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Archive for the ‘Reformation’ Category

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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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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Yes, the New and Improved Lite Church of the Valley could be just what you are looking for.  We are everything you want in a church… and less!!

[author unknown]

Happy Easter, Passover, Good Luck

Happy Easter, Passover, Good Luck ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

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

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Bleeding on the Altar of Self-sacrifice

Humanity’s relationship with the divine has always been a miserable one.  In the Judeo-Christian system of belief, the fault is laid at the feet of the first couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  The shattering of an idyllic relationship with humankind’s Creator and surrounding creation was the result of their disobedience and rebellion.  Their offspring, right down to us who are alive today, still refers to that episode as “The Fall.”  A clear indication that something was lost.

Efforts by humanity to regain that privileged position with their Creator and with creation has resulted in a myriad of convoluted religious beliefs systems.  Of course, in the modern era, the idea that one can completely opt out of any and all religious belief systems is now an option.  Thus, atheism has become a religion and religious expression all its own.  However, for the majority of the world, some type of belief in a deity(ies) still exists.  It affects how life is conducted on every level of human existence.

One thing they seem to bear in common is some sort of system for sacrifice to appease their god(s) or spiritual beings (if they are animists).  There appears to be a human universal need to “pay for one’s sins” to gain approval from these divines.  A predominant idea throughout all religious systems is that reality involves more than just what can be seen.  There is a larger reality in the unseen world that affects what is going on in the seen world.

Where the Christian faith diverges from these other world religions is the view that a sacrifice is no longer needed (at least in the Protestant stream).  It begins with God’s revelation to the children of Israel, the Jews.  God, by his revelation through the ancient patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – then later Moses and then reaffirmed through the Prophets, set up a better sacrificial system.  More important, meaning and explanation accompanied the revelation for the sacrificial system that pointed to a time when sacrifices would no longer be needed.

The sacrifices of grains and animals really do not change the heart of humanity.  They only bear witness to the cost of our continued rebellion and disobedience to our Maker.  Thus, in God’s timing, He sent His son, Yeshua = Joshua/Jesus.  According to His divine plan, this God-man who lived a perfect life became a sacrifice for all of humanity and all of human sin.  Ironically, we killed him.

Our Jewish and Gentile fore-bearers unrighteously judged him, unjustly condemned him and then put him to death in a cruel fashion by crucifixion.  Nevertheless, because of the Son’s willing obedience to take all of humanity’s punishment, God raised him from the dead and restored him to his heavenly place of rule and authority.  A few hundred people testified to seeing him after dying and being buried.  We have their testimonies written down for us to digest, accept and believe or disbelieve.

One would think that this would be the end of the story – at least in the Christian realm.  But, no.  The story continues to unfold in human history.  There are many who reject the idea that one person, no matter how perfect, could die for another and that it would be enough to satisfy God’s demand for justice and judgment against human sin.  Still, there are many others who believe the story and accept the sacrifice of God’s son for their own sin.  They continually remind themselves of this by partaking in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Nevertheless, even among those who accept the story witnessed to by so many, believe upon it and choose to live their lives by it, there is a creeping attitude or idea that something more must be required.  So, Christians create their own altars for their own sacrifices hoping to add to what Christ already did upon the cross, in the grave and through the resurrection.  Even those who are children of the Protestant Reformation and think of themselves as holding to “evangelical” beliefs struggle with this issue.

This struggle is more particularly acute when Christians go through troubling times and hardships.  A whole “Christian” nation can take on this attitude in turbulent times.  We want to find a reason for our suffering – or bad turn of luck.  We too quickly turn back to a pagan view of God that determines we must have done something – sinned – to anger the deity and now he is poised against us.  So, we search for ways to satisfy the deity’s anger, appease it and regain its approval and blessing – or at least neutrality so as not to oppose us in our plans and desires for a peaceful and happy existence.

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010 Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I was reminded of this troubling trend in our Christian history when I came across how many responded to the Black Death Plague – also called the Bubonic Plague – in Europe during the middle ages.  I have just finished reading John Man‘s book, “Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words.  He highlights in one chapter the actions of “the flagellants.”

The popular idea then, much as it is now, is that the God of the Bible promised not only salvation in the next life but also constant support in this one.  However, in the face of the troubling Black Death (Bubonic Plague) epidemic He seemed impotent, if not hostile towards humanity through the disease.  The explanation?  God must be angry and was clearly out to punish all of Europe and the Church – either actively or by neglect and indifference.  So, God must be somehow mollified.  This took many forms, of course, but one of the radical forms were the crazed devotees who marched from city to city through Europe lashing themselves with iron-tipped whips while crying out for God’s mercy.  Fellow devotees would then follow them moaning and dabbing themselves with the blood of the flagellants.

Another radical form was to find blame in someone else and make them pay the price.  While today the Church likes to look outside itself and blame homosexuals, pornography, gambling, liquor, liberal politicians and other spiritual “enemies”, the Church then chose to blame the Jews.  Already labeled as Christ-torturers and child-murders, all across Germany the rumor spread that they were also “well-poisoners.”  Thus, one series of many Jewish persecutions took place all across Europe.

Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the churchyard in Strasbourg.  This was replicated in almost all of the cities along the Rhine river.  In Antwerp and Brussels, entire Jewish communities were slain.  In Erfurt, 3,000 perished as sacrifices for the cause of the Black Plague.  In Worms and Frankfurt, instead of facing the same fate, the Jews chose to go out in Masada-like fashion and committed mass suicide.  In Mainz, Germany, 100 were burned outside of St. Quentin’s Church on St. Bartholomew’s day.  All were ultimately sacrifices to attempt to appease “God’s” anger and restore deserved blessing and peace to Europe.

While reading about these sad episodes in human history, I could not help but think that we really have not come that far in the Christian faith.  There is still a propensity to want to “pay back” God for our sin.  When bad things happen, Christian too often look for a cause-and-effect.  We want an explanation; preferably an understandable one.  The fact remains that there often is not one.  God remains God and does not need to explain his actions or non-actions to us.  His goodness comes to those who deserve it and those who do not.  Likewise, bad things visit humanity indiscriminately – to good people and bad people.

Christians often think that their faith in God somehow gives them a “Club Membership” to a trouble-free life.  So, when disease, tragedy, disaster or unexpected death visit us, we think that our “Membership Dues” must not be paid up.  We think we must “sacrifice” something to get back in to the “Club” of God’s favor.  How wrong!

As a spiritual leader in churches, I have witnessed good Christian people go through all kinds of agony trying to find an explanation for why bad things happen to them.  Early on in my spiritual journey, I always thought that I owed them and explanation.  After all, I am the one who went to Bible School and Seminary.  I should have the answers, right?  What a relief to finally come to the conclusion that I do not.  And I do not have to have “the answer(s).”  The fact is that most of the time, there is no answer.

And perhaps that is just the point.  When God remains distant and in the shadows of human tragedy and suffering, it may be that He is there to witness our faith in action when it is needed most.  After all, no one really knows what they truly believe until they are put under the stress of a trial or spiritual test.  It is then that what we truly believe in our hearts – our souls – really comes out and is evident to us and all those around us.  It is then that we discover the real bankruptcy of our “faith” or when we realize how very vibrant and real our faith truly is for us.

At any rate, faith in what God accomplished through the Messiah should be sufficient for us.  There is nothing more that we can add to his sacrificial death or resurrection.  We cannot create another altar and offer our own sacrifices upon it.  There is no other altar, no other sacrifice and no other payment necessary to appease God’s wrath.  He only accepts his son, Jesus the Messiah.  No other.  Only those who come to him through what his son did are received by him.  There is no other way.

So, the next time you feel the tug to “offer a sacrifice” to please God, remember that He has already made one for you.  There is nothing more that you can offer.  There is no trophy, no price, no sacrifice anyone can offer to God where they will be able to say to Him, “Look what I have offered to you!  Are you not pleased with me?  Don’t you owe it to me to bless me and always keep me happy now?”  Such an approach is a bankrupt one.  It fails to recognize the cost of His son’s sacrifice and is an affront to Him.

If you are finding yourself bleeding on the altar of self-sacrifice because you thought you could earn God’s favor, it is time to get off of it and be set free.  No amount of guilt, hand-wringing, praying, fasting, giving, worrying, church attendance or any other spiritual flagellation will earn you any credits in His account book until you learn to accept and live in the forgiveness and grace freely given to you through Christ.  Like so many before me, I too have often “beat myself up” mentally and spiritually thinking that everything that went wrong was my fault and that I must have done something to displease God.  I have learned to recognize that as a subtle spiritual lie of the enemy of my soul, the devil.  He would have me do anything but accept and live freely in what Christ accomplished.

After all, self-sacrifice is just another form of self-worship.  Self-worship is what caused Satan’s downfall in the first place.  By attempting to make our own sacrifices and meet God on our terms, we are only attempting to do what Satan did before His fall from heaven.  Only God dictates the terms for the satisfaction of divine judgment and justice.  Otherwise, He would not be God.  So, He has provided the answer or solution.  He has already established the altar and received the sacrifice.  It is time for us to stop bleeding on the altar of our self-sacrifices and worship at the throne of grace and mercy.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Indulging Religious Relics

The history of the Church prior to and following the Reformation is fascinating. One discovers a world not unlike today.  Change was in the air.  Technology, most notably the printing press, was quickly changing society.  Nationalism was shaping new governments and their alliances.  The big concern politically and religiously was the growing strength of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are a lot of great books to read about this time period. A book I just finished that is particularly excellent is Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (MJF Books, 2002).  John Man is an historian who is well-known for his work on Chinese history, particularly his biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  His book Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World is an excellent study too.  His histories are easy to read and takes the reader along in story-form rather than the academic dry-detailed textbook type of histories so many of us are used to from our school days.

Among other things that have not changed are the uses of indulgences and relics. A Blog I posted on January 29th of this year entitled “Charismatic Indulgences” addressed some of the issues and enamorations with indulgences in the religious world today, particularly among Charismatics and Pentecostals.  The doctrinal heresies and spiritual abuses that wrecked havoc upon the Church 600 years ago are still at work.

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I never considered any corollaries between the use of relics with their accompanying abuses in the Church and what takes place among many evangelicals today until I read John Man’s account of instances of the use of relics in Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words.  It seems that even the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformation have forgotten the lessons learned!  Though they do not appear in the same forms, and not nearly as ancient, there is the same attempt to manipulate the grace-work of God to our own means.  This reduces the God of the Bible to no more than any other pagan deity and the magic that accompanies it.

Gutenberg, for a time, entered into an enterprise that accompanied the use of indulgences by the church which would make him a lot of money.  The need for money was to finance his printing press enterprise, which was still in the experimental stage.  It is the same motivation that we see so much at work in the Church still today.  Religious items are sold to make money.  To increase their value, the promise of God’s grace for health and wealth accompanies them.  For a few dollars, one can receive all their heart desires.

Gutenberg’s scheme was to join many other craftsman and their guilds in building mirrors to capture the radiant power that was said to stream from the relics.  Sounds far fetched?  Not any more than some of the convoluted ways some Christians still go through today to gain God’s favor for an answer to prayer.  In medieval Christendom, holy relics were thought to be essentially powerful charms.  They were thought to have power to heal hearts, souls and bodies.  It was believed that healing streams issued from them like sun rays.

The Church held the relics and, thus, held the power.  It dictated when and where relics would be made available.  There was a time when people on pilgrimages to sites with holy relics could see and/or touch the holy relics for adoration and prayer.  Doing so guaranteed them access to the relic’s power.  Unfortunately, as the pilgrimages grew more popular, the chance to see or touch them became impossible.  When the relics were shown, often for a price, the thought was that much of their power simply escaped into space uncaptured.

This is where new technology came into play.  At about the same time that people began to use spectacles for reading, glass mirrors also became popular though little glass was used but instead clear crystals (beryl).  Soon, someone put forward the idea that a convex mirror, which seemed like a magical technology for its time, could capture and absorb the healing power radiating from holy relics.  Since beryl was expensive, cheaper polished metal ones were made and sold.  Thus, a whole new religious industry developed over night.

With the newly acquired mirror, one no longer had to be near the holy relics.  If a place that offered an uninterrupted view could be acquired, then all one had to do was hold it up to capture rays of holiness – the longer the better, like some kind of ‘third-eye.’  This supposedly turned the tourist trinket into a thing full of radiant energy and power.  The owner of this mirror could then take it wherever he or she wanted and apply it like magic to heal broken limbs and even cure individuals affected by the black plague, which was ravishing much of Europe at the time.

What kind of market was there for these devices? Well, in Aachen, Germany, alone in 1432 there was 10,000 people a day for two weeks.  A later pilgrimage in 1446 noted that 130,000 mirrored “badges” were sold to pilgrims.  Gutenberg was hoping to cash in on the 1439 pilgrimage by making 32,000 mirrors.  He hoped to sell them for half a gulden each, which was very expensive in those days.  So, it all boils down to money and how to make it.  The religious market was a wealth producer then much as it is today with Christian apparel, music, movies and books.

However, it is not the fact that anyone then or today was attempting to make money that has captured my attention.  It is what was then and is now being sold on the religious market.  Listen to any television, radio or internet enterprise that targets Christians and it will not be long before you will hear someone hawking their goods with the promise of the blessing that it will bring; particularly for health and wealth.  We are still hoping to sell or buy God’s grace!  I am sure that Luther, Calvin and other Reformers must be rolling in their graves by what they see developing from the churches that are descendants of the Reformation.

At the same time, while we do not hold up the bones of saints or artifacts from the life of Christ, we in the Evangelical church can still be accused of thinking in terms of relics – holy objects or places that contain God’s power, blessing and grace.  We sometimes worship the furniture in our churches as more worthy of consideration than God.  The latest popular Christian speaker becomes a relic to us when we think that we must attend their meetings and hear them personally in order to really be blessed and have prayer answered.  Whether it is a Christian conference or revival meeting, we have come to think that God’s presence and power is only contained and displayed in only that one place and time.  So, we rush on our own spiritual pilgrimages to get there to be a part of it.

So, it does not surprise me now to hear about Evangelical Christians who are going on pilgrimages to holy sites of the Evangelical stream of Christianity.  The places of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and pioneer missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Judson Taylor, Robert Moffat, and William Carey among others are now spiritual pilgrimage places for Evangelicals.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No, not at all.  However, it should be a flag of caution.  When any movement begins to idolize its past and memorialize it, it is the beginning of the loss of vision for the future.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that God is not contained to a place and time now that the age of the Kingdom of God has arrived.  His blessings flow to everyone.  His Spirit is available to everyone.  The Reformation rejected the idea of relics, indulgences and that a special class of priests held all the power of God in reserve to hand out to the people.  Instead, they embraced the Biblical idea of the priesthood of all believers, the work of God’s grace for everyone and the authority of God’s Word over everything.  Before we go back to selling indulgences and using religious relics, perhaps it would be good to study our Church history.  We seem to have lost something along our way into the 21st century.  Otherwise, an enterprise in making and selling little mirrors may just become my next career.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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