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Copper Canyon, Mexico

Lone Tree on a Ridge in the Copper Canyon, Mexico

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (March, 2011)

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10. You absolutely love the movie, “The Ten Commandments“.

9. You look really, really good in yellow.

8. You just went on a low cholesterol diet and didn’t want to waste all those eggs in the fridge.

7. You figure anyHoliday that starts with a “Good Friday” can’t be all bad.

6. You love to bite the heads off chocolate bunnies.

5. It’s a good time to check out your neighborhood church and not be noticed.

4. You have this bunny suit you love to wear, but are too insecure to wear it without a reason.

3. Even though you don’t know what it is, you really like the sound of going to a “Passion Play.”

2. You figured since Jesus went to all THAT trouble to make it to the first Easter, you’d give it a shot.

1. As a Christian you celebrate the resurrection every other day, why not Easter too?

Rude Awakening

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Deciding to leave the comfort of one’s home to enter the world of the poor in another culture is not to be done blithely.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Once determined to enter such an experience, a traveler must brace for a test of endurance and flexibility.  I am reminded of Bilbo’s warning to Frodo in the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I had heard of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyonof Mexico over 20 years ago when friends of mine made

Tarahumara Woman

annual trips with blankets and clothing to donate to them.  Their plight then was very bleak.  It seems that it has not improved much in 20 years.  There are somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people who live in the Copper Canyon.  The exact population is unknown because the Mexican government does not count them.

Three native Indian tribes make up the population in the Copper Canyon: Tarahumara, Pima and Yaqui.  Each tribe has its own language.  The Tarahumara alone have 5 distinct dialects which can make communication among their own tribe difficult at times.  They prefer the name of their own language, Raramuri  (“those who run fast” or “runners on foot”), and are known for running very long distances.  Living isolated and deep in the canyon has helped them preserve their culture, language and music.

The Copper Canyon is over 25,000 square miles or 4 times larger (some say 7 times larger) than its sister canyon, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, U.S.A.  The Sierra Tarahumara is actually made up of 6 large canyons with rivers that feed into the main part of the canyon and the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez.  The remote and rugged nature of the area isolates the Tarahumara and makes getting help to them very difficult.

This area of Mexico has been under a drought for the past several years.  This has made the bleak living conditions of the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes very difficult.  Death from hunger is a very common occurrence.  The infant mortality rate is 50%, mostly due to nutrition issues.  The high elevation (8,000 ft) and cold winters can also bring its own misery.  The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly bitter and reports of children freezing to death were regularly heard.

There are a number of different non-profit organizations and Christian ministries at work attempting to bring relief to different parts of the Copper Canyon.  My church, Central United Protestant Church (UMC), in Richland, Washington, partners with Tomas Bencomo and Tarahumara Ministries based out of El Paso, TX., and Juarez, Mexico.  We have had Tomas and Maria Bencomo and their co-worker and translator, Brenda Granados, to a few of our missions conferences, which we call Global Impact Celebrations.

Our team flew into El Paso, TX, and stayed at the Micromotel right next door to the airport.  We spent the night and then got up early in the morning and rode to a little village 8 hours south called Rio Chico.  Rio Chico is the staging area for humanitarian trips into the canyon.  It also has an experimental farm to train Tarahumara farmers.  Another experimental farm is located in Rio Bravo about 12 miles away.  These help train farmers in better farm methods.  After a season, the farmers are sent back home with seed and a steel plow that can be pulled by a mule.

The first few days were spent planting 200 fruit trees and digging and pouring a foundation for a small building.  This was done all by hand with broken shovels and picks.  So, it not only made for hard work but also frustrating work.  The elevation of Rio Chico (about 7,000 ft) made the work seem even more difficult from us lowlanders.  We joined a group at Rio Chico from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota.  So, at least we had plenty of hands to do the work.  Still, those few days produced sun burns and lots of blisters and sore backs.

Finally, we loaded up to go down into the canyon with a supply of food.  We took a large four-wheel drive box truck and a four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban.  It is a 10 hour ride from Rio Chico down into the Copper Canyon where Tomas Bencomo and his team have a boarding school.  It serves about 300 families.  It takes 4 1/2 hours to travel the last 60 miles of dirt road.  The last 2 1/2 hours is descending 20 miles into the steep canyon by a steep twisting road with 31 hairpin turns.  They are so sharp that the driver must stop in mid-turn, backup and finishing the turn.  Fortunately for our driver, we descended it at night so he did not know what he was facing as the headlamps of the Suburban shown out into the pitch black night.

Finally, we arrived at the canyon camp tired from 4 1/2 hours of constant jarring and jostling in close confines.  It was

good to get out.  The night sky was brilliant with a splash of stars, but only the narrowest portion of the sky could be seen as the walls of the canyon pinched the night sky.  It would not be until morning that we would gaze up the steep canyon wall and be amazed at what we had ignorantly descended in the dark.  We all agreed that we were glad we had done it in the dark.  Some of us may have gotten out and walked down the road otherwise.

The morning was clear as we made our way to the main boarding school.  Out buildings were scattered all along the sides of the canyon, which meant that almost everyone had to move up or down its walls.  Level ground is a precious commodity reserved for buildings and gardens.  The sounds of chickens and children filled the morning air around the school where 80 – 90 children are housed and fed.  A government teacher comes in, when she can make it, to provide education at a small building close by.  This week, apparently, she was not able to make it.

The children that stay at the boarding house or who travel up and down the canyon to go to school travel long

Food Distribution in the Copper Canyon

distances to get there.  Parents send them because they know that their children will receive food and an education.  A few of the mothers come with their children and help in the kitchen and with other duties with the children.  They are paid with food to take home on the weekends.  Typically, children head home on Fridays and return late Sundays for a new week.  The ages range from a couple years to almost 6th or 7th grade.  After that age, there are no other resources for the children.  Many of them go to work.

One young brother and sister there had been rescued last Fall from starvation.  The family could no longer feed the 1 and 2 year old boy and girl.  So, they asked another family to take care of them.  However, that family too finally came to the heart wrenching decision that they, too, could no longer feed these two and feed their own kids.  So, they were placed in a corner, covered with blankets, and left to die of starvation.

One of the workers at the children’s home heard about it and went to see what she could do.  She encouraged the family to give the children to her to feed.  They were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid of the social stigma that may accompany when others find out about their plight.  After much coaxing, the two youngsters were given to her.  She drove the 4 1/2 hours over the rough dirt road to take the children to the nearest medical clinic.

The doctor at the clinic took one look at the 1 year old boy and declared there was no hope for him.  The two year old girl seemed to be in much better shape and a chance to live.  The compassionate worker who had spent all day hiking into the canyon to rescue the children and then driving over the jarring road to get there refused to allow the doctor to deny the boy treatment.  Finally, the doctor declared, “Fine.   If you can get him to eat something, perhaps there is hope.”  The only thing she had available was a small bag of potato chips.  She gingerly took out a small piece of a chip held it up before the listless boy.  Once the morsel was registered by the boy, he lunged at the potato chip and jammed it in his mouth.  “Well!” declared the surprised doctor, “It looks like he’s going to live.”

Tomasito - saved from starvation

While we were there we had the joy of holding these two lively kids.  They were full of life and joy.  This is one story among many that reveals the importance of this type of service to the indigenous people of the Copper Canyon who are locked in poverty.  Our team passed out bags of groceries that families were able to take home.  The food was available to everyone and anyone who came to receive.  The week’s worth of food, which many of them would attempt to stretch into a month, was gratefully received.  Women received food first and then the men who had come received food for their families also.

There are no shortcuts out of the Copper Canyon.  A train rides along the rim from Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean.  For most of the residents of the canyon, the only supplies available are those that the hike out to receive and then pack back in to their families.  Some, a few, are fortunate enough to have a burro to help with the chore.  Most, however, continue to live as they did when the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them into the canyon 500 years ago.

So, we climbed back into our vehicles glad that we did not have to hike out of the canyon.  Instead, we bounced along for 4 1/2 hours until we got to a paved road, that led to the town of Creel that brought us to a good road back to Rio Chico.  After 10 hours on the road, we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted only to get up early the next morning for the 8 hour drive back to Juarez and El Paso.  It would be good to get home.

The illusion of short-term mission trips is that one has experienced fully what it means to be embedded and fully embraced in a mission project.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We were returning home.  We would go back to our routines in our American suburbanvilles.  The ones we were leaving behind would continue the work.  On Sunday, the next day, Tomas would preach a 7 am service in Juarez, an 11 am service in El Paso, and another 3 pm service in Juarez.  Then, Monday morning, he and his team would take the long torturous road back to the land of the Tarahumaras.  And do it all over again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (April 18, 2011)

Tarahumara Dwelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.

Nineteen,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

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

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

Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure.  I would like that,” Stephen replied.

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Ancient Times: The beginnings of the holiday started with a dissident tribe of pagans, later identified as a band of Republican Presidential Candidates.  At that time Hallmark cards were not able to use the modern techniques of printing such as inkjets and lasers.  Instead, the company used the blood of goats of dogs as primitive forms of ink.  To keep the locals unsuspicious of their capitalistic exploitation of the holiday they presented the dead animals as a sacrifice to Lupercalia.  Also the origins of dominatrix and sadomasochism are seen at this time when young men would use the hides to whip the infertile women of the town asking them, “Who’s yo’ daddy?”

Christianity: Now, let the pagans have their uncivilized fun and festivals, and who has to come along and ruin it? First, it was PETA blowing the whistle on animal cruelty.  Then it was the early Roman Catholic Church who was jealous that the most exciting holiday on their calendar was forty days of giving something up.  So, they adopted the holiday to have wild parties.  They gave the holiday the new name of St. Valentine’s Day.  Saint Valentine performed secret marriages and was known in certain Bishops’ circles as a master of Kama Sutra.  Later, he was sentenced to death for some oppressive reason.  Before his death he sent his lover a Wal-Mart Dilbert Card ($2.85) signed, “Your Valentine.”

Medieval: In medieval Europe, the people believed that the 14th of February was the day that birds selected their mates.  Hence the term “lovebirds.”  Wow, they sure were clever.  They couldn’t figure out how to cook meat, but they had time to think up witty phrases like, lovebirds.  The first card was officially sent at this time, a Hallmark fold out, ($3.50) from a prisoner in France.  The card was actually a cryptic message plotting his escape.  Unfortunately, the wife was flattered by the message of love and ignored the plan.  Later her husband was beheaded.

Victorian: Everything was mass-produced, and materialism killed the spirit of the holiday.  Oh the joys of the Industrial Revolution!  It turned the world into faceless masses, inspiring Ayn Rand novels, and in turn inspiring lots of college kids not to pursue a major in English.

Modern: Today children and lovers celebrate the holiday together.  Children give candy hearts either for the sugar high or a peck on the cheek behind Mrs. Weidlemeyer’s classroom.  On the other hand, lovers exchange chocolate hearts.  They become disillusioned, thinking that on that night, instead of performing the act of sex, they will delve into the art of making love.  Lovers fill every restaurant in town, leaving singles to make reservations even at the drive-thru line at McDonalds.

[author unknown]

lips-that-touch-liquor

Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine!

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Despite never having adopted the metric system for day-to-day use, Americans are familiar with the basic units, like grams, kilograms, meters and such.  But when it comes to lesser known units we’re clueless.  To help the educational process along a bit …

* 1 millionth of a mouthwash = 1 microscope

* Ratio of an igloo’s circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi

* 2,000 pounds of Chinese soup = Won ton

* Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond

* 16.5 feet in the Twilight Zone = 1 Rod Serling

* Half of a large intestine = 1 semicolon

* 1,000,000 aches = 1 megahurtz

* Basic unit of laryngitis = 1 hoarsepower

* Shortest distance between two jokes = 1 straightline

* 453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake

* 1 million-million microphones = 1 megaphone

* 2 million bicycles = 2 megacycles

* 2000 mockingbirds = 2 kilomockingbirds

* 52 cards = 1 decacards

* 1 kilogram of falling figs = 1 FigNewton

* 1,000 milliliters of wet socks = 1 literhosen

* 1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche

* 10 rations = 1 decoration

* 100 rations = 1 C-ration

* 4 nickels = 2 paradigms

* 2.4 statute miles of intravenous surgical tubing at Yale University Hospital = 1 IV League

[author unknown]

Start Cola Early!

Start Cola Early!

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On Training Shepherds

A short time ago I wrote a blog article entitled “Training Shepherds.” I attempted a modern-day parable of sorts.  It was a word picture in parable form of what I think has been the evolution of clergy or pastoral training for many churches and their denominations.  In this article, I would like to explain my understanding and thinking of this subject.

I make no claims to having all the answers. I also readily acknowledge that all forms of education and mentoring have their own problems inherent in them.  There is no perfect system.

That being said, I have the unique position of observing the changes of pastoral training over a number of decades. First through my parents’ eyes as they are products of an older system of training and mentoring.  Second through my own eyes as I followed years later in my own training, through the evolved institution, and now as I hear and observe close peers who children are attempting to go through the same institution with its still further changes.  These changes are what I attempted to portray in my parable “Training Shepherds.”

Also, I maintain close ties to individuals who work within the education institution that my parents and I graduated from years ago. So, I have had the opportunity to hear the challenges and concerns from inside it.  They are similar to the ones I have heard from friends in other higher religious education institutions which try to train people for ministry.  So, I feel that many of the issues are the same across the board.  The places and faces change but the stories remain the same.

Finally, a study of the history of various religious institutions and their development over time tells us that these developments seem to be normative. The consequences for affiliated churches and denominations who accept their graduates into clergy status seem to be universal.  It would seem that no institution’s original mission and calling has ever succeeded its own success.

To provide full disclosure, I was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination. My parents, right out of high school, attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, which was originally part of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in North Seattle, Washington.  Their final years (’59, ’60), the school moved to its own location near Kirkland, Washington, on an old military base near Lake Washington.

Like my parents, I attended what had become Northwest Bible College, later shortened to Northwest College as it took on more liberal arts studies for other careers. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Then, while my wife completed her B.A. in Elementary Education, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree.  After college, I went on to a couple ministry position and then attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  Afterward, I continued in ministry in Assembly of God churches.

I very much appreciate the education I received at both of the schools I attended. I have no “sour grapes” to harvest and serve up.  This serves as only my recollections and observations in hopes that a healthy dialogue will be generated concerning the education and training of people for ministry in whatever church, denomination or field of service in which they feel called to serve.  It is a distillation of many hours of conversations with friends in and out of ministry, other friends involved in Christian higher education, and personal experience and studies.

In part, we become the product of our own making. This is no less true of institutions than it is of individuals.  Each decision and subsequent action has a ripple effect that we cannot always predict but will nevertheless in the end make or remake us.  Sometimes, our assumptions based upon what others are doing around us can be a basis for those decisions and actions.  Otherwise, how is it that so many end up in the same place even though each one determined that it would not be so?  We assume that taking the same road traveled by others will bring us to a different conclusion because we will travel it better and more careful.

I surmise this is often what happens to denominations and their institutions of higher education. Consider the history of some of America’s greatest halls of learning.  They began as places for training clergy.  Their early stories include historical figures that played major roles in pastoral, missional and theological works.  Now, however, they are bastions of the most liberal type of education – far from “Christian” higher education and no where near their original intent to train people for ministry.  What happened?

I suspect that what happened is not all too different from what we see happening today in many Evangelical colleges and universities. There is a declension towards taking the road everyone else is taking to be “successful.”  Changes are made to increase enrollment to increase revenue so that the school can grow to increase enrollment to increase revenue, ad infinitum.

This is in no way to suggest that a Christian liberal arts education is undesirable. It is a wonderful thing.  Many evangelical colleges and universities are doing this very well.  However, the point I am attempting here is all about maintaining the original mission of training people for ministry work in churches and mission fields.  Can a school accomplish both?  Perhaps.  I do not know because I do not know of a good example of it.  Usually, one must gives way to the other and it usually comes down to “bucks and butts” – how much money students and their desired degrees bring in and how many students each area of study itself attracts.

When a school expands to accommodate other fields of study, it by necessity must give up something it is already doing. It is a general rule of life that one cannot say “Yes” to something without saying “No” to something else.  At the same time, saying “No” to some things allows one to say “Yes” to things that really matter.  We would like to believe that we can do everything at all times equally well.  However, it is hard to point to a successful example of it.

So, this is not to critique a Christian liberal arts education. If that is the stated goal and mission of the Christian school of higher education, then we can be satisfied with it and move on.  There are many great Evangelical school that are doing a great job of accomplish this mission.  However, this is a critique of the present state of educating and training clergy persons.  It is my observation that we seem to be “losing the battle” of training and equipping young people for ministry.  I say this as a pastor within the church and denomination.

I know that within the Assemblies of God denomination the median age of ministers keeps rising, there are not enough young ministers entering ministry as pastors or missionaries to replace those who are retiring, and there are not enough individuals willing and able to pastor the growing number of small churches who are presently left with no pastor. This does not even begin to address the needs of individuals who are needed to pioneer new ministries.  This dilemma is repeated in other denominations according to my circle of ministry friends.

When my parents attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, almost all of the students attending were exploring or pursuing the possibilities of active ministry of some kind. Did all of them end up in full-time ministry?  No.  However, it was the purpose and goal of the school to be a place where that could be explored under the guidance of experienced pastors, solid Bible teachers, and exposure to ministry in various forms.  Many, many individuals did leave the school to go on to become missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

Today, at what is now Northwest University, the number of students in the School of Ministry numbers hardly more than a dozen. This is out of a school population of around one thousand.  Slightly more than one-third of the students even come from an Assemblies of God church.  So, while the school has grown in popularity for a wide diverse audience interested in pursuing a Christian education for careers in medicine, business, education, etc., it has lost its connection to its core constituency and mission.  (Incidentally, I remember when I was at Northwest and there was concern when the number of ministry students in training fell under 100.)

This may be a natural consequence of decisions made to broaden the mission of the school. If that is what it is (and I am certain it is) and if everyone is alright with this (and it seems that most people are, in fact, aligned on this point), then church and denominational leaders must quit agonizing over their loss.  Move on.

The question that must be answered and one that needs to be acknowledge may lie outside what the present institution (Northwest University) can offer isWhere do we go from here to adequately train people for ministry?  How can we challenge more young people to consider full-time ministry of service rather than simply a career to make money?

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I suggest in my parable “Training Shepherds“, we may need to return to the original model and original mission – or some variation of it. Let me suggest why training up people for ministry under the tutelage of elder pastors and local churches may be a better way forward:

  • Financially – The cost of receiving an education from a private Christian school is prohibitive for people wanting to enter full-time ministry.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of our churches are small churches who can barely pay the living expenses of a pastor.  Forget health insurance, retirement contributions or saving because most pastors that I know in these congregations are just able to get by on the churches salary.  Most of them are bi-vocational, which means they have another job or career that supports them in ministry.  This is not to put down small churches (they make up most of our churches) or the communities they serve.  It is simply the reality that is too often forgotten by student and institution alike.  Many elder-shepherds have graduate degrees and many years of experience of exegeting and teaching the Bible, they will be able teachers.  Likewise, with the availability of online classes, correspondent courses, and seminar course work, a student would be able to receive a very fine education without the cost of paying full tuition for attending a school campus.  This would allow a local church to also invest in the education and training of the student, which is something that does not happen too often now because of the disconnect between the churches and their institutions of higher learning.
  • Educationally – I have often wondered if removing someone from ministry context, sequestering them on campus for four years and then sending them back into ministry contexts was the best way to train young people for ministry.  I chose ministry late in my education career.  It is one of the reasons why I went to seminary.  Even though I was heavily involved in my churches throughout my educational experiences, I really had very little real chance to experience ministry by shadowing someone in ministry, being mentored by an elder or being required to do something substantive in a ministry situation.  For my M.Div. practicum, I wrote an ushers and greeters manual for our church.  While it was a great exercise and I hope a help to my church, I never once was asked or challenged to be involved as an usher or greeter.  So, a writing project was to suffice fulfillment for my graduate “practicum”.  (Perhaps I need to look up “practicum” again.)  Classroom education cannot replace hands-on experience.  Knowledge of the Bible cannot substitute for knowledge of working with people in all sorts of life situations.  Learning under the tutelage of a professor what church books, constitution and bylaws and ministry meetings should be like can never fill the gaping hole left by the lack of handling them.  The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in ministry context is paramount to training and equipping.  It needs to be done before one is launched into ministry of any kind.
  • Relationally – While I look back with fondness on almost all of my professors in Bible college and seminary, the relationships that have stuck with me and continue to shape me are my peers in ministry.  Helping young people in ministry establish a mentoring relationship with an elder-pastor will carry them a long way into their ministry years.  In their turn, one day they will have the opportunity to give time to mentoring and training someone else.  This relationship can work both ways.  For the elder-shepherd will find his or her own ministry and life challenged by the fresh generational perspectives and energies of those placed under his or her care.  This will enable an opportunity to hold on to unchanging truths and practices while also embracing new ides and approaches to ministry.  The one in training will gain from the years of experience and the wisdom of someone who has been successful in ministry by learning unchanging truths and exploring opportunities.  The whole church would benefit from the synergy that results from such an association.

These are broad ideas and applications. However, the crisis of calling and training new shepherds for the Master’s fields and flocks is important.  Is it critical?  I do not know, but I hope we figure out some way to return to the important mission of calling and equipping people for ministry in an effective way before it becomes so.

What is evident is that what most churches and denominations are attempting to do is not working. When we look at developing churches in other places around the world, their model does not look anything like ours in the United States.  In many of these places, the number of followers of Christ and churches is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with training shepherds.  When one examines them, it appears that they took the pages right out of our original plans and approaches.  So, if it seems to work for them, maybe we need to go back to what we did at the beginning of our development, albeit with the advantages we have today with modern resources and tools.

A missional approach is perhaps exactly what we need to focus upon again. Returning to our original calling and mission when it comes to specifically training people for ministry may lead to different answers than what I have suggested here.  I am not in a position of influence to affect such a course for others.  However, until things do change, I know what I will be recommending to those who ask me about going into ministry and the best way to be trained, “Find a place that is focused on its mission and calling to train for pastoral ministry and that will give you experience in ministry.  Go there.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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