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Comet Falls From Mount Rainier
Clear day over Mt. Rainier and Comet Falls
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What is it within the human psyche that pulls at us to compare ourselves to others? When did the human race develop the idea that any one of us is capable of summarily judging another person’s existential journey by examining their state of being at any one given moment along life’s time line?  After all, does any one of us know our own beginning from the end, let alone any other’s?

Yet, almost every day there is not one individual of the human race who does not at some point put their self in the judge’s seat to declare judgment for or against someone else or a whole class of someones. I know I am guilty of this ridiculous attempt at playing celestial critic.  I have often admitted to others over the past several years that “I can’t pick’ em.”  I have, in the past, attempted to evaluate the potential of individuals and thereby also prognosticate their outcome.  I have failed more often times than not.

Individuals whom I considered the most brilliant, talented, gifted and spiritual, and so warranted my own time and energies, have turned out to be some of my biggest disappointments to date. They are far from where I thought they would be in terms of accomplishment and far from God.  On the other hand, individuals whom I considered to be questionable, or even not worth too much effort on my part because I foresaw only failure in their future, have turned out to be some of the biggest surprises.  To this date, some of them are successful and give great glory to God.

And the jury of time is still out. Who knows but that the roles may be reversed again in the future before the end comes to each of their stories.  One thing I do know: I don’t know.  I do not know how their stories will turn out.  All I have is this snap-shot moment in time of where they are on their journey and how they are doing.  The same holds true for my own journey.

This is possibly the spiritual angst the Apostle Paul had in mind when he warned himself, “I give blows to my body, and keep it under control, for fear that, after having given the good news to others, I myself might not have God’s approval” (1 Cor. (9:27, BBE).  Even as spiritual leader the Apostle Paul knew the challenges of life’s journey.  He told the believers in Philippi, “It’s not that I’ve already reached the goal or have already completed the course. But I run to win that which Jesus Christ has already won for me” (Phil. 3:12, GW).

When I was a teenager, I worked for a time in the apple orchards around Oroville, Washington and Tonasket, Washington. The orchard job was an early summer one.  I was hired along with others to go through the apple trees and thin the crops.  The goal was to evenly distribute the fruit along the branches.  At the same time, diseased or badly misshapen fruit was weeded out.  This resulted in bigger and more beautiful fruit for the market in the fall harvest.

To be really good, one had to make quick decision and act quickly. The job did not allow for one to take the time to sit back and study a tree and its individual branches or individual apples.  Each apple or group of apples could not be meticulously weighed, examined and judged.  Decisions were made in the moment and on-the-fly.  Sometimes a bad apple or two was missed.  At other times, too many good ones were cast aside to rot on the ground.

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Inspecting the fruit from a human life is not as easy. It cannot be done as cavalier and casually.  There are far greater consequences.  As much as we like to spout the modern proverb, “You can’t judge a book by the cover,” we still regularly attempt it.  I know that I missed some really good stories because I did so.  I should have more closely followed the wisdom given to the prophet Isaiah: “Do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk!”  (58:9).

The problem in today’s religious environment is that many of Jesus’ followers like to think of themselves as spiritual fruit inspectors. Some, I presume, think they may have been given the spiritual gift or authority of fruit inspection.  However, this seems to be a position that Jesus has reserved solely for himself.  Dare we attempt to take his seat or position in the heavenly courtroom?

After telling the crowd gathered around him The Parable of the Sower and the Soils, Jesus launched into another story: The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24 – 30).  It seems that a farmer took the time to sow good wheat seed in his fields looking forward to a good harvest.  However, his enemy, who obviously hated the farmer’s success, took a night to sow weeds into the farmer’s field.  It soon became apparent to the farmer and his workers that weeds were growing in his wheat fields.  What do you propose they do?

The farmhands reacted like so many of us today – myself included:Pull them out by their roots!  Get rid of them! Burn them!”  However, the wise farmer saw the danger in this approach.  The good wheat would be uprooted too.  Then the whole crop would be damaged.  Rather than risking the good wheat, in the farmer’s wisdom, he told his farmhands to “Leave the weeds alone until harvest time.  Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them.  But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn” (v. 30).

Apparently, while many of us at any one moment might be able to identify good or bad fruit (“A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17), the Master reserves only for himself the duty of proclaiming judgment – good or bad. And this he leaves to accomplish at the end of all things.  So much for instant gratification in our justice system.

So, I have given up fruit inspection in the lives of others. I figure I am doing well if I can examine the products of my own life.  Like the Apostle Paul, I will be doing well if I can keep my own life trimmed and pruned so that what it produces will be good.  I know I am carrying a few bad apples.  I just may need someone’s help to reach them to improve my potential harvest.  If I can do that, it will be enough fruit inspection for me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

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Off Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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No Sacrifice For You

Those who know me real well know that I have a strange sense of humor.  My funny bone is often struck at the most inopportune times.  Most of the time I am able to keep it to myself and keep it together.  Sometimes I will share my humorous experience or insight later with friends.  Most of the time they remain private moments of hilarity.  I was bred to keep up appearances, retain proper decorum and affect a serious mode in most public settings and especially in religious ones.

Unfortunately, it is in some of the most serious religious settings that some of the funniest things happen.  After spending most of my life in church and half of it leading congregation, I have some of the funniest stories to tell.  Some serious religious types would shudder at some of them.  Some of the more irreligious types would fall over backwards with side-splitting laughter.  It is just the way the make up of the Church is arranged.  And, since the apostle Paul tells us that God arranged the members of his Church the way he wanted it, well, we can blame it on him.

Recently, our church was celebrating communion together.  This is something we do once a month in our church tradition.  It is a celebratory time.  Different members of the congregation serve the communion to the congregation by gathering at the front of the church and dividing into four serving stations.  The congregation arises at the direction of the ushers to go to the front of the church, if they choose, to receive the communion elements – a piece of bread and a small cup of grape juice.  There is even a “gluten free” station.

This is always a special time.  The congregation continues in prayer and worship.  Some are participating in the Lord’s Supper.  Some are watching the Supper being distributed to fellow congregants.  One gives a piece of bread and one receives it with the words, “This is Christ‘s body broken for you.”  Then one gives a small cup of juice and one receives it with the words, “This is Christ’s blood shed for you.”

All those who choose to may participate in the Lord’s Supper.  Whole families take part in it together.  There are also widows, widowers, singles, and a whole host of diverse people scattered among us.  Each humbly receives a token of the body of Christ and then receives a token of the blood of Christ.

This is an important event for every Christian.   Some celebrate it every week.  Some celebrate it only once a year.  We have lay-ministers who serve it to people in the hospitals and nursing homes.  It is a special and meaningful event.  It reminds us of the sacrifice Christ made for our sins so that we could receive forgiveness and be made righteous in God’s eyes so that we can have open fellowship with him.

Without that perfect sacrifice made by the sinless son of God, Jesus the Messiah, we would still be in our sins.  The fear of death, judgment after death, and separation from God forever would be our demise.  There would be no hope for this life or the one to come.  There would be no freedom from sin’s bondage, the fear of death or the afterlife nor the hope that there is life after this life.

Moss Covered Tree on Multnomah Creek Above Multnomah Falls, Spring 2010

Moss Covered Tree on Multnomah Creek Above Multnomah Falls, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This most recent time that our church was celebrating the Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist – an accident of sorts took place.  Those who were to replace empty communion cup trays with full ones were off cue.  Suddenly, there was a line that had no communion elements.  This is a crisis of unthinkable proportions!  You cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the bread and juice elements.  It is the whole point after all.

The team of individuals at this breadless, juiceless station looked a bit befuddled as to what to do.  They were frantically gazing about looking for the team that was to be bringing refilled trays of bread and juice.  The gentleman who was serving the juice, Allen, is known in our congregation as somewhat of an entrepreneur.  He and his wife, Dee, started Martha’s Cupboard several years ago and now it is a growing ministry concern that touches hundreds of people’s lives in the Tri-cities.

Allen is also known for his sense of humor; a bit strange like mine.  I smiled as I watched him and Dee attempt to sort out what to do.  Suddenly, he turned to the next person in line and with a big humorous grin on his face said, “I’m sorry.  There is no blood of Jesus for you. And it looks like we are out of his body, too.”  He repeated this as each person came up to him and his wife, Dee, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

At first, this drew a startled look from the congregants.  Then, they would see his humor and move to the next station that had the communion elements available.  Some chuckled.  Some looked worried.  Some moved on and others glanced back in what looked like a bit of consternation at such a rude awakening to the solemn occasion.  This all got me thinking:  I mean, what if Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the upper room was ill prepared and he had run out of bread and wine?  Of course, this had me in stitches.  I like Allen!

Thankfully, it was not too long before things were restored and Allen and Dee were able to serve the Lord’s Supper to congregants once again.  However, I still chuckle to myself when I think of that experience.  We humans want to be so right and prim and proper at these important solemn occasions.  We do not know how to handle ourselves when it all falls apart into apparent spontaneous hilarity.

We have a choice.  Attempt to cover it up and continue in our solemnity as if nothing happened.  Or, we can acknowledge our humanness and laugh at ourselves.  I think God joins us in the latter.  He is not as horrified as we are at our frailties and shortcomings.

As we enter into Holy Week, I am reminded of the importance of the sacrifice Jesus made for humanity.  What a tragedy that would truly be if there really were no sacrifice for you or me?  “I’m sorry.  There is no blood of Jesus for you. And it looks like we are out of his body, too.”  No way to recover from our rebellion against God.  No way to be healed of our self-destructive ways.  No promise of life beyond this life or a hope-filled life in this life.

The story of Jesus and his sufferings and crucifixion tells us that God out of his great love provided for us what we needed and could not provide for ourselves.  The greater story of his resurrection, which we will soon celebrate, tells us that God accomplished and will continue to accomplish all he set out to do.  Death, the grave and eternity are conquered for us.  He invites us to his table to break bread with him and drink with him and give thanks.  A sacrifice has been made for you – his body broken for you and his blood shed for you.  And it will never run out.  Guaranteed.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Spring Runoff at Multnomah Falls, Oregon, 2010

Spring Runoff at Multnomah Falls, Oregon, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Linguaphobia

People in the United States are not the only ones on earth who have an anxiety about learning another language.  It is a common problem all over the world.  Some of it is due to educational attempts that do not work real well to teach foreign languages.  Some of it is due to a strong nationalism and identity with a mother-language.  Anxiety or fear of learning a foreign language is often called “linguaphobia”.

The real problem develops when linguaphobia develops into a linguacentrism; the idea that one particular language should be the only one spoken.  This is becoming more prevalent in the United States in recent years as a result of the rise in immigration and in particular the rise of Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants.  More and more, one hears the angry declaration, “They live in America now.  They should speak English!”  As if, somehow crossing a boarder grants one the magical and immediate power to learn a foreign language.

The cultural tension becomes greater when xenoglossophobia develops among the mother-language speakers – English, in the case of the United States.  This is the fear of foreign language speakers.  It can also be called xenophobia; the fear or dislike of people different than your self.  I believe this is a growing problem in the United States.  It is a problem created more from “group-think” than any actual threat.

The fact of the matter is that the United States has always been an nation of immigrants.  As such, it has always contained within its borders people who speak many different languages.  Early on, it began mainly with European languages – German, French, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish among many others.  This explain the complexity of the American English language.  It is a compound of many additional foreign words!

Another fact that is often overlooked today is that English language acquisition has often taken immigrants a generation or two to assimilate so that it is no longer a foreign or second language to them.  In the Midwest for example, many community churches retained their ethnic language identities in German and Scandinavian languages up until a few decades ago!  There are still a few who use the original mother-tongue language occasional in their church services.

Indian Heaven Wilderness Stream, Summer 2002

Indian Heaven Wilderness Stream, Summer 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My Swedish grandfather came from Sweden as a child, struggled to learn English, but still retained and spoke Swedish until his death.  It was not until his children came along that English was the mother-tongue language.  As his grandchild, I know and understand no Swedish.  I suspect that for recent immigrants – legal or illegal – to the United States it will take the same amount of time.  Our own experience as immigrants should make us more tolerant and patient with new arrivals to this land of opportunity.

It is particularly shameful for those within the Church to be intolerant or xenophobic.  Since the Great Commission compels us to be witnesses to every ethnic group on earth, they should see this as a golden opportunity.  Instead of needing to go to foreign lands to the people of the world, the people of the world are coming to our communities and neighborhoods!  This saves the Church thousands of dollars in sending missionaries overseas.  Now the mission field is settling around us in small ethnic conclaves that can be easily reached by many Christians and churches.

The final picture of the Bride of Christ – the Church – we have in The Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ should also motivate us to welcome and embrace people of different cultures and languages.  The vision presented to us (7:9) is a multi-ethnic, multi-language celebration gathered around the Lamb’s throne.  They will be singing and dancing – each according to their cultural and language – to the words, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (7:10).  I really do not think that at that glorious and holy moment some xenophobe American is going to yell out, “Hey, speak English!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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