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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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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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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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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 Chevy Impala Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, June 2010

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

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