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Posts Tagged ‘Christian Religion’

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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There is an old church hymn that begins its chorus with the words, “I love to tell the story.” Sharing the good news of God’s work through his son, Jesus the Messiah, is precisely just that – telling the story.  It is his story and he is still writing it in and through the lives of people delivered from spiritual bondage and lostness.  It is a simple story.  And, when an individual’s life becomes changed by that story, it becomes a very personal story.

Unfortunately, like so many other things we do surrounding God, we have made this story really complicated. We cannot simply tell it as it is given to us.  Now we must qualify it and explain it to suit our own understanding of God.  The simple story of God’s message of rescuing humankind through the work of his son, Jesus, gets really complicated with layers of theology and prescriptions for spirituality.  I’m certain that if Jesus were to sit in many of our churches today he would be dumbfounded and caused to ask, “Are you talking about me?”  It is so hard to tell sometimes.

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently, a gentleman approached me about doing the “preaching” portion of a service in a retirement center. He wanted to assure me that everything would be taken care – music, songs, prayer and even communion.  All I had to do was show up and deliver a sermon.  “After all,” he qualified, “I’m not a pastor or clergy personI don’t mind doing the song service or communion, but I can’t preach.  I’m not qualified since I’m not a reverend.”

I was speechless. Standing before me was an elderly gentleman who had a passion for serving the retirement community around us.  His manner and speech told me he was well educated and very articulate.  He was a seasoned person of the church, probably had been going for 30 or 40 years.  I thought it odd that he had no problem serving the Lord’s Supper as a non-clergy person since in many denominations that is a service only a clergy person can perform.  So, obviously his spiritual background did not come from such a heritage.  However, not able to “preach;” that is, share the gospel, tell the good news that is in Christ Jesus, teach the way of the Lord?

Since when did telling the story of God require theological credentials? I am often reminded of the apostles who were unlearned men – uneducated.  Yet, the people of their time could tell that they had been with Jesus.  They became faithful witnesses of Jesus and his ways.  Telling the story was a very simple endeavor.  It focused upon the life, ministry, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus the Messiah.  It was supported with Old Testament examples of prophetic fulfillment.

Have we made our Gospel too complicated when the average person in our church does not feel qualified to share it with others? I am not addressing shyness or an ability for public speaking here.  I am only talking about telling the story of Jesus.  What have we done with the story of God’s message in his son when those who sit in our chairs and pews for years cannot tell others – or do not feel qualified to tell others?  What have we subtly communicated to them about telling this story when we have only professional clergy share it week after week?

I gently prodded the man standing before me.Why do you think it takes a pastor to preach?” I asked.  “You sound like an intelligent and articulate person.  You seem to know your Bible and it sounds to me like you have quite a number of years of experience in your spiritual journey.  Why don’t you share the gospel with them?”

The elderly gentleman blinked at me like I was speaking Old Testament Hebrew.  “Well, because I don’t have the credentials.  I would hate to say something wrong and teach something in error.”

I attempted to counter his sense of insecurity with a suggestion.  “Well, it is true that there are some parts of the Bible that are harder to understand than others.  And it is true that there are some theological issues that can boggle the sharpest minds.  However, the story of Jesus about the things he did as an example for us and the things he taught us are pretty straight forward.  What if you just concentrated on those things?  That’s what the Gospel is really all about any way, isn’t it?”

True,” he answered.  “I just feel inadequate…like someone more qualified should be preaching.”

I’ve preached for 25 years and still always feel inadequate, even with a Bible School and Seminary education,” I offered as an encouragement, which is very true about me.  I’ve never had a sermon or Bible lesson where I felt completely adequate for the job or occasion.  “Anyway, it is not the vessel that gets the glory.  It is what is poured out of the vessel that everyone remembers.  So, just focus on telling the story of Jesus and see what God will do by his Holy Spirit in the lives of the listeners.

At that, my elderly friend seemed relieved.  “I think I can do that,” he offered.

I can offer you some ideas and moral support, but I think you are up to the task.  You probably have for a long time.  You just need someone to push you on to the stage.”  I smiled and offered a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  I could see that he was mulling this new idea over.  There was no doubt in my mind that he would do just fine or actually quite well.

So, now I am waiting to hear how he did his first few times. I am sure that in telling the story his life was changed in the telling of it and his listeners lives were changed in hearing it.  That is, after all, the most basic reason why believers and seekers all gather week after week.  We love to tell and hear the story of God’s great love in a Savior who died for us and rose again.  From this recent experience of mine, it seems that each of us needs more work on simply telling the story.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a story about a little girl who, on the way home from church, turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, the preacher’s sermon this morning confused me.”

The mother said, “Oh, why is that?”

The girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are.  Is that true?”

Yes, that’s true,” the mother replied.

He also said that God lives within us.  Is that true, too?”

Again, the mother replied, “Yes.”

Well,” said the girl.  “If God is bigger than us and he lives in us, wouldn’t he show through?”

Sometimes the simple words of a child can reveal such great truth.  Shouldn’t Jesus show through us?  Indeed, if we are living our life for him, we will allow his light to shine through us.  Matthew 5:16 tells us to “So let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven.”

Too often, we dismiss the importance of Jesus showing through us through the good works that we do for Him.  However, Jesus made it clear that this is an important part of our witness to the world.  The things we do for others should be like a bright neon sign that declares, “Followers of Jesus here!”

Gareth and Cara at Sunset, Strawberry Point, 2002

Gareth and Cara at Sunset, Strawberry Point, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus is made real to the world – our children, friends, neighbors, and family – by the work we do in his name.  It is the type of fruit on the tree that identifies the tree.  It is the same way with the spiritual fruit born in our lives.

Unfortunately, the church culture has more “bark than bite” when it comes to the gospel.  We frequently do not “walk the talk.”  This is why it important that everyone who calls himself or herself a follower of Christ find the place where they are to serve.  A disciple cannot grow to be like his or her master if he or she does not do the same work the Master did as an example for us to follow.

Jesus’ example to us is most clear when he washed his own disciples’ feet.  Those who should have humbled themselves to wash their master’s feet and offer to wash other’s feet instead argued, stubbornly sat waiting for someone else to do what was necessary, and allowed the honored guest at the table do it instead.  How awkward.  At least Peter had the sense to protest.  The others seemed content to let Jesus do it!

Nevertheless, we can be guilty of the same servant apathy today.  The problem is not that there are not enough opportunities to serve and minister.  The problem is that there are not enough servants.  Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful!”

There are a great many opportunities for the Kingdom; more than anyone can count or imagine.  “But the laborers are few.”  The greatest need is willing servants who will humble themselves to do what is necessary to reap the rewards of the harvest.  “Pray…to send forth laborers…”

One of the strengths of a healthy, vital church is that ministry is not clergy driven.  It does not depend upon a “professional” or recognized “pastor” to be initiated or get done.  Everyone being a minister and serving others is a value embraced by everyone in such a fellowship of believers.  Everyone is a priest with a position to serve someone else for the glory of God.  God’s light of glory shines through them.

How does God “show through” you?  What good works do you do for the least, last, and lost around you that brings glory to God?  In what way are you personally engaged in the harvest fields of the master?  Does a life of serving others mark your life like it marked the Master’s?

I encourage you to let God be bigger than you.  Allow Him to do something bigger through you than you could ever imagine.  Who knows, someone may see what you do and give thanks and praise to God for it.  All because you allowed God to show through.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Distant and Silent God

American popular theology likes to focus on the joys of a relationship with God; and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, it has left many Christians with an anemic theology that does not adequately grapple with pain, suffering, death and times when God seems to be distant and silent.  We like to talk about the nearness of God, but not his farness or otherness.  We like to express the beauty of his revealed Word and share times when the real presence of God broke upon us in a difficult time.

My limited experience among American Christians has been that we avoid looking into the times that God appears silent and distant toward us.  We squirm in awkward silence when someone shares such an experience.  It seems to us to walk the edge of doubt and unbelief in the goodness of God and the rewards of following him; and we are afraid of falling off that edge.  Particularly among Pentecostals and Charismatics, who relish the personal experience of God’s presence and power, admitting to such a struggle almost comes across as a complete abandonment of the faith.

I have known the distance and silence of God.  Some spiritual fathers and mothers of the faith have called it “the wilderness.”  They have likened it to the wilderness experiences of others in the Bible; most notably Elijah and Jesus.  Elijah fled to the wilderness.  Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit.  For both, God does not appear, speak, or comfort until the end of the wilderness experience.  The “desert fathers” of the early Christian faith sought out the wilderness experience and what it could teach them.  Me?  I would rather avoid it.

Nevertheless, I have had my experiences in the spiritual wilderness where God is silent and distant.  One such instance marked me for life because of what I both experienced and learned through the ordeal.  A number of years ago, during my first pastorate at Quilcene Assembly of God, the Lord allowed me to go through a dark and terrible time where he seemed silent and distant.  Nothing I seemed to do appeared to help – no spiritual discipline, no trumped up spiritual fervor, nor any amount of crying out in prayer.  I felt abandoned.

I was warned of the coming wilderness event, however, by a good friend.  Ron Frantz and I had begun a close spiritual relationship and began speaking into each others life.  Ron had displayed great love for me and was interested in helping me grow spiritually as well as a leader of that small congregation of believers.  We both had a passion to see God glorified in the small logging community.  I not only knew that Ron prayed, but I also knew that he heard from the Lord.  One day, on his way to work for a few months in the Eastern United States, he stopped by the office to pray for me and say good-bye.

Before he left, he told me that the Lord had given him a word of encouragement for me.  I was excited to hear what the Lord might possibly say to encourage me and our small congregation.  With a small grin on his face and a look of compassion that expressed a genuineness that those who know Ron will know well, he told me,

The Lord wants you to know that in the days ahead you are going to go through a very dark time.  While it may seem like the Lord is not present, the Lord wants you to know that he will be with you and not leave you.

I was stunned.  “THAT’S the ‘encouraging word’!?  I’m going to go through a dark time?

No,” Ron said.  “That the Lord is going to be there in the midst of it.”

And you’re leaving town,” I noted.  “Thanks for the warning...and encouragement.  I think.”

Well, I’ll be praying for you while I’m away.  I’m sure the Lord has something special for you through it because He loves you so much.”

That is a typical Ron Frantz’ response.  He always focuses upon the goodness and love of God in all circumstances.  It is what makes him so endearing, such a great friend, and wonderful spiritual companion on life’s road.  I am sure that even as a child, when his mother or father spanked him, he must have turned around afterward and said something like, “Thanks for that.  I know you did it because you love me so much.”

We prayed and parted our ways.  Ron headed east and I headed went back to pastoring the folks of Quilcene and raising a young family.  Soon, I would forget about what Ron shared with me as time and activity erased the memory of it.  It would take being in the middle of a spiritual wilderness to jog it loose.

It was only a few months later that I found myself entering into unfamiliar spiritual waters.  It was a time of a spiritual wilderness that brought uncertainty about my call to ministry, my worth, and my relationship with God.  I slowly slipped into a period of time where God seemed remote and distant.  Prayers did not seem to go any farther than the ceiling.

The heavens seemed closed.  Studying God’s Word for personal devotions or for sermon preparation felt lifeless.  Preaching and teaching God’s Word was drier than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found no joy or satisfaction in any of it.  But the worse of it was how distant I felt from God and how silent he seemed to become.  Yet, despite all of this; strangely enough, the church congregation grew and prospered.

This brought about a real crisis of faith and torment of the soul.  Did I do something to displease God?  Did I sin and alienate God?  No amount of soul-searching brought any answers.  I doubted my call to ministry.  I doubted my ability to lead a congregation.  I wrestled with giving up and throwing in the towel.  Then, one day, Ron’s encouraging word before he left came back to me.  I had been forewarned about this experience!  This is what Ron must have been talking about and encouraged me to remember that God was present despite what I felt.

For a few months, the words Ron spoke into my life were the only thing I had to hold on to.  Sure, I had the promises of God’s Word.  But whenever I read God’s Word, there seemed to be no life in them.  Sure, I had personal communication with God, but fellowship through prayer seemed dead and to be only one-way.  I would often repeat to myself, “Lord, you promised your presence at all times.  You even sent Ron to personally tell me.  I choose to believe that you are here even though it seems that you are not.”

Soon, however, that personal confirmation did not seem to be enough.  I could not talk myself out of the dark despair of what seemed to me to be God’s absence and silence.  My prayer became singular and focused upon only one request, “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  For many weeks, that was my only prayer.  I shared it with no one.  Few people knew the cry of my heart.

Mount Rainier, 2002

Mount Rainier, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Months later, Ron Frantz returned from working out east.  He was anxious to go to a conference in Moses Lake, WA. with me and a mutual friend of ours, Ray Canterbury.  I was not as excited about the conference as much as I was looking forward to time away with two good friends.  The Lord had knitted our lives together spiritually and we were learning a lot from each other.

The last meeting of the conference, we sat up front and were anticipating the return trip home.  The speakers and worship had been good.  However, for myself, I did not enjoy them as much as others appeared to be around me.  My soul was in anguish.  God seemed to be distant and silent.  I sat in my chair and prayed only one prayer.  I went to the pre-service prayer times and prayed only one prayer:  “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  I had no other prayer.  I could pray no other prayer.

As the meeting was wrapping up, and we began to look at each other to check on whether it was the right time to exit, one of the speakers came over to us and said, “Do you guys all know each other?”

Yes,” we replied.

I believe that Lord has a word for each of you.  Why don’t you come up here for a moment,” he offered.

At this, I have to admit I was not spiritually minded at all.  My first thought was, “Great!  This is all I need.”  Truthfully, I just wanted to head home and was anxious about getting back on the road.  We had a long drive ahead of us.  Plus, the fellowship and discussion in the car would be much more invigorating than whatever this guy had to say to us.  I am more than a little skeptical of strangers who do not know me, and whom I do not know, giving me “words from the Lord.”  My experience has been that more often than not, they are good intentions that completely miss the mark.

As the guest speaker was talking to each of my friends, I felt my spirit shrink.  “All right, Lord,” I prayed.  “If you want to speak through this person to me, then I will receive it.  But the only thing I am really interested in is what I have already been asking you for these past months.  God, I am only human.  I really need to know you that are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  Then, I waited.

Soon, this spiritual stranger was standing in front of me.  I shifted me feet nervously, wondering what the outcome of this chance meeting was going to bring.  My main worry was that it was not going to be too embarrassing.  I was suspecting that “the word from the Lord” was going to be some meaningless, generic pabulum spoken over countless lives before me.  My expectations could not have been any lower.

He stood in silence a few moments before me as if to examine me.  “You are the pastor of this group, aren’t you?

Good guess,” I thought.  I was dressed very unpastoral, but something must have given him a clue, I thought.

Well, the Lord wants you to know that he is with you.  That he has never left you.  And that he is pleased with you.”

I was shocked.  These were the only words that he could have spoken that would have meant anything to me.  It was as if he read my mail.  Of course, he did not, but the Holy Spirit at work through him did.  He said a few things after this but I heard nothing else.  I broke into tears and weeping as the realization of what I had just heard hit me.  God had heard my hearts cry, spanned the distance I felt, and broke the silence by speaking directly into my life and situation in a way that was unmistakable.  Ron was right.  The Lord did have something special for me in it all.  He does love me very much.

As you can imagine, the ride home was very lively as we all shared our impressions and experiences of the conference.  It went much faster than we wanted.  I shared with Ray and Ron my experiences over the past months and the impact of my experience as the speaker at the conference spoke into my life something no one else could have possibly known.  From that time on, there was a freshness to my spiritual journey I had never experienced before.

I cannot explain to anyone why God sends us through periods where he seems to be distant and silent towards us.  I know some who have had an experience like this last years instead of months.  I know some who came through these times scarred instead of healed.  I know others who have come through wilderness times more spiritually empowered than ever before.  God does not seem to need to explain himself.  He is God – even when distant and silent.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the challenges of the Christian faith is steadfastly and securely standing upon “Christ, the solid rock.”  These words harken back to a familiar 19th century Church hymn.  The hymn, “My Hope is Built” or “Solid Rock,” is as familiar a hymn about God’s grace as John Newton‘s “Amazing Grace.”  It carries in its tune the hope of every Christian as well as the recognition of the trials every Christian faces.

The author of the hymn’s words is not a readily recognizable name.  Reverend Edward Mote (1797 – 1874) was a Baptist minister in Horsham, Sussex, England from 1852 – 1873.  He was not raised in a Christian home.  He spent he early life running the streets and largely neglected as his parents ran a pub in London.  In fact, his upbringing was so devoid of religious education or spiritual instruction that he claims no knowledge of God until he heard the Word of God for the first time and was baptized at age 18.  After that, he was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and did well at that for 37 years, until he was called into ministry.

It was during his years as a cabinet maker that the words of this song came to him in 1834.  He was on his way to way to work when he describes it this way in a letter to the Christian publication “The Gospel Herald”:

One morn­ing it came into my mind as I went to la­bour, to write an hymn on the ‘Gra­cious Ex­per­i­ence of a Christ­ian.’ As I went up Hol­born I had the chor­us,

‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.’

In the day I had four first vers­es com­plete, and wrote them off. On the Sab­bath fol­low­ing I met bro­ther King as I came out of Lisle Street Meet­ing…who in­formed me that his wife was ve­ry ill, and asked me to call and see her. I had an ear­ly tea, and called af­ter­wards. He said that it was his usu­al custom to sing a hymn, read a por­tion, and en­gage in pray­er, be­fore he went to meet­ing. He looked for his hymn-book but could find it no­where. I said, ‘I have some vers­es in my pock­et; if he liked, we would sing them.’ We did, and his wife en­joyed them so much, that af­ter ser­vice he asked me, as a fa­vour, to leave a co­py of them for his wife.

I went home, and by the fire­side com­posed the last two vers­es, wrote the whole off, and took them to sis­ter King…As these vers­es so met the dy­ing wo­man’s case, my at­ten­tion to them was the more ar­rest­ed, and I had a thou­sand print­ed for dis­tr­ibu­tion. I sent one to the Spir­it­u­al Mag­a­zine, with­out my ini­tials, which ap­peared some time af­ter this. Bro­ther Rees, of Crown Street, So­ho, brought out an edi­tion of hymns [1836], and this hymn was in it. Da­vid Den­ham in­tro­duced it [1837] with Rees’ name, and others af­ter…Your in­sert­ing this brief out­line may in fu­ture shield me from the charge of stealth, and be a vin­di­ca­tion of truth­ful­ness in my con­nect­ion with the Church of God.” (http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/m/y/myhopeis.htm)

Thankfully, the original title he gave it – “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope” – did not last as long as the enduring words did for our benefit.  The tune that most of us are familiar with was given to it by William B. Bradbury in 1863.  So, it would be interesting to know to what tune it was sang before that time.  In addition to the four stanzas we already sing, there are two more attributed to him:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
’Midst all the hell I feel within,
On His completed work I lean.

I trust His righteous character
His council, promise, and His power;
His honor and His name’s at stake,
To save me from the burning lake.

I have often wondered who gets to edit or redact the hymns that are handed down to us.  Many of the ancient hymns of the church have many more stanzas than what we know or acknowledge.  It is a curious piece of ecclesial musicology that eludes me.  I am sure one day I will research and sort it out to see if the decision were based upon practical musical qualities or theology.

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

That aside, my spiritual journey embraces the personal and private struggles of this great hymn.  I am too acquainted and familiar with times when “darkness veils His lovely face.”  I have faced “the whelming flood.”  And I can too well relate to the words not included in our hymnals: “’Midst all the hell I feel within.

In other words, in all honesty I have more often than not stood on the “other ground” – “the sinking sand.” I have been to the edge of doubt and peered into unbelief or disbelief.  Whether due to circumstances resulting from my control or because of my lack of control, these painful experiences have led me too often to the place of spiritually shaky ground.  Like a violent earthquake, when the ground, which appeared so solid beneath you, begins to move, you question the reality and solidity of everything in your life.  It is a time, truly, when “when all around my soul gives way.”  These terrible undulations of the soul shake everything that is not secure.

Suddenly, my faith in my faith – or faith in my ability to believe – is no longer enough.  I need something more.  I need someone outside of my shaken reality to help me up off the floor.  I need something more secure than confidence in my own ability to maintain a faith system.  Otherwise, I remain on “the other ground” – a quick sand that sinks me deeper in my own shaken and insecure knowledge and experiences of reality.

This “someone outside my shaken reality” and this “something more secure” is what captured the heart of Edward Mote.  It is a faith I aspire to in my spiritual journey.  Mote points me to “His righteous character” and “His completed work.”  My spiritual journey is no longer about me and my ability to make it through this life with all its struggles and disappointments and failures.

There are no trophies that I will present to him that will make me worthy of his salvation or his heaven.  I will not stand before his throne with any confidence.  It is all about, and in the end will be all about, “His oath, His covenant, His blood.”  It is what the Heavenly Father did for me through Christ’s cross and resurrection.  It is his work, not mine.  This, finally, is the anchor for my soul and my faith.  Now, I just need the Lord’s help to stay off the “other ground.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a highly significant relationship between the ability of a Christian or church body to demonstrate love and overall spiritual health.   Ask yourself how you are doing in demonstrating love to others.  I am not talking about how you are doing at “feeling” loving toward others.  I am addressing how we are at “doing” loving things for others.  Biblical love is always other focused.

I challenge you to look at all the ‘one another’ passages of the New Testament.  You will find that the church is called to love, serve, encourage, forgive, restore, help, build up, and be at peace with ‘one another.’  This is a huge challenge.  It is our sinful human nature to meet our own needs first.  Even in loving, often the focus on whether we “feel” love or loving toward others.  This is just another deceptively simple form of self-gratification.  The focus is upon me and my feelings instead of another’s needs.

The Biblical definition of love is fruit, action, and deed.  The secular concept of love as a feeling which overwhelms you (if you’re lucky) and may disappear is unbiblical and counterfeit.  Held up for us to measure ourselves against is the love of God expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus, his son, upon the cross for our sins.  We are reminded in the New Testament that we have done nothing to deserve God’s love.  In fact, before we were lovable or could even return our love to him, he loved us first.  He initiated this relationship and invitation by serving us – washing our feet, healing our wounds, and paying all the costs to buy us our freedom from slavery to Satan and sin.

As loved-ones, he now asks us to love others in the same manner and way in which he loved us.  This goes far beyond mere sentimentality or sympathy.  It digs deep into costly actions that display a patient and gracious love.  The world is dying to see this kind of love displayed.  Where it is displayed, it transforms lives and cultures.  The truth of the matter is – unfeigned, practical love has a divinely generated magnetic power far more effective than any formal evangelistic program, which depends almost entirely upon verbal communication.  People do not want to hear us talk about love; they want to experience how Christian love really works!

This will require us to step out of our comfort zones at times.  It will mean looking past our close circle of relationships and work to include others who are unknown or new to us.  It will mean making time for one another.  It will mean doing loving actions far beyond my capacity to evoke loving feelings.

This means for most of us that we must confess the sin of being too busy.  We have pushed the margin on the limits of our time and energies so that we cannot do what Jesus would do in our world, our church, and our home.  Biblical love is a commitment to be a person with a high love quotient that includes and serves others.

Orchid, Cancun, Mexico, Summer 2003

Orchid, Cancun, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the Christian community we call the Church, it will mean extending forgiveness, grace, and mercy toward others in the body of Christ to the same extent and measure that I have received it from my Heavenly Father.  This will challenge us toward long-suffering and gentleness to keep the bonds of peace and unity even when we have been wronged, hurt, or taken offense at someone else’s thoughtless actions or words.

Through such a community that actively displays such forbearance in its love; the world will be attracted to the message of Jesus.  It is only then that his life, ministry, and message take on a real quality that cannot be refuted.  After all, Jesus said, “They will know you by your love for one another.”  He was not just talking about people witnessing the good feelings that Christians have for one another, but the self-sacrificing serving love that cares for the least, last, and lost among us.  Then they will know that we really are followers of Christ.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healing Haiti

Another catastrophic disaster hits a part of our world.  It is something that we never get used to witnessing via newspapers, news magazines, television news cycles, or internet pictures and videos.  The suffering is overwhelming.  The feeling of uselessness from our living room chairs suffocating.  Some of us pray.  Some of us give to our charities of choice hoping that our dollar will go where it is needed most.  All of us wonder, why?

There is a human propensity to try and make sense of our world; especially when struck with natural disasters.  In some ways, we deal better with blatant human evil that reeks suffering and destruction.  The “why” is answered for us.  We see the results of twisted evil human nature every day.  We recognize evil in one another.  When it spills over into our lives, we at least have some semblance of a reason for our suffering; there are mean, evil, wicked people in the world that cause pain and suffering.  However, what reason do we have when it is impersonal “Mother Nature”?

Natural disasters catch us in a web of meaninglessness like Victor Hugo’s fly in the spider web of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There is no one to blame.  It is just how nature works.  It is “the circle of life” at work in our world.  Death and birth continue on in an unfeeling, meaningless cycle.  There is no rhyme or reason.  Whether tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, disease or cancer, nature takes its course in all our lives.  Even if we live our lives without succumbing to disease or accident, we will end our days in a “natural” death.  We are the products of natural courses at work in the world.  We are also subject to the work of natural courses in our world.

In our modern, scientific age we like to arrogantly think that we can control or predict nature.  And, while our ability at prediction has gotten better, we are constantly and painfully reminded that nature is full of surprises for us.  We are far from reaching the limits of human knowledge.  We are constantly discovering what we do not know.  After all, that is part of the mystery of human science and discovery:  We do not know what we do not know!

Nevertheless, there are still those who like to attempt to negate the mystery of creation by offering a “cause and effect” answer for every event.  The recent example of Pat Robertson’s explanation for the disaster in Haiti is a great (or perhaps, better, tragic) example of this pernicious human trait.  He claims the mythical legend of Haitians making a pact with the devil to be free from French rule is the cause of Haiti’s troubled history as well as present disaster.  Not surprisingly, his comments have created an uproar.  Unfortunately, he has had a history of “foot in the mouth” disease.  His reason for the tragedy of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and New Orleans destruction from Hurricane Katrina’s?  American abortions.

All such attempts at explain or come up with a “cause” for disasters in the world will always be controversial.  It may very well be an effort in futility as well.  When biblical Job suffered the loss of everything through one disaster after another, his well-meaning friends attempted to come up with a reason or cause.  It was the very same one that Pat Robertson uses.  It is the result of sin.  While personal sin has its consequences, it is not always the case.  In fact, God brags about Job’s righteousness.  In the end, Job’s friends get a rebuke from the Creator for their lame attempt to explain what God was trying to do in the world and in Job’s life.

While Job’s friends wanted to find some personal sin for the cause of Job’s sufferings, Job wanted to blame God.  He assumed that he deserved God’s total and complete protection from every trouble.  He attempts an in-your-face chest bump with God.  God puts Job in his place simply by pointing out that the Creator does not need the advice of his creation on how the universe should run.  The courses of nature were established by God without Job and his “wisdom”.  In the face of God’s creation and grandeur, Job does the wise thing.  He shuts up.  Oh, that our modern day commentators and wisemen of God’s ways would do the same thing!

In Jesus’ day, there were two tragedies that captured the attention and heart of the country.  First, apparently, an evil ruler brutalized and massacred some people in Galilee (Luke 13:1 – 5).  Second, a tower in Siloam fell down and killed some people in a tragic accident.  One was a tragedy by human evil.  The other was a tragedy of meaningless accident.  Jesus exposed the futile human attempt to explain these events by blaming human sinful conditions by asking, “Do you think they [the ones who suffered and died in these events] were sinners more than anyone else?”  Jesus’ answer is in the emphatic.  “Absolutely not!”

Jesus offers us no explanation for these disasters.  He seems to be content to let the mystery of the “why” to rest upon his listeners and us.  Instead, he does offer a universal explanation for humans everywhere and in every age.  “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Huh?  At first his answer – or explanation – comes across very cryptic.

Jesus does offer us a parable.  He tells of an owner of a fig tree who finds it not bearing fruit.  He wishes to cut it down but at the intervention of his arborist decides to give it another chance.  This story, like a laser beam, is aimed at Israel.  However, it speaks to us all too.  God delights in showing mercy.  He is not put off by “giving more time” to those who are due judgment.  Jesus’ point to his listeners is that we are all due judgment!  Therefore, we all had better discern our spiritual condition and turn to God.  Jesus uses the tragic stories of his day to point out that the sudden demise of these people should remind us all of our frail condition and existence.  It should remind us all to look to our own spiritual conditions instead of looking to point fingers and blame such events on someone’s sin.

Red and White Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Fire and Ice Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Haiti’s suffering should be a reminder for us all.  We all have our own “pact with the devil”.  If Haiti’s suffering is the result of such a pact then we are all under the same judgment and deserve the same, no less.  Likewise, we are all at the mercy of the natural forces at work in God’s creation – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, disease and cancer.  These strike the righteous and the unrighteous.  There were many believers in Jesus who died in the earthquake and many who continue to suffer today.  Are we more righteous than they because we were not there and did not experience it?  I think not.

Instead of wondering why, it is perhaps more constructive to take a personal spiritual inventory and ask ourselves, “If something like that were to befall upon me today, am I spiritually ready to go into eternity and meet God?”  This would help us far more than sitting in the seat of self-righteousness and pronouncing judgment upon the sin in the lives of others.  It only makes us as useless as Job’s comforters and deserving of similar rebukes from God and the suffering Jobs.

Instead of looking for a cause for such suffering, it is perhaps more constructive to approach these situations with the same attitude that Jesus did on similar occasions.  When faced with overwhelming human suffering around him, Jesus did not attempt to explain the reason for human suffering.  He, instead, looked for ways in which God could be glorified in such circumstances.  This was the case of a man blind from birth (John 9:1 – 5).  The disciples, so like us today, wanted to know the cause or reason for this person’s suffering.  “Rabbi.  Who sinned?  This man or his parents so that he was born blind?”  Jesus’ astonishing answer is that it was not because of sin.  Instead, “This happened so that the work of God could be displayed in his life…we must do the work of him who sent me.”  Could it be the same with Haiti?

Perhaps the best response to Haiti is not looking for reasons or causes.  Perhaps the best response is, instead, to ask, “How can we do the work of God in this situation?”  On this side of eternity, we might not know all the answers and reasons.  However, we do know that God has a work he wants to do.  Perhaps the best response to such tragedies is to seek to do God’s work of healing and restoration.  In the end, God is not going to quiz us with, “Did you come up with a plausible explanation of why this happened to them?”  Instead, he’s going to want to know, “How did you do my work in the midst of such sufferingDid you bring healing to Haiti?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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