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Antique Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, 2010

Antique Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 2

When is a problem too big for God to handle? When the problem is bigger than you can deal with on your own.  At least, this is how most of us work in our faith.  Or, I should say, this is how my faith seems to work.  As long as it is a problem that I can imagine to be solvable or at the least manageable, then I envision that God can also take it on.

Yes, this is a rather anemic faith. It makes God – the Creator of all the universe – only as large as myself or my imagination.  In short, it makes God – the One who possesses all the power – small.  It reminds me of the line in the Walt Disney movie Aladdin when the genie is described as “all the powers of the universe in a teeny-weeny little bottle.”

This might sound strange coming from one who for 25 years was attempting to lead other people in faith. It is a lot easier to lead others in doctrinal statement and propositional truths than it is in living reality; that is for certain.  Nevertheless, life presents challenges that require us to either put greater faith in God or give up faith in him at all.  Ministry seems to only put an individual under greater pressure to reach either end.

Shortly after finishing seminary at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri, my family and I found ourselves back in Washington State. I was called to pastor a church in West Richland, Washington.  It was not too long after relocating that we found ourselves in financial trouble.

One of the disadvantages of many pastors of small congregational churches is a lack of health insurance. Their salaries do not provide enough to buy individual family coverage.  So, many go without.  This is what my family was doing.  Later, my wife would get a teaching job in the local school district, which would help solve this problem.  But until that opportunity came along, we were on our own.  And with four kids at home, betting against doctor visits, emergency room visits, dentist visits and optometrists visits is a losing venture.

We came to a situation where a combination of events almost undid us financially. Our son needed braces for teeth that made it almost impossible to eat.  A couple of visits from accidents by our children led to emergency room visits and doctor visit follow-ups.  To top it all off, our car quit and was of no trade-in value.

One day, I sat down to figure it out how much we were underwater financially. Adding up all the extra bills we accrued as well as a couple of thousand dollars for a down payment on a used car, I choked at the figure that stared at me on the page.  It seems we would need $10,000.  It might as well have been 10 million.

The next day, in my devotion time when I took time to write in my journal, I put in writing my need. It seemed laughable that I would even write the figure in my journal.  Like that kind of money would just drop into our laps, right?  Sure.  I was skeptical of any immediate answer.  Instead, I prepared for a long road of slowly paying off bills, doing without some things, and getting used to having only one broken down used car for my family instead of two.

I always close my journal entries writing out a prayer. It helps me to put in writing and in a tangible form the desires of my heart, the needs of my family, church and community, the worries I may have as well as the hopes that I carry.  I have found it refreshing in the way it unburdens my soul.  Like writing a “To Do” list, it prevents my heart and mind from attempting to holding on to these things so I won’t forget them.  By committing them to writing it gives my soul permission to breathe and let go of all those things committed to paper.

I wrote my request for my family’s needs.Lord, we are really hurting financially.  Along with regular bills and school bills, the bills of hospital, doctors and orthodontists are burying us.  It is not my problem.  It is your problem.  Help us be a good steward of what we do possess.  Please take care of all that we have no control over.”  I know.  Not a profound prayer.  It almost seems as filled with doubt as it does faith.  But it’s all I had at the time.

Life continued on and we did the best we could for a few weeks. Several weeks later, I found myself at my regular haunt at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore.  I regularly went there to plan, write and read leadership books.  It was a good place to get out of the office and focus my week.  My “To Do” lists were generated there.

As I wandered among the stacks, I ran into a member of a family who had recently joined our church. They were there wandering among the bookshelves looking for good books to read.  I greeted the mother of the family I ran into.

Me:  “Hi!  Surprise seeing you here.  How are you doing?”

Her:  “Good!  Yes, it’s a surprise seeing you too!  I was just thinking about you.  Our family has been praying for you.”

Me:  “Well, thank you.  We really need it.  What are you all up to today?”

Her:  “We’re just out to browse books.  Hey, listen, are you going to be at the church office at all later today?”

Me:  “Yes.   I’ll be in there after lunch until about 5:30.”

Her:  “Good.  Can we all come by to see you…say about 3:00?”

Me:  “Sure!  I’ll be looking for you!”

Her:  “Great.  We’ll see you then.  We have something very important to talk to you about.”

We parted ways and I head home to get some lunch.  Her last words hung over me with a dread. I never liked being left with, “Pastor, I have something very important to talk to you about.  Can we talk later this week?”  And them I’m left wondering what it is what it is so important to talk to me about.  It is often not good.  So, I’ve been left gun-shy from such announcement.  Being a new family to our church, I imagined that they had run into some problem they needed me to solve or address.

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

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

I went home and ate lunch. Later, I made myself busy at the church office catching up on mail, email, phone call-backs, and getting things on my “To Do” list done.  Soon, I was busy enough to forget about the family’s visit at 3:00.  It was the doors opening and closing at the front of the church that reminded me of their appointment.

Me:  “Hey!  Great to see you all again.  I’m glad you can make it.”

We shook hands and chatted for a bit.  Then the mother of the family picked up where we left off at Barnes & Noble.

Her:  “Pastor, we have something very serious we want to talk to you about.”

My stomach sunk with a lead ball of dread and foreboding.  This was not going to be good.

Me:  “Well…what can I help you all out with?

Her:  “To get right to it.  My grandmother passed away last month…”

Me:  “I’m so sorry to hear that…it must be a very hard time for you all.”

She smiled and said, “No.  She was a Christian and was ready to go to heaven.  We know that she is with Jesus and happy.  We’ll see her again one day.”

Me:  “Well, that is great to hear.  What a testimony to her faith and to Jesus.”

Her:  “Yes.  Well, the reason why we are here is that she left a rather substantial inheritance to me.  Our family has been praying about what to do with it.  We’ve decided there are several things that the Lord want us to do.  First, we want to give some to the Lord’s ministries we support which includes this church.”

She handed out a check to me.

Me:  “Well, bless you!  However, I can’t take the check.  It’s against our church’s policy.  Is there a way I could have you give it to our church treasurer?  That would be much safer and more appropriate.”

Her:  “Of course.  I understand.  That is perfectly acceptable.  Should I just give it to him this next Sunday?

Me:  “Yes.  That would be great.”  And I gave her the name of our treasurer.  “If he happens not to be here, you can give it to one of our ushers too.  If it is a large check, then they can put it in the safe right away.”

They all looked at each other.  She replied, “Yes.  It’s a rather large check.  I’ll give it to one of them first thing Sunday morning.”

Me:  “Wonderful.  Again, thanks so much. I know it will be a huge help at this time for our church body.”

Her:  “Well…there is one more thing.”  She turned and smiled at the rest of her family.  “We really felt that the Lord wanted us to give you something too just for you and your family at this time.  We know that it has been a hard time for all of you and want to help.”

Surprised, I offered, “You know that is not necessary.  I’m sure your support of the church is sufficient.”

Her:  “Well, we want to be obedient to the Lord and so must insist.  We prayed about it and feel this is the amount the Lord would have us give to you.”

She handed out an envelope to me.

This is where it can get really sticky in ministry. How do you judge whether a “gift” is coming with no strings attached?  How do you account for it?  Most gifts are small.  How much was this one?  Do you dare ask?  How do you accept it humbly and gracefully?  How does it affect relationships and those you show favor to over others?

As I looked at her and at her family, I had a deep sense that they honestly meant this as an act of obedience to something they felt the Lord calling them to do. They hardly knew me as a pastor.  Yet, I felt that there were no ulterior motives.  There was a peace surrounding this gift that gave me a sense that this was a God-moment for them and for me.  So, I reached out and took the envelope.

We said our goodbyes and I profusely thanked them for their obedience to the Lord and their generosity to the church and to my family. I put the envelope into my shirt pocket and returned to the immediate duties that called me attention.  I had a long list to complete before I could get home.

We I did arrive home, it was as usually – just as dinner was ready to be served. We sat around the dinner table as a family and shared our day.  Our family’s dinner time is rarely quiet.  At the same time, we are all fast eaters so it also tends to be rather short.

After dinner was cleaned up, I remembered the envelope in my shirt pocket.

Me:  “Hey, you know that new family that started attending our church just a short while ago?

My wife:  “Yeah.”

Me:  “Well, they wanted to meet with me today.  Apparently, a relative passed away and left them with an inheritance.  They gave some to the church.”

My wife:  “Wow.  That’s great!  How much?

Me:  “I don’t know.  I asked them to give it to our church treasurer or an usher Sunday.”

My wife:  “Oh.”

Me:  “They also wanted to give us a small gift.  So they gave me this…”

I handed the unopened envelope to my wife.  I thought I’d let her open it.  I was expecting a small gift that would help with groceries or maybe the next hospital or orthodontist bill.

She ripped open the top and looked over the check.  Then her hand flew to her chest.  “Ron!”

She said this in a surprised and started voice.  I turned toward her and took the check from her hand.  As I looked at the amount on the check, I had to sit down.  It was made out for $10,000.

That evening, I went to the journal entry of several weeks back where I had written that absurd amount down as a need for the Lord to take care of for my family. Now I was able to write in that same journal the date upon which the Lord through an unassuming family answered that very request.  My little faith was answered greatly and resulted in a great amount of thanks and praise to God.

I wish I could say that I have never since then struggled with doubt. It would be great to be able to announce to everyone my never-ending faith in God’s faithfulness.  It wouldn’t be true.  Yet, God continues to surprise me in the way that he shows how much bigger he is than my belief.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Classic Car Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Car Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Classic Car Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Car Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Keeping One Idea Among Many

The idea that the United States of America is an open market place for ideas is being tested. Of course, it is always being tested because it  is still a democratic experiment.  However, the feverish screaming from different sides of ideological or religious aisles has perhaps been no more loud than in recent days.  Whether it is the proposal of an Islamic Center two blocks from the 9/11 ground zero, the diametrically opposed political and economic ideas of the left and right, or discussions surrounding health care and other contemporary issues, the result seems to be the same: deafening noise.

Unfortunately, the media and pundits seem to have hijacked the center stage of the discussion. Of course, early on in U.S. politics, newspapers played a large role in informing or misinforming the public.  Today, our technology has only improved the results of information or misinformation.  The question of whether a society can maintain an open market place for ideas to be shared and debated seems to be still up in the air.  The classic example is the average American liberal arts college or university that allows for just about any discussion except any concerning the support of the Christian faith.  The same binders are put upon any such discussion in the secular market spaces.

When our institutions, media and government control the dialogue the liberty to express one’s ideas is enslaved to those institution’s ideologies. Of course, on the other side of the argument then, is the understanding that if it is truly to be an open market place of ideas, then we must allow for the voice of even the wackiest of propositions.  That may be true.  However, I would argue that there is less a danger in that direction than in the direction of censorship and limitations of liberty.

Contrary to what many ne0-atheists and anti-religion proponents claim, I believe that the core of Christian thought and doctrine have remained robust and alive. Even in an unfair and unbalanced environment for equal dialogue, the claims of the Christian worldview have stood up well.  Granted, most of this has had to take place within the confines of Christian institutions, schools, and think-tanks.  If anything, the arguments and ideas have been sharpened by the debate that takes place outside the public market place of ideas.

In a market place of ideas, it is not surprising to find that there are many voices. Personally, I believe that this is a good thing.  It helps to hone and sharpen opposing points of view and eliminate those that do not stand up; or at least hold them up to sharp scrutiny.  As a Christian and church leader, I have never been afraid to allow the core Christian tenets to stand up for scrutiny in the market place.  Unfortunately, there are very few places where a civil dialogue can take place so that religious/political/philosophical ideas can be shared.

I have discovered some of the nastiest folks in internet chat rooms; even if they are meant to give voice to religion or politics or philosophy. It is not too soon into any discussion before a person or persons takes it down to the level of name calling and playground banter.  All one is left to do is to move on.  Sadly, I have not found the public arena much more inviting or encouraging.  It seems that very few people have a capacity to share ideas, convictions or experiences in a civil manner.

Classic Ford, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Ford Automobile, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This may not be the greatest challenge, however. I believe the greatest challenge may be for the individual to be able to keep their individuality in thoughts and convictions without selling out to what is either politically correct or publicly acceptable.  This is not to say that a mind should remain unchanged.  Change of convictions based upon sound reasoning is acceptable.  Acquiescing to the raucous mob or loudest voices is not.  Instead, maintaining individual expression amidst public discourse is akin to wearing a blue shirt to a convention of Wal-Mart employees.  It is hard to not get lost in the crowd and just appear to be one among many.

The idea of individual liberty to believe and express one’s beliefs in the United States was a sacred idea to most of the founders of this secular democracy. It is why they maintained the importance of the separation of church and state; so that one ideology, even a Christian one, would not dominate the public market place of ideas and expressions.  Instead, they hoped to build a society that would be open to all religions, philosophies, and ideas so that in and through the sharing of them the best in humanity may arise.

The attempt to hold captive any ideology or philosophy, even if it is held only by a minority is truly un-American in the most basic sense. Only those who do not really believe what they tout or know why they believe what they spout fear those with opposing ideas.  Take the Christian Gospel for instance.  If the ideas and ideals of the Christian Gospel cannot hold its own in a secular society, then those who trust in it may best serve themselves by re-examining what they believe.  Depending upon the government to support their ideas and censor any that oppose them is only a sure way to loose credibility.  Every idea must stand on its own two feet, per se, no matter how sacred.

European history is a great example of what happens to the church when it is enforced and protected by the state. Instead of under-girding it, such actions undermine it.  Even the early American colonies’ attempts at church-state religions proved this point.  Let the Church and its message stand on its own two feet without government support or intrusion.  Free from such false supports, I am convinced it will flourish; even as one idea among many.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Antique GMC Truck, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

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

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Founding Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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