news organizations to give you objective truth.  Remember, they have an agenda that sells and makes them money.  That’s their primary concern.  If they truly worked for resolutions, they would be out of business.  It’s in their best interest to stir up the debate, not resolve it.
  2. Turn off and tune out “the screamers”.  Those yelling the loudest, as I said above, often do not have anything more constructive to bring to the argument other than passion.  While their passion is good, at the end of the day, it will not win the debate of substance.  If you get a conservative or liberal news source – internet, print, TV, or radio – make sure you are balancing it by listening or reading to the opposing side.  Make sure you know the rational points and objections the other side of the argument is making.  This will sharpen your own points.
  3. Read and learn from history.  This is not the first time that American politics has gotten heated and ugly.  It is not the lowest we have reached in the political forum.  However, to avoid delving deeper or repeating the mistakes of the past, it is important to know where we have been and where we have come from in our collective history.
  4. Openly invite and welcome the opposing side to the discussion.  Two things can only be accomplished by this:  First, you will learn the objections and points of the other sided.  Second, you will strengthen your position and ability to communicate your point.  You will also learn the weaknesses in your own argument, which will send you back to studying and learning about the issues and facts.  You may be surprised and change your mind as a result!  Or, you may win a friend and the debate by being better equipped.
  5. Learn the difference between a public rally and public debate.  More of the former takes place than the latter.  Rallies are good for energizing and mobilizing political partners, if that is what is actually happening.  However, in my experience, they too easily devolve into pointless and nasty caricaturizations of the opposition.  A debate will have the opposition present and allow it to fairly communicate its points.  It will require clear and cogent communication, but, just as important, listening.
  6. Finally, for those who are Christians, remember the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.  It is not bound by the boundaries of a political party or social agenda.  The Church of Christ is growing and propagating in some of the most hostile political and social environments our world has to offer.  God is bigger than either political party.  We are called to represent and be communicators of that Kingdom to this world.  How we do that is just as important as the substance of our agendas.  Do our words and actions reflect the nature and character of the One we way we follow and serve?

There are no easy answers and solutions to resolving differences of opinions.  It is why we call the discussions of these things “debates,” after all.  However, I am firmly convinced and convicted that as mature people interested in the good of all humankind and creation that we can do a better job of being civil in our public discourse.  The way we conduct our public debates shapes us as much or more so than the substances of those debates.  Cherishing and honoring this important democratic process is important to our future as a nation.

Good constructive debate over the issues and facts is healthy for our democracy.  Hostile demonization and threats of violence only send us back into the times of tribal warfare or, worse yet, civil war.  However, I have faith in people, especially the American people, and especially the American democratic experiment that we can turn towards a more civil public discourse.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Charismatic Indulgences

I am enjoying facilitating a class at our church on the Protestant Reformation.  I love to read and study history; especially church history.  The characters, issues, and drama make for some very interesting reading under the craft of a good historical scholar and writer.  Admittedly, under a good scholar but bad writer, it can also be absolute drudgery!  However, there a plenty of great historical story tellers that make history come alive to those interested.

One of the aspects of studying history that always amazes me is how much we do not learn from it.  As much as I would like to believe that humankind is on an ever evolving incline of knowledge and understanding, a study of history shatters that delusion.  Knowledge and technology have not made us any better.  I like to repeat a quote I heard years ago which asserts that “to suggest humanity is better off because of technology is to suggest that a cannibal is better off with a knife and fork.”  Instead of progressive improvement, we seem to be in a constant cycle of enlightened discovery and abject stupidity.  Nevertheless, this is what makes studying human behavior and history fascinating and entertaining at the same time.

For instance, one of the abuses of the church the reformers wanted to purify from the Church was the abuse of indulgences.  Some Reformers did not want to do away with the practice of indulgences all together, but just correct their abuses.  Others, such a John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, could find no biblical warrant for their practice and wanted the practices of indulgences done away with completely.  The reformation tradition follows Wycliffe, Luther, and others in their assertion that any church tradition and practice must be established solely upon biblical evidence.  This assertion is one of the main reasons why Protestant churches emphasize Scripture – translation, study, and knowledge – above all else.

The practice of indulgences was long practiced in the Catholic Church.  It is still practiced today.  It is closely tied to the Catholic theology of Purgatory.  This is another doctrine that Protestants and Reformers rejected because of lack of Scriptural evidence.  A broad explanation of indulgences proposes that the good works of Christ and the saints have been deposited in heaven for all Christians in the treasury of merit.  These merits may be applied to the sins of Christians at the approval of the pope and applied to individuals by archbishops, bishops, and priests.  The application of these merits enables one to avoid paying further for their sins in purgatory.  Extreme abuses preceding and following Martin Luther’s time allowed these indulgences to be bought with money.  Thus, sin became a really money maker for the church.

Aside from the biblical and theological problems that indulgences and purgatory pose for biblical Christians, the Protestant Reformation recaptured the New Testament doctrine of God’s grace displayed and applied through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s son.  Martin Luther, studying Romans and Galatians, came to the conviction that God’s grace cannot be purchased or earned.  It can only be received as a free gift.  Both the temporal and eternal forgiveness and salvation human longed for and needed was only available through faith in what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection.

As much as the Protestant Church would like to think that it is free from the influence of such doctrine and practice, one needs only to watch or listen to the selling of God’s grace in today’s Christian marketplace.  While salvation may not be up for sale, the grace of God to work miracles, provide, give guidance, and heal surely is in today’s popular Christianity.  It can be purchased by sending in an offering or purchasing a book or other materials.  At such a low, low price, God’s grace for healing and wealth will be released.

The Protestant Church has its own forms of relics too.  By purchasing prayer cloths, anointing oils, Christian jewelry, and other such items, and extra measure of God’s grace will flow in blessings to the believer.  All types of shamanistic items are sold to the unwary in hopes that the favor of God can be purchases instead of appropriated through simple faith.  It seems, in coming so far in history, we have not gotten very far.

The same grace that is made available through faith in Christ’s work that brings salvation is also available for all the other blessings of the Kingdom.  Why do we think they be can bought or sold?  They are given freely by grace.  They are “charismata” – grace-gifts given to us out of the love of the heavenly Father and his son, Jesus.  They are made available to everyone.  There is no need for a mediator – priest or televangelist.  We are asked, individually and communally, to come in faith believing “that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him.”

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

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

The Charismatic and Pentecostal stream of Protestantism is particularly caught in this trap of heresy and unorthodox practice.  Perhaps what is needed is a new reformation or a new “protest” that rebukes those responsible for such abuses.  Not only do they mislead the faithful.  They are profiting just like their Catholic forefathers upon the misery and sinful conditions of people who are needy and vulnerable.  Instead of selling them “a bill of goods” that will not profit their followers, they should be pointing them to the grace that is in Christ Jesus for every blessing.

Unfortunately, the same problem that caused the faithful 5oo years ago to fall into this trap and error is still prevalent today.  It is a lack of knowledge of the Word of God and its basic doctrines.  Unlike 500 years ago, however, the Bible is available to us in our own language.  We can read it and study it for ourselves.  We have learned teachers and preachers who are proclaiming the truths of the Scriptures.  What seems to be lacking is an attentive audience.

This sort of reminds me of the church Jesus chided when he revealed himself and his plans to the apostle John.  It seems that even though we live in an age where we can see, we are still blind (Revelation 3:17).  We live in a country that is rich with the teachings of God and access to biblical truth, and yet we are so poor.  It appears that Western Christianity is clothed with beautiful religious garb, but we are really naked.  Perhaps we do not know how wretched we really are if so many of the faithful in our Protestant, Bible-believing churches can fall into such error.

A start for all of us might be to study our history.  We need to rediscover what was lost and then found in the Reformation.  Some of the Reformers and Protestants paid for the discovery and practice of these truths with the ultimate price.  Perhaps then we would appreciate more fully today where we are in human history and the opportunities we have around us by way of Bible teaching and tools.  Most importantly, hopefully, we would refuse to fall back into the errors from which the Church in large measure was rescued.  Like Martin Luther, maybe we need to take a hammer and nail and post them in a prominent place so we will not soon forget.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot.  He wanted more of everything.  Here is how Tolstoy tells the story:

One day a farmer received a novel offer.  For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day.  The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown.  Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace.  By midday, he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground.

Well into the afternoon, he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point.  He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run; knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost.  As the sun began to sink below the horizon, he came within sight of the finish line.

Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared.  He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth.  In a few minutes, he was dead.  Afterwards, his servants dug a grave.  It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide.”

The title of Tolstoy’s story was: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (Adapted from Bits & Pieces, November, 1991.)  In the end, Tolstoy suggests, all a man really owns is a 6-foot by 3-foot piece of earth, so we are better off putting our confidence elsewhere.

Jesus, like Tolstoy, warns us (Matthew 6:19 – 24, 33) that we had better not put our trust in the promise of materialism.  If we do, we will be sadly disappointed.  Instead, there is something of eternal value that we can give our lives to pursue.  Anything we forfeit here on earth to gain what is in heaven will be returned to us there 100 times over (Matthew 19:29) along with eternal life!

Unfortunately, the western church in particular has drifted away from this teaching of Jesus.  Like first century Judaism, we associate material blessings with God’s favor.  Yet, very few people as well as nations have ever passed the prosperity test (Deuteronomy 8:8 – 10; 31:20; Jeremiah 5:7; Hosea 13:6).  The antidote to the poison of material envy and greed is “seek first His Kingdom and righteousness and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

However, this is not a prescription for poverty either.  We are not more spiritual if we are poor – or act poor because we do not want people to think we have anything, which is hypocrisy.  Instead, in abundance or in want, the Lord wants us to trust him for all our needs.  He wants to use us to pour out his riches and grace upon “all nations” so that through us all people will know that He is God.  Like Abraham, he was to bless us so that we can be a blessing!

Nowhere is this more evident than in the churches of nations of the two-thirds world that are marked by material poverty but spiritual abundance in revival, signs and wonders, and miracles.  These saints do more with less for the Kingdom of God, while the American church does less with more.  While we are rich in available materials and resources, we are growing more and more Biblically illiterate and spiritually impoverished.  Thinking that we are rich and blessed, we are truly “blind, naked, and poor.”

Waitsburg Tombstone

Waitsburg Tombstone ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

While in Albania, I saw a church that was struggling with the simple resources that we take for granted everyday and every Sunday.  Can you imagine attempting to teach Sunday school or disciple without materials in your own language?  Can you imagine a church without any resources to pay for a staff of pastors and office help to keep ministry going?  Can you imagine doing Children’s ministry without any props or tools?

This is what I witnessed in Albania.  Yet, I saw a vibrant church in prayer, reaching lost souls, fellowship, and growing future leaders.  I witnessed creative people and pastors inspired by God who gathered dozens of children to teach them about Christ.  I saw the church gather for prayer and then “hit the streets” to find people to pray for and possibly be a witness to them about the love of Jesus.

My family has paid a price for my trips abroad to Albania and India.  Seeing such poverty among the world’s poorest of the poor ruins a person.  It gives one a jaundiced eye toward our western materialism and consumerism.  As such, for the past several Christmases we have not exchanged gifts.  We have not given gifts.  Plus, we have asked our friends and relatives to help us express Christmas in a new way.

Every year we pick a world poverty problem to target and give towards efforts that attempt to meet it.  We have supported homes for girls rescued from forced prostitution; bought and put together medical kits for AIDS patients; bought chickens for a impoverished family.  This year we are buying a goat to be given to a family in need.

This is a great time of year to ask ourselves:  How much stuff do we need to be successful?  How many material things do we need to feel God’s care and love?  How long do we wait until we have the earthly things we need so that we can answer God’s call to bless others?  How much of this world’s stuff are we dependent upon for our personal happiness?  How much “earth” does one need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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William Paul Young initially wrote the story of “The Shack” for his children. It was just going to be his gift to them.  That is why he only made 15 copies the first time he printed it.  However, somehow other friends got a hold of it, read it, and passed it on to others.  By their encouragement, he self-published 10,000 copies.  The story of “The Shack” gained moment and now has over 4 million copies in publication.  His story of redemption has turned out to be a gift to millions.

I will admit up front that the genre of “The Shack” is not my particular style. There has not been a lot of “Christian Fiction” that has captured my attention outside of C.S. Lewis (or J.R.R. Tolkien, if you include him in that category).  I never got caught up into Frank E. Peretti’s series surrounding “This Present Darkness”.  However, I was amused by how many people, Christians and non-Christians, took Peretti’s fictional writing and attempted to build a theology of demons and angels out of it.  I kept wanting to scream, “It’s just a story, folks!  Hello?!  Fiction!”

That being said, I did find the story of “The Shack” interesting. For a self-published work, I thought it was done very well.  There were a few places in the story line that could have been edited a bit more tightly to make for better flow or believability.  However, over all, I found it to be well written.  I enjoyed Young’s personal style that draws the reader into the story and characters.  I found the occasional humor well placed and made the book more captivating and readable.

A search on the internet will reveal a number of people – particularly Christians – who have problems with the story theologically. They have taken the time to pull apart the story and reveal its “heretical” tendencies.  Once again, I would like to inform these people that it was not written as a theological treatise, but as a fictional story.  As such, nothing in the story should be taken as prescriptive but descriptive.  In other words, it was written to describe things that are difficult for the human heart and mind to understand.  It was not written to prescribe for us what we are to believe.  It is not a systematic theology or biblical theology for seminarians.  Nor was it written to become a new theology of some sort for New Agers.

Such fruitless endeavors by well-meaning individuals does nothing to build up faith in others let alone “protect” them from error. I think that such individuals would probably find something wrong in C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” or John Bunyan‘s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”.  These, too, were written as fiction.  They were meant to be parables or portrayals of the human spiritual struggle.  Every sermon illustration, story attempt, or parable breaks down at some point.  It does not give us the whole truth, only a fuzzy picture at best of part of it.  This is the case for “The Shack”.  Taken as such, I believe there are some great illustrations or pictures for us of what God wants in a relationship with his creation, particularly humankind.

One of the major complaints against “The Shack” is its portrayal of the trinity or triune godhead. This belief is a cornerstone of orthodox Christian theology.  However, one must remember that even the best theologians have had trouble for the past 2000 years to come up with a credible and simple definition or illustration of the trinity.  All efforts at illustrating it – the egg, the apple, the three states of water, etc – all break down and fail at some point.

Wm. Paul Young’s attempt at portraying this relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is just as difficult. Some critics have trouble with the picture given to us by the author of “Papa” being a large African-American woman at the beginning of the story.  (“Papa” does later in the story, however, reveals himself as a man to Mack.)  I for one was really disappointed that God the Father did not turn out to be Morgan Freeman again…okay, I’m kidding.

Rather than getting caught up in what gender or ethno-cultural identity God would really have if he really appeared to us in human form, one should enjoy the story for what it is…God attempting to relate to a man with a broken heart and past.  In a fictional story, I suppose God can reveal himself in about any way he likes…such as Aslan the Lion…a talking lion none the less.  The real point of what the author is trying to get to is lost in such a myopic attempt to critique the story.  Why not just enjoy the story for what it is?

Personally, I really appreciated how Young attempts to portray the close relationship between the trinity. I thought he did an admirable job attempting to portray the unique characteristics of “three persons in one being”.  This would be difficult at any level!  The church has suffered some nasty self-inflicted bloody noses trying to answer this question – how do you describe the triune nature of God?  A casual reading of church history will reveal some colorful and bloody fights in the early church councils trying to answer this very question.  Therefore, I think we should cut the author some slack in attempting to portray this to the 21st century person.

American Falls 2, July 2003

American Falls 2, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I really like the author’s picture of Jesus. Personally, I have always appreciated a picture of Jesus that was more joyful than one that was ascetic and morose.  The picture I get of Jesus in the gospels is of an individual who really enjoyed being around people, liked celebrations and parties, and had a great sense of humor at the expense of the religious stiff-shirts.  Paul Young, to me anyway, portrays a believable Jesus in the story.

There were a couple of places in the story that I found to be a little unbelievable – a little too science fiction for me. However, it is the prerogative of the author in fiction to take his readers on a journey.  And if one will just enjoy the journey then the story can be enjoyed for what it is rather than critiqued for what it is not.  Nevertheless, the interaction of Mack with Sophia was a little “out there” for me as was the vision Mack was given of God’s view of the world and his meeting his father.  But, that is just me.  You may like those parts of the story.  Remember, it is just a story.

Some critiqued the book for attempting to tell us that sin does not need to be punished. However, I looked carefully for any place the author seemed to say such a thing.  I did not find it.  Instead, he points out that sin has its own consequences.  He reasserts what Jesus said, the world is already condemned and he, Jesus, did not come to condemn the world but through his sacrifice save the world.  Sin, in fact, was judged and the punishment for it paid on the cross.  This the author makes very clear.  The story of the cross and the redemption of humankind through Jesus’ sacrifice is clearly communicated.

The story does not include a portrayal of hell or eternal judgment for those who reject the offer of relationship with God through Jesus. However, as a story, that does not seem to be the direction the author wanted to go or dwell upon.  As the author, that is his prerogative!  He is not writing a theology but a story.  In telling the story, a certain amount of theology or thoughts about God, humankind’s relationship to God and vice versa, and ultimate meaning in human tragedy and suffering is offered for us to think upon.  We are free to draw our own opinions.

If you are looking for deeper and more complete theology, I suggest reading the Bible. The help of a few good theologians may come in handy.  But do not attempt to make too much of out of another person’s fictional story.  Instead, enjoy the story for what it is and embrace those parts that give joy and meaning to you.  I think Jesus would read “The Shack” and say, “Well done!  Good story!  Got another one?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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