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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

I have long had a love affair with all things Greek: Greek cuisine, modern and ancient history, the ancient Koine language, mythology, as well as its ancient philosophers, playwrights, and important figures to European development.  I find these ancient connections with the development of modern thought in philosophy, politics, arts, and sciences fascinating.  It is a part of the world that holds a unique place in the development of Western civilization.

However, it has been some time since I delved into much of anything dealing with these subjects. My eclectic interests of late have taken me into 18th and 19th century American and European history.  This period, of course, has direct ties with and influences from the ancient Greek civilization.  I find it all fascinating.  Little did I know that this fascination would come into play with my dealings with a troubled young man recently.

For anonymity sake, we will call this young man Stephen. I had just recently taken a part-time administrative position at the church we attend (Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington).  I was posting some things on the bulletin board near our main entrance when this young man walked in with one of our church members, Bill.

Bill and Stephen walked up to me and Bill said to Stephen, “Hey!  Here’s is someone you can talk to.  He used to be a pastor.”

Turning toward me, Bill introduced his new companion, “Ron, this is Stephen.  I just met him on my way in and he really needs someone to talk to, do you have time to talk to him?  I’m in charge of Celebrate Recovery and we’re just about ready to get started.”

Bill turned back to Stephen, “If you want, after talking to Ron, why don’t you join us in the Fellowship Hall right around the corner over there?  We have dinner together and you are welcome to come eat with us.”  Bill pointed to a hall off the entry way they had just passed.

Stephen, looking down at the floor, timidly replied, “We’ll see.  Maybe.”

As Bill turned to leave us, I held out my hand to Stephen and said, “Hi, Stephen.  I’m Ron.  How can I help you?

Stephen, with his eyes not leaving the floor, replied, “I just need someone to talk to.  Is there some place private we can go to talk?

My office is not a private one. It is a center of activity.  My mind quickly turned to one of the many rooms located on an upper floor of our building.  “Sure.  Let’s go upstairs.  There’s bound to be a quiet room up there we can find.”

As I led our way up the stairwell just around the corner from us, I tried to make Stephen feel at ease with some small talk.Bill is a great guy.  The ministry he helps lead, Celebrate Recovery, is wonderful.  They start out with a meal together.  If you’re hungry and want to discover some new friends, I would highly recommend going.  You’ll find a lot of good people there.  We are all recovering from something and that is a good place to deal with whatever it may be.”

I entered the first empty room and turned on the light. Then I stepped aside as Stephen entered the room.  I gently swung the door shut but left it partially open in case of an emergency.  It was already apparent to me that Stephen was really struggling with something.  We seemed weighted down by the world.  The air in the room grew heavy.

As we each found a seat, I started by asking, “So, Stephen, how can I help you?  What do you want to talk with me about?

Stephen hesitated.I just came here because I needed someone to talk to.  I don’t know the difference between a pastor or a priest.  I haven’t been to church since I was really little.”

He let his words fall to the floor and became quiet. I waited.  After a few moments, he continued, “I really don’t know where to begin.”  He paused.  Then blurted out, “I guess I just need to say it.  What do you think about suicide?

I thought to myself, “Wow.  What a way to start work back at a church!”  However, I kept my composure and remained calm and reassuring.  I did not know at what stage of threat Stephen was to himself or if he was even referring to himself.  So, I probed with a question to get Stephen to talk and be more specific about what he was thinking and feeling.

I answered, “I’m not sure I understand.  Do you mean, what do I personally think about suicide?  Or, are you wondering what God thinks about suicide?

Then, trying to lighten the approach to a very heavy subject, I said, “As for myself, personally, I think death in any form sucks…except, perhaps, in my very old age in my sleep.”

Stephen cracked a small smile.I guess I’m wondering what God thinks,” he replied.

Well, without going into a long and boring theological explanation,” I began, “the Bible paints a picture of what God had in mind for humanity from the very beginning.  It is pictured in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.  Humankind lived in perfect harmony with God, nature and one another.  However, humankind’s rebellion brought not only separation from God but also division and conflict with one another and even with nature.  One of the outcomes of this is also division and conflict with our own self.”

I paused and asked, “Do you kind of understand that picture?

Stephen nodded.

I continued, “Jesus was sent by God to reveal to us what God had in mind for us.  Not only that, but Jesus made it possible that we could be healed and restored in our relationship with God, one another, and even with ourselves.  In fact, Jesus promises a restoration of that perfect harmony one day.  Until then, life is a spiritual battle of restoring God’s order as he intended it from the beginning.”

I paused for a second to see if Stephen was tracking. He seemed deeply interested in what I had to say.  So I went on.

Stephen, I believe that many who attempt suicide do so out of the desperation of their brokenness.  It is not what God wants for any of us and it grieves His heart when we destroy what he created.  At the same time, I have to recognize that every individual is unique and the reasons that lead someone to such desperate action cannot be judged by any human.  So, God will deal with each individual out of His own mercy and love for them.  If you’re wondering if I believe that a person is automatically destined to hell because they commit suicide, I would say, ‘No.’  Only God is judge and only he knows what is going on in a person’s heart and mind at that point.”

I turned toward Stephen and asked, “Many times thoughts of suicide are driven by a sense of great loss.  Have you experienced a great loss or sense of loss lately that makes you feel like life is hopeless and purposeless?

Stephen thought for a moment and then said, “No.  Not really.”

Then what do you think makes you feel like life is so pointless?” I asked.

Stephen grew quiet. I could tell he was pondering what to say.

Finally, the words spilled out, “I guess pretty much my whole life.  My parents ruined themselves financially and so I am not able to go to college even though I and my sisters did really well in High School.  My sisters and I don’t have anything to do with our parents.  Their lives are all screwed up and we’ve realized that we grew up in a really messed up family.  So we are all angry at our parents.”

How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.

Nineteen,” he answered.

Well, there is still plenty of time to go to school and there are lots of creative ways to pay your way through school,” I offered.

Yeah, well, there is something more.”  Stephen grew solemn again as he gathered his thoughts.  “I did something really awful to someone,” he finally said.

What was it that you did?  Did you physically hurt someone?  Did you steal from them?  What was so awful?” I asked.

It was nothing illegal.  But it was something really bad.  I had this friend that I worked with and did something really bad to him.  You see, he was the manager of the store and we got to be really good friends.  We did a lot of stuff together outside of work.  I thought we were having a great time but then he started to grow really distant.  Pretty soon he didn’t want to spend any time with me.  He was pretty much the only friend I had…have had.”

Stephen fell silent for a moment and I could see tears in his eyes.I don’t know what I did to make him angry.  But he would not talk to me or anything.  I would call and he would not answer.  I left messages but he never called back.  So, I thought the only way to get his attention was to make him think that I was dead.  So, I had my sister call him and tell him that I had committed suicide because I was so sad.

Stephen looked at me to see if I would react to this news. I calmly replied, “Go on.  What happened next?

Well, my friend became really upset because he thought that he had caused me to kill myself.  Then, when I finally let him know that I was really alive and had not killed myself, he grew even more angry.  Now, it’s worse than our relationship was before and now I’m thinking that it would have been better to actually have done it.  I’ve screwed up my life.”

 

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I let a moment go by before responding.Stephen, when we began I asked you if you had experienced any losses in your life.  At that time you told me that you did not think so.  However, listening to your story, I am hearing you tell me of three very great significant losses in your life.  All of these have happened very recently:  First, you are grieving the loss of your family and the relationship you thought you had or wish you had with your parents.  Second, you are grieving the loss of a dream; a dream to go to school.  Third, you are grieving the death of a relationship with a very close friend.  Stephen, that is a great amount of loss for anyone to have to deal with in their life let alone someone as young as you.  It is no wonder to me, then, that you feel life is pointless, hopeless and purposeless.  Do you understand what I am saying and do you think what I am saying is hitting home?

Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.

You are only 19 years old.  I’m 49.  I can tell you that there is a lot of life yet ahead of you.  Life is rough and tough.  No one comes out unbroken.  In fact, the reason why I am in a faith community is because I believe that broken lives can be mended and put back together again with God’s help.  I believe Jesus not only shows us the way but also provides the way to become whole again.  Our whole church is full of broken people.  We are all at different places along the road to recovery.  You cannot get through life without experiencing brokenness.  That is what you are experiencing.”

Stephen, I cannot offer you any quick-fix formulas, but I can tell you that you are just beginning to write your own life story.  I believe that God wants to be a part of writing the stories of our lives.  I don’t think your story is over yet.  It seems hard now, but this is not the end of the story.  It might be one of your darkest chapters, but it is not the final chapter.  I want to encourage you to consider allowing God to be a part of your life so that he can help put the broken pieces your life back together.  He has a different story to write than the one you may be thinking of right now.”

What do you think about what I’ve said so far?”  I wanted to offer Stephen a chance to respond.

People have been telling me that maybe I need to consider religion,” Stephen began.  “Some of my friends say that it would help me a lot.”

Well, if you mean by ‘religion’ a formulaic way of living your life within religious ritual, then I cannot help you there.  Personally, I have not found that satisfying.  However, I like to talk less in terms of the word religion and more about relationship.  It is all about having a relationship with God that heals the division and distance between us and God, us and others, and even us and our own selves.

I wanted to draw some kind of story or parallel that might capture his attention. It was at this point that my love for Greek invaded my consciousness.

Personally, I think that without God, life is like a Greek tragedy play by Euripides.  Humankind stands no chance against the chaos of life and capriciousness of its gods.  We are all doomed.  This would make life seem pointless.  How can we ever win?  Why keep going?  We are no better than Sisyphus trying to endlessly push the bolder up the mountain only to have it come crashing down on us again.  Is our only meaning to be found in the eternal struggle?  Is that all that is left of life is to get up again and start pushing the bolder back up the mountain?  I don’t think so.  I think that there is a better way.  For me, I have found it in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in community with other believers who are on the same journey.  We are all at different places on that journey, but we all see with hope the opportunity to be healed and made whole again.”

I knew that I had just unloaded a lot, so I wanted to take a moment to see if Stephen was tracking with me or if I had just lost him with all the Greek history and mythology.

What do you think about what I’ve said?” I offered.

You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” he replied.  “I need to take some time to consider it.  I appreciate your time and don’t want to keep you any longer.  You have really helped me.”

I’m glad that I was able to help,” I returned.  “I really want to encourage you to consider taking Bill up on his offer for dinner.  I think you’ll have a great opportunity to meet some new friends there.  Also, we have a counseling center here and I would also encourage you to seek further counseling and help with a professional.  Would you like me to help you with that?

Stephen smiled a weak smile, “No.  I’ll be alright.  I just needed someone to talk to and this really helped.  By the way, do you always teach Greek when you counsel people?

I chuckled, “No.  I’m sorry.  I have an odd education background and love pretty much all things Greek.  I got really caught up into it when I was in collegeI don’t usually try to bore people with Greek history or philosophy.”

That OK,” Stephen replied.  “You see, that is my favorite subject and it is the direction I wanted to go into for college and then graduate studies.  My dream is to one day teach Greek history and philosophy.  So, I loved your reference to Euripides and Sisyphus.  I’ve not heard many people refer to them before in a conversation.”

I was surprised.You know.  I don’t think you’re meeting me today and, out of all the people here at the church that you could have talked to you, that you talked with me was by accident.  You see, if God is actively writing my story, which I believe He is, then part of my story for today was a divine appointment with a young man named, Stephen.  Can I pray with you before you leave?

Sure.  I would like that,” Stephen replied.

The room seemed a little lighter when Stephen left. To be sure, his troubles had not vanished and there was still a rough course in front of him.  I think about him and pray for him each day since our encounter.  Stephen reminds me that our world is full of people who live completely or partially broken lives.  We are all in need of repair and renewal.  At the same time, even people on their own journey toward wholeness can be used to point out the path to healing for others who are searching.  And they may even engage Euripides to help do it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is hard to believe that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens was thirty years ago on May 18th.  It hardly seems that long ago.  I have visited the mountain and looked out over the devastated landscape a few time and am always amazed at the force that must have been displayed that day.  At the same time, I also filled with wonder at how well nature has healed itself.  The new landscape is giving way to new life.

From an eastern observatory, one can look across to the mountain and see the new mountain dome being built by the forces of nature underneath the earth’s surface.  One has to wonder when this active volcano will act again – or whether any of its sister volcanoes will follow suit in the near future.  Measuring by the eye the distance between where Mt. St. Helens sits and where its blown top now visible sits in the landscape many miles away, one can only hope it will not be too soon.  It is enough excitement for one lifetime.  Well, if you were awake for it, I guess.

On that Sunday morning 30 years ago, I slept through the whole thing.  I was attending Northwest College in Kirkland, Washington – now Northwest University.  Whether from studying for tests or completing a term paper, I cannot recall today, I decided to sleep and not go to church that morning.  I slept until almost noon.  The rest of my day was continued in my room while I continued studying, completely oblivious to what the rest of the world was experiencing through television or living through with falling volcanic ash.  Sunday’s were pretty quite days on campus; no cafeteria service, library or extra curricular activities going on so there was no opportunity for me to even hear it from another student.  I do not remember where my room mate was in all of this but he must not have been around either.

It was not until my 7:30 am class Monday that I finally got into the news loop and became informed!  I was stunned.  Mount St. Helens finally blew its top?  I did not know about it until now?  It took me some time to get updated on what had happened that day; the people who died, the ash cloud’s devastation, friends and fellow students caught in the falling ash, the devastating flooding and mud flows as well as the ecological holocaust left behind.

Anyone who lived during that event, especially those who had dramatic experiences during it, recalls vividly where they were and what they were doing that day, May 18, 1980.  There are many interesting and dramatic stories about where people were, what they were doing and how they got back home through the blowing volcanic ash.  Me?  I just remember that I slept through the whole thing.

2010 Spring in Cascades from Indian John Hill

2010 Spring in Cascades from Indian John Hill ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Isn’t this a whole like life?  While we are sleeping there is always devastation taking place some place in the world and we are completely ignorant of it until and if it breaks the local news.  Today we have the internet, which was not a luxury we had back then.  Personal computers were just beginning to be taken seriously but were still a novelty item for the most part.  Now, we can get “up to the minute breaking news stories.”  Still, most of the world sleeps.

While we are sleeping people are starving (every 6-7 seconds a child dies from hunger, that’s 80 children in an 8-hour sleep cycle), suffer through battles of war, survive – or don’t – a sudden natural disaster, hear news of a loved one’s unexpected death, are told they have a disease that gives them only a short time longer to live or suffer a horrible accident.  Tragic human events do not stop.  Most of the time, we “sleep” through them in our busy schedules.

There is One who never sleeps, however.  The cries of suffering, injustice, death and tragedy are always ringing in His ears.  He is not just on notice when a mountain erupts.  He also knows when a sparrow falls from the sky (Matt. 10:29).  If the Creator can pay such close attention to every detail of His creation, then you and I can sleep soundly.  He only asks us from time to time to sit up and take notice of those situations brought to our attention so that we can do something about it by donating our time, resources or energies in order to help alleviate the suffering, injustice and sorrow.

So, there is still a lot that I seem to sleep through in life.  I often find out about things when it is too late.  However, when I am awake I hope I am alert enough to be watchful for how I can respond.  I may be a day late but I can jump in when I am ready.  While I was sleeping in on May 18, 1980, the world changed.  I am hoping that the in the next 30 years I will have more moments where I am awake than sleeping when world events take place.  If that does happen, however, maybe someone out there can knock on my door and check on me?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The recent ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has reawakened in me a conundrum about evolution, the meaning of life and the ultimate end of all things. This often rises up in my mind during these man-made tragic events or other natural catastrophes.  I am left wondering, from a purely evolutionary ideal, “What’s the big deal?  Isn’t this just the natural working out of our evolutionary and natural development?”  As far as I can see, it is humankind’s evolutionary destiny as well as right to attempt to subjugate nature.

Radical environmentalists decry the abuse of nature. They claim that humans are too anthropocentric and need to have greater care for other creatures – right down to the microbial level.  They throw around the word “speciesism” or “specism” to prompt guilt among bipedal humanoids for considering our species as more important or of greater worth than other species.  As a result, they claim, our needs and selfish desires have threatened the existence of other species.  According to them, we should take more care.

This begs the question as to why it matters whether one species lives or dies – exists or ceases to exist. What moral compass guides us in our decision making to even consider the value and worth of another species however big or small?  If one argues that it is because all species are interconnected and that their survival as a species is ultimately linked to our own survival as a species, then this seems to only end in the same selfish anthropocentric concern.  When humans become concerned for other species out of worry for their own survival; it seems to only be a back door return to speciesism.

After all, the evolutionary principle that continual improvement is necessary for the survival of a species seems to me to necessitate that one species is going to survive or thrive at the cost of another. The idea of balance in nature would seem to conflict with evolution since species are ever contending for the same room and resources within a biosphere limited with both.  Not only are species at war with one other for the same resources for survival, but they are all vulnerable to disease and natural disasters.  The survival of the fittest takes on a new level of urgency and importance in such a hostile environment.

So, are not humans simply fulfilling their evolutionary destiny by exploiting to the best of their abilities the natural resources surrounding them? Can we not call the massive struggle to fight against disease and natural disasters just part of our evolutionary duty towards our own species?  Should we not consider when a portion of humanity falls to natural disasters or diseases that these adverse events are simply a part of our own struggle to survive?  And, sometimes we come out the winners and sometimes the losers?  What makes us care or have compassion for others of our own species, let alone the condition of another?

If humanity is evolved from an impersonal mass of biological material, what moral guidance really regulates our care for the rest of creation? There are all sorts of competing philosophies and religions among our species.  However, if we are the result of an ongoing evolutionary cycle, then they are all meaningless.  Humanity only finds its meaning, like the rest of nature, in its own survival and thriving.  It seems that nothing else is really pertinent to the discussion.

As such, evolution does not really satisfactorily answer the question of neither what it means to be human nor how humanity should relate to the rest of creation. Evolution, after all, is an unfeeling and meaningless force moving all species toward the final existence of one specie’s domination over all others.  Humans would be dismayed to wake up some morning to find out that the planet had been taken over by apes (as in the movie “The Planet of the Apes”) or lions, tigers or bears (Oh, my!).  Therefore, according to our evolutionary mandate, we must continue to evolve, dominate other species and, if necessary, eliminate them when necessary; right down to the microbial level.

White Wild Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

White Wild Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Confidence in the evolutionary path of humans, let alone all creatures, may be misplaced if we expect some form of higher-enlightenment to guide us into empathy for all species. Thousands of years of human evolution has shown to us that nature is very brutal and humankind as much or more so.  Not even considering our survival as a particular species, we divide ourselves up according to language and cultural groups and then seek to dominate one another by slavery, war or total annihilation.  We do not seem to be overly concerned with our own survival!  Granted, we do seem to care more about those who have the same skin pigmentation, language sounds and cultural similarities, but even that is no guarantee against our warring amongst ourselves for dominance and survival.

If humankind is a higher evolved animal, then there does not seem to be too much hope for all of creation. We are bent on our own destruction, the demise of all other species and the ultimate destruction of our biosphere.  There must be a greater guiding principle for us to pursue.  There must be, somewhere, a larger purpose for existing and caring for the rest of creation.  Otherwise, we are no better off than the fruit-fly.  We hatch, live, breed and die; albeit longer than the fruit-fly’s seven days.  However, the end result is the same.

If we are only the sum of an evolutionary process, then the conundrum it must answer or deny is, “Why should we care?” The logical conclusion is that we should not care or that the question itself is meaningless.  Then, why do we feel this tension and need to care for our own species as well as other species as part of our human consciousness and being?  What drives us – most of us anyway – to be empathetic towards the vulnerable, whether other humans or other species?  I think the answer must lie somewhere deeper than just bio-chemical evolution.

Is it possible that humans, as well as all of creation, is endowed with something greater than just chemical interaction? Do our existential questions stem from something that lays latent within all of us?  Is it possible that something we cannot see or measure actually is the cause and guidance creation’s existence?  Could our concern, broadly speaking, for the care and well-being of all creatures point to something imparted to us at the nexus of our beginning?  I think that an affirmative answer to these questions guides us to a more reasonable conclusion for humanity’s care and concern for the rest of creation.

Of course, this is a jump into the unknown and unexplained. It is a “leap of faith” of sorts.  However, our faith so far in what we have been able to observe, measure and reduplicate does not seem to be adequate either.  The hard sciences do not help us too much with existential questions.  They require their own “leap of faith” of sorts for us to connect the dots.  So, the question then becomes, do we keep them in two isolated spheres or do we attempt to bring them together to find meaning and answers?

The answer to that depends upon who you listen to in philosophical and scientific circles. The simple answer is that evolution at any level – biological or social – does not adequately address such questions.  To solve such a large conundrum, we must turn to larger answers beyond what we can see, hear and touch.  It may turn out that our very existence lies beyond the physical world.  The evolutionary conundrum answered by what is least expected in a world of physical sciences.  It may just be wrapped in mystery.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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So, I have another birthday coming up. This yearly event stopped meaning anything special to me years ago – somewhere after 40.  This birthday will mark my last year in the decade of the 40’s.  Next year I hit the big 5-0; that will be a much bigger deal to me.  There’s just something inauspicious about hitting and moving beyond 50.  Of course, those who have moved way beyond that mile-marker will tell me otherwise.

Believe it or not, the biggest decade markers that were downers for me were the younger ones. Turning twenty was traumatic.  Somehow, in my mind, it meant leaving “youth” and entering into “age.”  Not old-age per se, just an age where the responsibility stakes went up ten-fold in my mind.  It was, in my thinking, leaving the care-free stage of life and entering the care-burdened age.

This is one reason why I always warn my children not to worry about growing up so fast and “getting out on their own.” So far, none of them have listened to me.  I suppose it is the optimism of youth that helps us to launch into our independence.  Of course, complete and total ignorance of what really lays ahead helps too.

The other decade marker that was a downer was thirty. I was depressed for a week.  This seemed to mark me as the entrance into “old.”  All youth is gone and spent, now all that was left was aging and more burdened responsibilities.  In retrospect, however, I do have to say that my thirties were quite fun and fulfilling.  I had some real rough years closing out the decade, but for the most part they were enjoyable times.

Turning forty did not faze me all that much, for some odd-ball reason. I had some friends who made the event a lot of fun (at my expense, of course).  At the same time, there was a positive stride into the decade of the 40’s with a certain sense of maturity, wisdom and life-experience.  These have been good years with lots of good experiences.  It has held enough life adventures to keep it interesting.  So far, I think I am well on my way to fulfilling my life’s mission of “finishing strong and finishing laughing.”

This life goal or mission helps me to focus on what is important: finishing strong in my relationships with God and my family and friends and to do it all with great joy and no regrets. It is that last point that is the sticky one.  It is truly hard to finish life without any regrets so that one can end life with great joy – laughing.  Perhaps approaching the age of fifty has made me more retrospect than ever (as if I could be any more retrospect…I’m wired to be an internalizer, meditator and processor).  I had a friend tell me one time, “Boy, Ron.  The stream of thought sure runs slow through you.  But I have to say, it does run deep!”  We still laugh over that observation as there have been many funny applications to it over the years.

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

I have been witness to many people who, at the end of their life because of disease or death, spend a few moments replaying their regrets.  There seems to be a need to attempt to correct any mistakes before one leaves this life.  Sometimes, this is not always possible.  According to Bronnie Ware, an Ezinearticles.com contributor and palliative care worker, when questioned about any regrets, the dying had five common themes that surfaced again and again:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These all strike me as having to do with my life goal to “finish strong and finish laughing.” A life well-lived and full of joy up to the end of it strikes me as something the Creator would take great pleasure in as He witnessed our leaving this world and entering the new creation He has awaiting for us.  Each of these five things recalled by Bronnie Ware reminds me that life is full of risks that present opportunities and pitfalls.  One cannot live life sheltered in hopes of coming through with no scrapes or bruises.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a message on risk-taking. It was inspiring as well as challenging.  What would we be doing differently right now or attempting to do if we knew that we could not fail?  There lies the stuff of dreams and visions.  In the message a quote was shared:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!”

What a daring statement! Like me when I heard it, you are probably wondering what brave soul, perhaps famous, made such a declaration.  Our speaker pointed out some of the risk action ideas in this quote: danger, exposure, adventure or nothing!  The quote is from Helen Keller.  What a statement from a deaf, mute and blind hero for whom getting out of bed everyday was an adventure and a risk!  The speaker pointed out that, willing to do so, she changed her world as an author, activist and even lecturer!  Suddenly, I find myself in short comparison to someone born with so many “handicaps.”  Certainly, I in accompaniment with my full faculties have a long ways to go to catch up with her.

I suppose that there is no way to completely avoid end-of-life regrets. Clarity of vision seems to be the privilege of only those at the terminus of their life’s journey.  We could all stand to learn more from them.  The words of Jesus could also help to prod us: “Playing it safe and guarding your self will not help you in the end.  Only risk-taking and self-sacrifice will help you discover who you were made to be and the reward that will await you at life’s end” (my own paraphrase of Luke 9:14).

So, to “finish strong and finish laughing” is going to require more work on my part it seems. Every day as well as every decade will be an adventure.  It reminds me of Frodo‘s recollection to Samwise of Bilbo‘s wise words in The Lord of the Rings: “Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to‘.”  Who knows what’s around the corner of 50 – or 60 or 70 for that matter.  Might as well finish them strong and laughing with no regrets.  If anything, it will leave the devil frustrated over me and my friends wondering.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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This weekend my family and I will be making a long drive to the Washington coastal community of Ocean Park for my brother’s funeral.  My brother, Bruce, died January 15th of liver failure due to alcoholism.  We will be joining my parents and my remaining siblings along with other family and friends for a memorial service for Bruce.  Even with a month to think about it, it will still be a long, 5-hour, thought-filled drive.

I have often said, when I was in pastoral leadership, that “Funerals are for the living, not the dead.”  The dead are beyond our comfort and touch.  However, those who remain behind are still present and need the comfort and touch of family and friends.  This is why many people attend funerals of family or friends they barely know but go, instead, to support their grieving family and friends.  We want to be there for them.

This is my case with my brother, Bruce.  The sad truth of our relationship as brothers is that I barely, if really at all, knew him.  Until this last Father’s Day (2009), I had not seen nor heard from Bruce for 16 years.  My two youngest children had never seen him.  I am grateful for the two days we had last year to reconnect.  It was good to see him connect with nephews and nieces he had not had any contact with for all these years.

Bruce Charles Almberg, 2009

Bruce Charles Almberg, 1964 - 2009

The reason for the lack of communication and relationship is a complicated and painful family history that I will not divulge here.  Suffice it to say that Bruce carried many personal and family wounds that made contact with his family painful if not unbearable.  Except for my mother and my sister, and even that sporadically over the years, he really did not have too much to do with any of us.  So, the opportunity to see him, talk with him, and spend time with him last year was monumental for our family.  After that holiday together, Bruce and I chatted on the phone a few times; something that we had never done before.

I left for college when I graduated from High School.  Bruce was 14 years old.  Except for a few brief stints at visiting home during college, we never had much interaction together.  Most of my knowledge of what was happening in Bruce’s life came through my mother or sister over the years.  Attempts at visiting during vacations or letters and cards were never acknowledged or answered.  However, that is not unusual behavior for Almberg males.  We would probably do well in monasteries.

So, after getting a chance to finally visit and talk with my brother, it was sad news to hear that he was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day 2010 with liver failure.  He was not expected to live passed the weekend.  However, he did not die until two weeks later, on the 15th, after being transferred from Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, OR., to a nursing care facility in Longview, WA.  Those two weeks in the hospital, though very hard, was important.

During his two weeks in the hospital quite a number of people had an opportunity to pray for him, offer the hope of Christ, and share the love of God with him.  My parents believe and trust that God was able to bring peace to Bruce’s heart and soul.  As such, we are able to leave him in the arms of our Heavenly Father who is full of love, compassion, and not willing that any should perish.

Meanwhile, we will gather this Saturday, February 13th, to remember him, whether we have long-time-ago memories or recently made ones.  We will be present for one another and comfort one another, especially his wife Denise.  Afterall, while it is the dead that we commemorate, it is for the living that we gather.

©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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Celebrating Freedom

A pastor went for a walk and came upon a group of about a dozen young boys between 10 and 12 years of age.  The group surrounded a dog.  Concerned that the boys were tormenting the dog, he went over and asked, “What are you doing with the dog?”  One of the boys replied, “This dog is just an old stray.  We all want him, but only one of us can take him home.  So, we’ve decided that whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie will get to keep the dog.”

Of course, the Reverend was taken aback.  “You boys shouldn’t be having a contest telling lies!” he exclaimed.  He then launched into a ten-minute sermon against lying ending with, “Why, when I was your age, I never told a lie!”  Well, there was dead silence for about a minute.  Then, just as the pastor was beginning to think he’d gotten through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and said, “All right, give him the dog.”

Sin is a part of all of us – even the best of us.  No one is immune to its effects.  We cannot escape its history in our past or its threat to our futures.  However, God set in motion a plan to set prisoners to sin free from its entanglements and death sentence.  This is a plan for everyone, no matter the depth or shallowness of sin in which one is caught.  The plan was completed through Christ’s death on the cross and victory over death and the grave in his resurrection.

Jesus came to set the prisoner to sin’s addictions and bondages free.  Freedom starts when we begin to acknowledge the truth and live by it:  “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32, NIV).  The truth he calls us to hold to is God’s plan to rescue humankind from their sin condition through his death and resurrection.  This truth sets us free not only from sin but also from its effects – guilt, condemnation, shame, disgrace, blame, and remorse among many others.

Pink Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

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

There is only one answer for freedom from sin’s hold upon a human being and that is in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Our world tries to sell us on self-improvement, self-actualization, self-control, and self-realization.  We have been too often duped into thinking that the world and its guru’s have the answer.  But listen to what the psalmist tries to tell us:  “Don’t put your life in the hands of experts who know nothing about life, of salvation life.  Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them.  Instead, get help from the God of Jacob, put your hope in GOD and know real blessing!”  (Psalm 146, The Message)

Everything we need to be victorious in this life is provided for us in what Jesus did on the cross and in His resurrection.  There is nothing more that we need, and nothing we need to do, but to freely accept it and apply it to our lives by following the way of Jesus everyday.  That is why Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be [completely] free indeed” (John 8:36, NIV).

The true Christian lifestyle celebrates the freedom we have in Christ from our sinful past and sin’s threat to our future.  We can live everyday free from sin’s domination and damnation.  How?  Paul said, “Count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus . . . offer yourselves to God . . . as instruments of righteousness” (Ro. 6:11, 13, NIV).  “Now that you have been set free from sin [by Christ’s death upon the cross and resurrection from the grave] and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:22, 23, NIV).

Whatever moral failure is in your past, the devil will keep throwing it in your face.  However, God saw everything you did.  He wants you to know that he loves you in spite of your actions and that he will forgive you if you will only ask him.  There is no sin too great that disqualifies you from this offer.  There is no sin too small that is disqualified from the need of his forgiving and cleansing act through Jesus Christ.

A confessed sin is a forgiven sin.  You can be free from the awful bondage of repeating your past, fearing your future or even death!  Live everyday to celebrate the freedom that Christ bought for you with his own life.  Live a life that worships God and praises him for freedom from sin’s captivity.  Be free.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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