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God Surprises

Olympic National Park, Hoh Rain Forest - Trail...

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Some people prefer to call them coincidences of life. Others just chalk them up to luck.  The cynical see only random odds at work.  Spiritual people refer to them as God moments, answers to prayer and even miracles.  I like to think of them as God surprises; moments when the deepest prayers and desires of the heart are met with unexpected and unexplainable answers.

When my family was younger and fewer by two children, I was pastoring a small country church on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State that did its best to provide for us.  With two young children, school bills from college and regular living expenses, it was never quite enough.  So, besides pastoring, I found work at the local family owned hardware store, cutting fired wood, picking clams and oysters, and coaching at the school.

After having been there a couple of years, my wife and I had a strong longing to vacation out on the ocean beach of the Washington coast.  The problem was we had no means to do it.  I shared our dream with a few people.  It seemed like a great idea but not a very practical one.  Nevertheless, we sighed and dreamed.  Maybe someday.

Then, one day, a surprise came our way.  There was someone who had an old 1961 14′ travel trail that they wanted to get rid of right away.  Would we be interested in it?  Sure!  Though, at the time, I was not sure what we would do with it since I did not have a vehicle to pull it anywhere.  But, living in a logging community, I thought that perhaps someone would be willing to loan us their truck for a couple of days.

The trailer was delivered. My wife and I discovered that the previous owner had actually lived in it.  He had been a heavy smoker and drinker.  It would need a lot of tender care and heavy cleaning to make it acceptable to my wife and kids.  So, we cleaned, painted, scraped and washed.  It would never look like a 1990 model.  But even a clean 1961 model was better than nothing and better than a family tent on the rainy Washington coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

What seemed like an impossibility at one point suddenly took on the looks of a possibility. A friend came through with the offer of his truck.  We would just exchange vehicles when the time came.  So, my wife and I began to make plans to take our two children to coast camping at Kalaloch Beach south of Forks, Washington.

As the time approached we grew excited. But I also grew anxious.  I planned a budget for the trip: gas and groceries.  Since we lived from payday to payday, there was no extra left over.  It seemed like an extravagance we could not afford, especially since I would also be taking a few days off of work.  How would I replace that missed income?  We may as well have been planning a trip to the Caribbean.  I figured that to replace my income and pay for gas and groceries would take about $500.  That was about 1/3 of my month’s income.

We went ahead and made plans and prayed. God had answered prayer before and perhaps he would once again smile upon us.  However, our finances did not change as the week of our planned vacation approached.  What would we do if we ended up not having the money?  Simple.  Stay home.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world.  Still, I could not help but feel that it sure would be nice to get away for a short time with my family.

Finally, the week approached. We were planned to leave on a Monday.  The weekend before came and still no financial means to even pull out of the driveway.  I resolved myself to the idea that it just would not happen.  On that Sunday morning, as I prepared early for the beginning of the Lord’s Day, I made one final appeal to the Lord as I wandered around the church building completing last minute preparations.

Dear Lord, it sure would be nice if I and my family could take this vacation.”

You know, Lord, in your economy, $500 is not very much money.  Isn’t there a way for you to make that happen?”

(Sigh)  “I know that it is not the end of the world if we do not go to the beach as a family…sure would be nice, though.

Did I happen to mention that it’s only $500?”

Thanks for the trailer anyway.  I’m sure it will come in handy some day.  Just maybe not this week, huh?”

Finally, I dropped it. There was no use getting worked up or anxious over it, I thought.  There were a lot bigger issues in the world than whether the Almberg family took a vacation to a beach.  So, I continued my preparations and spent some time in prayer for the people about to arrive that morning.  Some of them had a lot larger problems than I was facing.

People began to slowly arrive for Sunday School. I greeted them at the front doors.  It was always fun to see people arriving.  I especially enjoyed interacting with the kids coming through the doors.  Soon, laughter and light conversation were filling the halls and rooms of the building of that little congregation.  I’ve always imagined that God enjoyed those sounds as much as he ever did the singing of hymns and choruses.

In the middle of a conversation, the church phone rang. I did not worry about it as I always had people who could not stand the idea of an unanswered phone and would always be there before me.  So, I left the phone to be answered by whoever got there firsts.  Usually, it was Nancy, one of the pleasant ladies who volunteered in our office during the week, or Bill, a vigilant usher and deacon of the church.

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

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

We were minutes from starting our Sunday morning opening exercises when I was called to the office. The phone call was for me.  I dislike last minute phone calls right before church starts.  Usually, I make sure people understand that unless it’s an emergency they are to offer the help the caller needs or I can return the call after lunch.  However, this caller insisted on talking to “the pastor.”

Hello?” I answered a little impatient because of the timing.

Hi Ron.  This is Pastor Jim,” the caller identified himself.  I worked with Pastor Jim as an associate/youth pastor on his staff in Bremerton, Washington.  I wondered what was important that he would call me since he must also be preparing for his own busy Sunday morning.

Hi, Jim!” I replied, truly happy to speak to a good friend.  “What can I do for you?”

Sorry to call you so late, right before church,” he apologized.  “But I needed to talk to you and figured this would be a good time to guarantee I would catch you.  Aren’t you and your family planning on going on vacation this next week?

Yes,” I replied.  “We were hoping to leave tomorrow.”

Well, you came up in conversation in our church board meeting this last week.  The board here wanted to bless you and your family.  So, I was going to put a check in the mail for you.  I was hoping to catch you before you left, but could remember when you planned on leaving for vacation.  So, shall I put it in the mail this week or hold off until you get back next week.

Now I am surprised and somewhat taken aback.  We will not be able to leave with what we have but is the amount they are planning to send us enough to cover our expenses?  It seems we are not going anywhere this week anyway.  So, I decide…

“Go ahead and put it in this week,” I told Jim.  “We may have to postpone our plans.  We’re a little short in finances.  Your check may help us get on the road though.  Please make sure you let the guys on the board know how much we appreciate this and how thankful we are for their generosity.

Jim paused on the other end for a moment.  “Why do you need to postpone your plans?”

We’re a little short of funds,” I understated the situation.

“Oh,” Jim commiserated as a pastor of a small church himself.  “Well, I hope what we are sending you will help out.  How does $500 sound?”

I almost started laughing out loud.  “You know,” I told Jim, “that would be great.  That is exactly the amount of money I have been asking the Lord to provide so that we could go.”

Well, then, praise the Lord,” Jim encouraged.  “Maybe you don’t need to cancel your vacation indefinitely.  Just wait a couple of days for the check to get to you.  I’ll put it in the mail the first thing in the morning!

Wow,” I replied still somewhat stunned and surprised.  “Uh, yeah, we can wait a couple of days.  I don’t think that will be a problem at all.”

Great!  Well, you have a great Sunday and greet your wife for me,” Jim finished.

I will.  And you have a great Sunday, too, Jim.  Again, thanks so much,” I stammered still in shock of what had just transpired.

The rest of the Sunday was somewhat of a blur. I told the congregation that we would be gone for a few days on vacation, though we were leaving a few days later than originally planned.  Everyone was happy for us and wished us a great time at the ocean beaches.

When I arrived home after closing up the church, my wife asked me, “You sounded pretty confident that we are really leaving this week.”

Yes,” I said.  Then I shared with her my conversation on the phone with Pastor Jim just before church started.

Coincidence?  Luck of the draw?  A special alignment of the stars for the Almberg family? Let the skeptic and the cynic decide for him or her self.  I think that too much took place for all of that, which would require a greater amount of faith than simply believing that the Creator really does interact with his creation.  I wish that it happened more often than I have experienced it.  On the other hand, I think that the Creator enjoys showing up with God surprises just to let us know that he is here and he knows.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

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

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Spiritual Voyeurism

One would think that claims to a particular faith would demand one to actually practice it. This does not seem to be the case for many people in the United States who claim to be followers of Christ or at least belong to a church or denomination.  This will explain why main line denominations can make claims that they have so a large following but so actually bodies in the pews Sunday after Sunday.  Even my own church numbers some 1,000 plus people on its membership rolls.  However, on any given Sunday no more than 500 – 600 parishioners on the best Sundays are ever present.

It is a rare church today that defies ‘The Pareto Principle’ or ’80/20 Rule’ at work in its own organization. There are too many variety of reasons why this is the state of things.  I suspect that it different for each congregation and its setting.  Likewise, there are no easy answers – no ‘magic bullet’ – to overcome this problem.  The multiple of factors and possible solutions are what gives pastors and church leaders spiritual fits.

However, I would like to suggest one factor that seems to go unnoticed and unaddressed by most churches and their leaders. It is our own propensity to make spectators instead of participators out of our religious constituents.  We have essentially trained them to sit back and watch – sing if you want to, bow your head for prayer, on occasion take communion, and follow along in your Bible or the multi-media presentation.  We invite them to drop off their kids or youth so that we’ll do all the work of spiritually training them.

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

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

What if participation in a church demanded, well, participation? Suppose you attended a church that required you to go with one of your children at least, their discipleship process and take an active part in helping to disciple them?  Suppose you attended a church where you knew that you were going to have a chance to participate with others in planning and providing the congregation’s worship service?  When prayer took place, what if it required everyone to interact and pray for others, their church and community?  What if part of worship required individuals to regularly share their faith stories in front of others?  What if mission and service to the world required, actually going into the world, even if it is the surrounding neighborhood and serving others in the name of Jesus?

Sounds exhausting?  Sounds complicated?  Sounds messy? I suppose so.  However, these are the very things we expect our paid clergy to do week-in and week-out for us.  As such, we have become mere spiritual voyeurs.  We are hoping to vicariously enjoy someone else’s spiritual journey and growth by watching them.  We get excited about their stories and their accomplishments.  Like sports fans sitting on living room couches watching their favorite teams and players, we gain our identity through what they do.

Somehow, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind for his body left behind to do his work. I suspect that he did not make available the infusion of his Holy Spirit into his followers just so that they could sit back and watch.  Something tells me that he is not satisfied with a church full of Sunday morning lounge-chair quarter backs telling the 20% actually doing something how they could be doing it better.  He did not intend his followers to simply be excited by what they see going on like they are in some cheap-thrill peep-show.

Perhaps it is time that we really consider how we do church. After all, it is as much the fault of its leadership as it is of its followers.  We only need to look at the fruit we are producing to see that what we are doing is not producing the right fruit.  And this should not surprise us.  Church history is replete with instances where the church changed methods and strategies to be more effective.  While staying true to its message, these changes have often brought renewal and revival that introduced the body of Christ to a new era.

Spiritual voyeurism will only continue to increase spiritual apathy and lethargy. This is because spectators are not invested in the outcome except emotionally.  And, when they are emotionally disappointed, they often will quickly switch allegiances and find some place else that will entertain them.  In short, we in most American churches have created our own ‘sleeping giant.’  Dare we rouse him/her?

For myself, I cannot be content just watching. I must find an outlet for service and using the spiritual gifts the Lord gave to me.  We all need to ask our selves now and again, “Are we a part of the team or just the fan club?”  You can satisfy yourself with only being a spectator, but a higher calling is to be a participator in what the Lord is doing.  After all, he created us to take a spiritual voyage with him, not to just become a spiritual voyeur.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Church Family Care

While leading a church, there were many times that I received a phone call from someone who needed help with rent, utilities, groceries, and fuel or travel costs.  As much as I wanted to help, our church’s benevolence budget was often way over drawn as it was and there were no monies available anywhere else.

I would ask, “Have you tried the various help organizations in our community?”  The answer was affirmative; however, they were not able to get the help they needed.  I felt helpless.  All I could do was offer a few suggestions, words of encouragement, and a prayer.

The communities I worked in were blessed to have so many help organizations to help those in need:  Salvation Army, Saint Vincent DePaul, Gospel Missions, Food and Clothing Banks, 12-Step Programs, Domestic Abuse and Violence Advocates, and many others.  Volunteers who have a big heart to help people in need staff these.  A paid staff of one or two is underpaid.  At the same time, their resources are also often limited and overtaxed too.

Like many churches in our area, our church always got its fair share of calls from people who needed help.  Sometimes, they were systematically, desperately going through the phone book calling churches.  Other times, they are calling blind, hoping for a kind voice and helping hand.

Sure, there are the ‘frequent fliers:’ people who abuse the system and live dependent upon the benevolence of others.  But many more people are sincerely in need.  They are often the work poor:  people who have jobs, but jobs that do not pay enough to cover basic living expenses.  Often the help they need is only temporary, until a job, a place to live, or other steady self-support is obtained.

In all of this, I see first hand the wonderful advantage of belonging to a church. The church family provides a wonderful safety net in times of distress and crisis.  It becomes like an extended family that rallies support and help.  Of course, people can have such a network of caring and supporting relationships outside of a church.  But no where have I seen it work so well time and time again as within a congregational setting.

Seattle Ferry and Mt. Rainier, June 2007

Seattle Ferry and Mt. Rainier, June 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Within our own church, we have showered food upon families financially strapped; helped get cars fixed that were depended upon for work; chipped in together to help with medical bills; and volunteered to take care of children during a family crisis.  I have witnessed this take place for long-term care of a family or individual, not just for short-term ones.

This is not to just brag only upon the church families I have attended or led. I know for a fact that this is repeated many times over in most, if not all, of our churches.  In the community of faith, we take care of one another because we love one another.  Above and beyond a benevolent budget, we will spontaneously extend ourselves to help one another.

Aside from your own family, your church family is your best source of help – and in some cases may even be better than your own family. Develop those relationships with your own expressions of love and care for the others there.   Someday, it will come back to you.

If you have not made an effort to be a part of a church family, now is the time! There will come a time when you will need someone else’s shoulder for comfort, arm for strength, or heart for courage.  Then is not the time to depend upon your fingers to find help in the Yellow Pages.  Then is the time to have church friends and family to call.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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