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Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

One of the great strengths of the American church culture is the diversity.  Traveling around the country, especially in the large cities, one captures the multiple expressions of the Christian life just by reading the names of some of the churches.

  • Undenominational Holiness Church
  • The Cowboy Church
  • Run For Your Life International Chapel
  • End Time Evangelistic Pentecostal Church
  • Church Meat of the Word Sanctuary and Fellowship
  • Ram in the Bush Christian Center
  • The House of Prayer and Refuge
  • Cross  of Christ Deliverance Temple

These reflect a certain generation and identity.  Now the new church names are simpler but much more mysterious, such as,

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Elevation
  • Restoration
  • Renovation
  • enCompass
  • Epiphany Station
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • The River
  • The Flood
  • The Bridge
  • Imago Dei
  • Corem Deo
  • Passion City
  • Paradox
  • Renaissance Church
  • Origins
  • Legacy
  • Tapestry
  • Out Post
  • Generation
  • Encounter
  • Warehouse
  • Relevant
  • Radiant
  • Elevate
  • Illuminate
  • Anthem
  • TerraNova
  • Crux
  • Awakening
  • Expedition
  • Flipside
  • True North
  • Substance
  • Crossings
  • FrontLine
  • Depth
  • Sandals
  • Paradox
  • Vintage
  • The Cause
  • The Intersection
  • Element 3
  • The Exchange
  • Tribe
  • Enclave
  • Praxis
  • Immersion
  • Liquid

More than denominational identity, there is now competition to set oneself off from denominational labels.  In some instances, this is so much so that one can hardly discern what denominational distinctive separates a church from the rest.  They all just about look, sound and feel the same.  Denominational ties are hidden until one becomes a member or a leader of the church.

Purple Starfish in the Sun, May 2012

Purple Starfish in the Sun  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

So, one good thing that can be said about the American church is this: It’s not afraid, for the most part, to experiment. In fact, it could be argued that whole denominations or church movements have been built upon the charismatic entrepreneurship of a certain individual or group.  This has made the American church flexible and changeable.  However, is it changing fast enough today to keep up with the changes coming upon American culture?

In this series of blog articles, I have argued for a need to re-think how we plant churches today (Church Re-Formatted 1); that our focus should be on the fringes of our culture.  This is the fastest growing demographic and the least reached.  I have also attempted to give examples of how others in our past (Wesley, Booth, and Taylor in Church Re-Formatted 2) give us great examples of how this can be done.  More importantly, I hope to inspire others that it can be done and must be done again.

For instance, my community has witnessed a number of church plants in the past several years.  I have had a chance to interact with some of the church planters and pastors.  Almost in every case, the church plant was just like every other church already in town, reaching the same demographic and hoping to grow large enough to be self-sustaining (which usually translates into being able to pay the church planter or pastor, at least).  Only a couple of these plants have made intentional efforts to reach a non-churched or unreached sub-group of our community.  (My community is the Tri-Cities of Washington State – Kennewick, Richland, Pasco – whose population is 250,000+ including surrounding communities.)

To think missionaly about church planting in the U.S., especially in large cities and urban settings, the question must now begin with, “Who has God called us to reach?”  It may be that there is an unreached demographic or multiple demographics that are ready for a church plant.  Answering this question will help answer the next questions:  “Where will we plant a church?” and “How will we plant it and what will it look like?”

As suggested before, this may take a church planter or urban missionary into some unfamiliar territory.  However, it is precisely that ground that must be affected in our American culture.  These places remain the least reached and least affected by church efforts and witness.  They are also the fastest growing areas of our American society.

Some church leaders have begun to identify these places in our American society and call the church to action.  The scholars and authors I particularly have gleaned from are Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  They have borrowed the sociological term “third places” (coined in 1989 by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) to help the church think about the gathering places in their communities where people already gather.  The point is that this is where God’s people need to be present.  Instead of inviting the community to join us, we are invited to join our community.  It is in these places where God is “seeking and saving the lost”.  This is called the “attractional model” of evangelism versus the “missional model”.  To get a sample of this, take time to watch Michael Frost’s presentation below…

The missionary model requires church planters and leaders to ask the “Who?” question.  This sets their compass for everything that follows.  The model that Jesus gave us and used when he sent out the twelve apostles and later the seventy is pictured for us in Luke 10:1-8.  Rather than call a community to come hear them, the disciples were to go be in the community and among its members.

The way they did this was to identify a “person of peace.”  This person of peace was someone who was receptive to the message of the kingdom and who was also a person of influence in the community.  The key to the relationship to the community began with this person of peace.  It would be this person who would open or close the door to the rest of the community.  It would be through them that the gospel message would be most effectively communicated to everyone else.

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

What would happen if a small group of Christians decided to plant themselves (church) among a group of unreached people?  Suppose they began by looking for the most receptive community leader or influencer?  What would happen if that community leader/influencer was won to Christ and then discipled to reach and tell the others in his/her community?  Suddenly, it is not outsiders bringing a message, but an insider who is bringing the message; an insider who knows the group’s language, values, ideals, and challenges.

Granted, if you are hoping to plant and soon develop then next mega-church, this may not be for you.  That will require you to compete with the other pop-culture churches in the community.  However, if you are looking to start something new that will reach new people and change lives, well, then, this may be how you will need church to be re-formatted for you.  It will no longer exist to only meet your needs.  Instead, it will exist to be a mission outpost in the center of a group of people who are far from God and far from what is familiar to you.  Someone needs to go.  Will you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 2012

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Thinking about church missionally is much different than to think about church for maintenance.  In the previous post, Church Re-Formatted 1, the challenge was to think about the fringes of American culture that are growing and how to reach out and communicate them.  That article was not to suggest that we need to throw out our present models and efforts.  Likewise, this one is not suggesting that maintenance (discipleship, at least as it is largely done in today’s churches) needs to be abandoned for missional efforts (evangelism and church planting).  The fact is that  both are needed in today’s American culture.

It is unfortunate that the established church looks upon those pushing the envelope of evangelism efforts to reach spiritual lost and damaged people with a bit of disdain.  They often wonder why these leaders cannot work within the confines of existing structures and churches.  Their leaders often work against these efforts by looking for wholes in the methodologies or even their messages and then point out their short-comings.  It is as if they believe that they somehow maintain their own credibility within the faith community by discrediting the efforts of others.

History teaches us that change, revolution and innovation most often comes from the fringes and not the mainstream.  So it is with church plants and church planters.  However, it is just as unfortunate that these leaders often look skeptically upon the established churches and their leaders as if they have gotten it all wrong and are missing something important.  As a result, established churches and their leaders become territorial and uninviting to new evangelistic and church planting efforts.  And, new church efforts and church planters alienate themselves from the resources and histories of churches long established in communities.

Round Beach Stone

Round Beach Stone  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

When we talk about mission and church planting efforts in the U.S., we are, for the most part, not talking about planting one where no church yet exists. The truth is that most of the country still has a very real, viable church presence.  When we discuss true missional communities that attempt church planting, it is often in regards to unreached/unchurched communities within communities.

This was the point of the first article, Church Re-Formatted 1: It is one thing to start a new church just to be another faith community in competition with all of the other existing ones.  That, in my opinion, is like just adding another store to the “church mall” offerings of a community.  It ends up competing for the same customers and must come up with marketing strategies to attract them.  In the end, it is largely “sheep swapping”.

It is quite another thing, however, to be one that is reaching a part of a community, perhaps a sub-community or sub-culture, that is largely unreached.  It is this latter that Church Re-Formatted 1 argues needs the greatest focus of our evangelistic and church planting efforts. The ever growing unchurched population of the U.S. needs to be the focus of new mission/evangelistic efforts.

The challenge, as noted previously, is the fracturing of American culture.  We can better be described as a tribal culture than a monolithic one.  The things that used to tie us into a common identity are becoming frayed and fragile.  This sets up competing values and interests that isolate groups as they cloister around common interests and identities.

In order for the church to become more missional in orientation, it will need a radical change – perhaps even a re-formatting.  This is nothing new to the church, actually.  It has experienced this on many occasions as people have risen to the challenge of communicating the gospel to a changing culture.  We only need to look back on recent church history to find examples.

For instance, in the 18th centurty, John Wesley and John Whitefield had the audacity to take the Bible’s message right to the masses where they lived and worked.  This got them into all sorts of hot water with the established church (the Church of England) because it was considered a defilement of the gospel to have it proclaimed anywhere other than in a church behind a pulpit.  They were told it was unfitting for clergy persons to preach outside of the sanctuary.  However, many of the working class had abandoned church as irrelevant at that time, plus many of the poor worked on Sunday.  How were they going to hear?  Who was going to go tell them?  Who would send a messenger?

It was perhaps the hand of God at work when John Wesley was locked out of preaching at churches in England because out of this he determined to take the good news message right to the masses.  It can best be seen in Wesley’s words,

I am well assured that I did far more good to my Lincolnshire parishioners by preaching three days on my father’s tomb than I did by preaching three years in his pulpit.” … To this day field preaching is a cross to me, but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the gospel to every creature“. (2)

John Whitefield had a similar experience on the other side of the pond in the American colonies.  What resulted was the beginning of modern American Evangelicalism.  The American Methodist Church would later claim up to two-thirds of all believers in the U.S. by the time of the Civil War.  Since he was not allowed in most American churches, he was left to preaching in open fields, often to thousands.

In the 19th century, England was once again in need of a fresh infusion of the hope found in the message that Christ brought to earth.  Within a short span of time, even the new Methodist church in England was losing spiritual ground.  William Booth, an English Methodist preacher, decided to do something to stem the tide of cultural decay.  Despite his denomination’s efforts to place him in a pastorate, William Booth felt the urgency for evangelism and considered the pastorate a hindrance to such efforts.

Through a series of events, William Booth founded the Salvation Army.  Its focus was upon bringing salvation to the least of society.  The starting point began in the slums of East London and most ever after always looked to establish itself among the poor and needy in communities.

William Booth and his “army” became known for their street preaching and street meetings.  Their efforts, once again, focused upon taking the gospel to where the people were living and working.  Not surprisingly, William Booth and the Salvation Army caught a lot of heat from the Church of England as well as the Methodist Church of England.  Booth’s fiery preaching and passion can be summed up in this part of a message of a vision of hell:

To go down among the perishing crowds is your duty. Your happiness from now on will consist in sharing their misery, your ease in sharing their pain, your crown in helping them to bear their cross, and your heaven in going into the very jaws of hell to rescue them.”  (1)

Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset

Graveyard of the Giants at Sunset Off Taylor Point  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

A contemporary of William Booth’s was Hudson Taylor.  He became a missionary to China and founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF International).  When Hudson Taylor first arrived in China, he found most of the missionaries there living comfortably in walled communes in the large cities of China.  No one was going outside of these to reach the aboriginal Chinese.  Only those Chinese who had become “westernized” or “civilized” were thought worthy or able of being reached and discipled.

Hudson Taylor, disgusted with the attitudes and complacency of his peers, attempted to go inland and plant churches among the villages.  At first he found stiff resistance.  He found out that the native Chinese considered him to be only another “black devil” (their word for the foreign missionaries).  So, Hudson Taylor changed his approach.  He donned Chinese clothing, grew his hair into a braided pony-tail, shaved his forehead and lived among the locals just like they lived.  Incredibly, Hudson Taylor’s efforts paid off in not only acceptance, but converts and then a church multiplication movement that continues to this day despite 60 years of Communism.

Hudson Taylor was harshly criticized by his peers and the established missionary societies.  There were churches that shunned his efforts because of his methods.  Others even questioned the necessity of needing to reach the indigenous Chinese at all.  Still, it was Hudson Taylor that led the way across the language and cultural bridge barrier that opened the door for many Chinese to not only embrace Christianity but to also form the Chinese church into something that would impact its nation.  Husdon Taylor’s burning passion comes through and challenges us when he says,

“It will not do to say that you have no special call to go to China…with the command of the Lord Jesus to go and preach the gospel to every creature, you need rather to ascertain whether you have a special call to stay at home.”  (3)

These same passions, visions and strategies were used many times in the U.S. in the late-19th century and early-20th century.  With the rise of immigrant communities, churches worked to establish themselves in those communities with disciples and leaders who new the culture and spoke the language.  Up until recent history, evangelical and pentecostal churches had indigenous churches that still spoke German, Norwegian and Swedish.  We see them today among the Spanish, Brazilian and various Asian and African communities in the U.S.

In an effort to change cities, churches were planted in storefronts.  Even taverns are known to have housed a few early Assembly of God church planting efforts.  Many cities in America today still have some type of “Union Gospel Mission” at work in their city centers.  These are true missional communities in the midst of people who are not reached by the average church.  However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such micro-communities all over the U.S. today without an adequate gospel presentation.

It is these missionary kinds of efforts that we have seen before in our church histories that are needed once again today in America.  However, today’s strategies may not just need to cross language and foreign cultural barriers.  Some of the hardest to reach may be in those communities and people groups who are closest in language and culture, but desperately far away from us spiritually; so much so that they seem to us as foreign.  They are living in our neighborhoods and cities.  The question remains, Who is going to take the effort to cross the street to reach them?

In light of this urgent question, every church and church leader needs to ask some questions about their city, community and neighborhoods:

  • Where are the least reached?  Are we reaching them or partnering with someone who is reaching them?
  • Who are the most vulnerable?  Are we meeting their needs or partnering with someone who is meeting their needs?
  • Where are the gathering places of our community?  Do we have a presence there or partnering with someone who does?
  • What community events define and shape our community, town, city?  Do we participate and serve there or partnering with someone who does or will help us do so?
  • What social groups exist within your community or city?  Which ones does your church have members of them, they are your closest connection, or which ones do you feel the Holy Spirit leading you to reach out to in order to build relational bridges to reach them?

    Sunset from Toleak Point

    Sunset from Toleak Point  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

As I mentioned before, the answers to these kinds of questions may lead to some surprising answers that challenge our idea of evangelism and “doing” church.  Do not be surprised if it leads you to skate parks, parades, community parties and celebrations, taverns, sports competitions, school events, post offices, stores, etc.  In these places, people gather who will never come to a church event.  Maybe it’s time we go be among them – incarnate the gospel message and see what the Holy Spirit does to provide opportunities to share and show God’s kingdom.

Just as Wesley, Booth and Taylor needed to “re-format” their understanding of church, it may be time for some within the American church to do so now.  This will not be for everybody, though it should concern everybody.  There are many others in Church history than just these three mentioned above that began to see church, their faith community and its purposes differently.  They, and others like them, “re-formatted” church and started – intentionally or unintentionally – new faith communities that were, in their beginnings anyway, primarily missional communities.  They journeyed to those closest to hell and farthest from heaven to seek and save the lost.  That journey needs to be taken again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 20, 2012

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What should should a church look and sound like to effectively communicate to today’s American?  There is a great deal of angst accompanying this discussion among church planters these days about what is the most effective design of a church’s organizational structure to reach people disconnected from church or altogether unchurched.  As the evangelical church continues to lose spiritual ground in American culture, this is an appropriate and urgent question.

The answer to this question is not as simple as it once was for the church planter or evangelist.  Today, while we have witnessed the rapid globalization of our culture, we have also witnessed the fracturing of our culture.  We never existed in a pure mono-culture in American society in the first place.  The arrival of new immigrants from the first settlers in the new world until now has always driven us to be more multi-cultural despite our most stiff resistance against it.

Seagulls In a Row  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg 2012

Today, however, the challenge is not just the ever increasing multi-culturization of American society through the introduction of new immigrants from other parts of the world but also the tribalization of the American culture.  American society is not only fractured but has many social fissures that separate people into smaller distinctive groups.  This a new reality for people desiring to effectively communicate to our culture.

Fifty or sixty years ago, communicators could begin a conversation with our culture and its inhabitants with a few basic assumptions: common spiritual experiences and language, familiar Americana identity and shared patriotism.  This has slowly changed over the last fifty years.  Some would call this a cultural decay while others would celebrate it as a freedom from socio-cultural assumptions that have kept us separated from the rest of the world.  I’ll leave that debate for others to wrestle over.

For churches and church planters, however, this sets up an interesting and challenging scenario.  They must ask themselves not only “Where?” and “How?” but also “Who?”  There is no mono-cultural “Jack and Jill” to reach anymore – as if a homogeneous American culture ever really existed..  There is no singular avatar (like “W.A.S.P.”) that can adequately depict every person in most of the large communities around the United States.  Diversity has increased and is now the norm.

Many years ago, someone wanting to plant a church used to only ask, “Where shall I plant it – what community, neighborhood, city?”.  Then, a few decades later, the focus became, “How shall I plant it – what style of music, what preaching/teaching style, what discipleship method?”.  Now, the more appropriate question to ask is, “Who shall I reach out to?  Among whom shall I plant it – urbanites, bikers, emo’s, skaters, preps, cowboys, motorheads, low income, recovering addicts, ethnic or immigrant group?”

As mentioned before, the vast majority of church plants in the U.S. focus upon the large moderate center of American culture.  However, this leaves out the ever growing “outsiders” or fringes of our society who remain unreached with the church’s message.  Statistically, we already know that most church growth in U.S. evangelical churches today is from “sheep swapping” rather than actually reaching lost sheep and discipling spiritual seekers.

The focus upon the moderate center is a worthy goal.  It has its own challenges.  It has also shaped the format of most American churches: highly commercialized, appealing to pop-culture and driven to constantly excel at changes that produce a better product and better service.  Unwittingly, this has also shaped the mindset of the disciples of this group so that many are often looking for church to be a theater or shopping mall experience.  The challenge is that they will quickly change allegiances to the next brightest and boldest advertised store (i.e. church).  Those issues are for another time and discussion.

The question here is,What about those outside the moderate center of American culture?”  As the U.S. enters into an increasing post-Christian culture, it will be those on the fringes of what is now considered popular culture that will continue to grow.  This growing demographic should be the target group of new church plants and evangelistic efforts.  In other words, to re-format church, its leaders need to begin by looking on the fringes of American culture – to the least reached and the last considered.

Round Rocks Beach Line

Round Rocks Beach Line  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

This will take an intentional missional mindset on the part of church leaders. The question must begin with the “who.”  This will answer the following two questions: “How?” and “Where?”  The answer to the question “Who?” may end in some surprising missional endeavors.  It will also possibly mean that church, as it is commonly known, will be completely reformatted – without giving up its core message – to look like something very different from what we grew up in.  This could also entail going to some surprising places and and “doing church” in some very different ways.

The urgent question is, who is up for this kind of re-formatting challenge for the church?  These are the leaders, missionaries to the U.S., evangelists, church planters and church leaders that we will need in the coming years and decades.  They are the ones that will need to identify unreached groups, untapped potentials for church planting and developing discipling methods in those settings.

I believe some of the answers we are looking for may actually lie in our past missionary and evangelistic endeavors.  There are ways of impacting and transforming culture that the American church seems to have forgotten in its heyday of being popular and among the wealthy of American institutions.  A few individuals and churches do follow these examples, but too few to create a movement to change the rising tide of the secularization and paganization of American culture.

This is the time to humbly return to past spiritual roots to look for and learn new models to re-format church.  It may be also a time to look to our spiritual children and grandchildren from our overseas missionary efforts for help.  It is in some of these very pagan and even anti-christian settings that the church is most effective.  In these surprising settings the church is not only growing and thriving,  but it is slowly changing culture.

Should the church look to re-format itself?  No.  Not if it is just another gimmick to be relevant and “cool”.  Yes, if it plans to reach the unreached groups in its community and city and start a spiritual movement that will change the present destination of our American culture.  Who wants to re-format the church and start all over?  Not everyone.  But I’m up for it.

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone,  May 19, 2011

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I meet regularly with a number of friends involved in some sort of ministry. Some of them are in full-time ministry and some in volunteer places. Everyone of them have a passion to winsomely bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their spiritual journey.

One of the challenges is that what reached people a few years ago does not touch them today. Our culture has quickly changed and continues rapidly changing, much of it fueled and fed by technology. Technology has shaped how we receive and process information. While much of the church still depends upon a “talking head” at the front of the auditorium, much of the world has moved on to multi-media entertainment centers.

Mount Adams, Washington State, Fall 2012Influence and information does not just come through technological sources, however. Now, it is taken in through personal encounters in one’s “tribal” or affinity group. The breakdown of the family structures and the displacement of family members across distances has caused people to seek out social groups with  which they identify. These play a huge part in filtering information and what is accepted as “truth” among its members. It begins as young as teenagers when they divide into Goths, Emos, Nerds, Jocks, Barbies, Preppies, Punkers, Rockers, Stoners, and Gamers. The list goes on to reflect neighborhoods, ethnic groups and social statuses.

The technolization and tribalization of our culture has created a fractured environment to share the Bible’s message of hope and redemption. This is the “new reality” that American churches face. The question is whether they will be able to quickly adapt to the changing environment or continue to perform old practices that reached bygone eras.

There is a danger in not fighting against the nostalgia of the “good old days.” It is that we miss what opportunities are given to us right now. We can celebrate the past, even grieve its passing, but we cannot be stuck in it if we hope to maintain any missional edge that keeps us relevant and able to relate to the culture we live in today. So, what does this mean – this “new reality” – for American churches?

First, it means we need to rethink our priorities. What is our “kingdom priority”? Is it to preserve our furniture? Is it to maintain our liturgical practices? Is it to shore up programs and ministries? Or, is it to carry a message to spiritually lost people and develop within them hearts and minds that seek after Christ and his kingdom?

As I have talked this dilemma over with ministry friends, one thing has become clear to all of us. The mission is the message of Christ and his lordship or rule. Church history shows us that methods have constantly changed over the centuries. The only difference now is that these  are needing to take place at a faster pace than ever before.

Mount Hood, Oregon, Fall 2012For instance, take the structure of church buildings. The church began with no properties – meeting in the homes of believers and seekers. Finally, when buildings were able to be constructed, they were gathering places for many “home churches.” Finally, these buildings became larger Cathedrals and the focus of the faith community.

Initially, the focus of the building’s interior was “The Lord’s Table“. Any pulpit or podium was to the side, not center stage. Sometimes it was intentionally placed high so that the preacher seemed to be ascending Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s Word to the people once more. Everything centered around the Eucharist.

When the Reformation arrived, it invited new models for church buildings. Some had art, some didn’t and some boasted fancy architecture and some simple. The Word of God became central and slowly the pulpit moved to center stage. The Communion Table remained either in front or behind the pulpit depending upon the prominence a church might give to it (Was there real substance in the food or only symbolism?). As scholasticism played a larger role in Christian education, teaching in preaching became more pronounced. The speaker/preacher/teacher became more important.

With the arrival of Evangelicalism and the Revival movements of the 19th century, churches took on the role of being auditoriums – places to hear a speaker. With the ever increasing role of music in the church, choir lofts, organ machines and pipes all played a role in shaping church buildings and affected how the Gospel message was communicated.

Now, today, in most Evangelical churches, the pulpit has given way to a lectern, music stand, or no prop at all. The worship band instruments are as prominently displayed as the pulpit or Lord’s Table once was a few decades ago. Clergy wigs, clerical collars, robes and suits and ties have given way to button-up shirts and slacks or T-shirts and jeans.

Change. The church has faced it for centuries. How the church today faces the changing reality of its culture will determine how effective it will remain. Sadly, like many church movements in the past, there may be a few today that will need to pass from the scene and become a memory of church history. Many individual churches and denominations will not be able to make the transition toward effectiveness in reaching today’s and tomorrow’s culture.

So, the question every minister, ministry and church organization must carefully assess is what is the main priority? What is “mission critical”? Something that is “mission critical” is absolutely necessary for the success of the mission. Without it the mission would fail. (This is assuming, of course, the centrality of Christ and a deep dependence upon the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.)

I don’t think there is one easy answer to that question. I strongly believe it will depend upon each congregation and each church leader to answer it depending upon their sense of God-given purpose and ministry context.

  • Where are they placed in their community?
  • Who has God given them to reach?
  • What resources has the Lord supplied them to accomplish it?
  • What “gifts and talents” are in its core leadership?

Finally, it means we will also need to re-examine our message delivery system. The message cannot change. Across every culture and every human age, the Gospel remains relevant and unchangeable. However, how it is communicated can change and must.

The new reality in our American churches is that we are facing an ever-increasing biblically illiterate audience despite the preponderance of biblical, theological and spiritual devotional resources available in our society. Many identify this as one of the signs that America has entered a “post-Christian” cultural phase. That may be true. However, that does not give us permission to throw-up our hands in defeat.

I believe that our culture is reverting to a story telling culture. Listeners are less linear in their thinking and how they relate to information. So, handing out and delivering an outline will not effectively reach them. However, story telling will communicate to them. This is a great advantage to the church since our source material, the Bible, is full of stories. Our lead-teacher, Jesus, used story to communicate important kingdom truths.

The danger becomes when our story telling only concludes with moralisms and pop-psychology. Too many of our White Mountain Flowers Flowing Down Rockspulpits and churches have already reverted to this diluted version of the Gospel. The Bible’s stories were given to us for more than to just teach us moral tales or to help us become better humans through positive living and thinking. They are pictures of the cosmic clash between divine righteous wisdom and human moral depravity.

The question remains, how do we most effectively tell this story of human failure and loving divine redemption? I believe that long educational sermons full to pretentious vocabulary is not going to cut it. We are going to need to simplify it – shoot for a 5th or 6th grade vocabulary. When it is necessary to use “big theological words”, then carefully define them. Scholasticism is out. Tribal narratives are the way in. Engage the individuals in the group as well as the whole group in telling the story of God’s glory.

I also believe that we have to begin our message delivery system with the assumption that people do not know anything about the Bible, its stories or is truths for living in God’s world God’s way. At least, whatever they have heard  up to this time is false and misleading. From that starting point, we can begin to shape our message to shape the hearts and minds of our audience.

The delivery system will need to have much more variety. A lone “talking head” delivering information will not capture the attention or the heart of today’s seekers. Contemporary audiences are used to sound bites, short episodic delivery,  and a chance to interact. This changes completely how we view our audience and our message.

Without changing our message, it will require harder work to include a variety of methods to deliver it. This could be everything from video clips, to personal stories, personal response times, discussion time, Q & A’s, as well as team speaker/teachers/preachers. What may seem like a chaotic and disjointed delivery system will make much more sense and have much more meaning to today’s audience.

The new reality in American churches offers an opportunity for the church to stretch out of its old wineskins and see what God is doing in his world and how he is at work. None of this has caught him by surprise. He is not overcome with questions and doubts about the future. He already saw this moment in time and had a “new wineskin” strategy for it. It is our job to discover it, embrace it and go with it.

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone   March, 12 2012

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Backpacking Friends

Backpacking Friends

For my 50th birthday this year I decided to return to a favorite Washington backpacking destination of mine – the Wilderness Area of the Olympic National Parks Coast.  I invited any who would come with me for a week long excursion from Rialto Beach near LaPush, Washington, to the Ozette River or Ozette Lake.  I didn’t have many takers.

I have hiked the Washington Coast area between the Hoh River and the Point of the Arches several times over the years.  I was born in Port Angeles, Washington, while my parents were living among the Makah Indians of Neah Bay, Washington.  My mother has told me more than once that my umbilical cord was never completely severed from the Peninsula.  She may be on to something there.

I have found myself returning to the Washington coastal areas around Queets, Forks, LaPush, Neah Bay, Clallam Bay, Port Angeles, and Sequim during important turning points in my life.  For instance, before I got married, I took my two best friends on a hike out to the Point of the Arches and Cape Alava.  In the middle of celebrating my 50th birthday on this past hike, I remembered that it was on my 40th birthday that I traversed the same portion of the coast.  So, there you have it.

When I lived in North Dakota for five years, it was not the beautiful mountain ranges or the snow topped dormant volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest that I missed.  No.  It was the ocean.  I missed the surf and the smell of salt water.  While the North Coast of Lake Superior above Duluth may fool the eyes into thinking for a moment that one is traveling HWY 101 on the Oregon coast, it only takes one breath for a person to realize that the massive expanse of water before them is not salty.  It simply cannot replace the ocean even as beautiful as Lake Superior is in the fall season.

Standing Rocks

Standing Rocks

Call it a spiritual connection or a mystical one, I occasionally feel a very strong pull toward the beaches and its waves.  Even in the cold wet wind, I could spend hours walking a beach or, better yet, searching through tidal pools for their colorful life forms.  Perhaps some little old Makah grandma spoke some mystical chant over me as a babe, I don’t know.  I only know I love all things about the sea.  Even its food.

A key to hiking or backpacking the Washington coast, or any coastal area for that matter, is to coordinate the tide schedule.  Get that wrong and a fun trip down the beach and around a headland could become a nightmare.  Many an unwary beach comber or day hiker has been caught unawares at how fast a northern tide can come in and how high it can move up the beach.  A tidal difference between low and high tide of 6′ – 8′ is nothing.

Throw in a storm surge or an extra high tide and the trouble only exponentiates.  I know.  I’ve waited out a couple tides on little tiny pieces of a beach or hillside waiting for the tide to recede enough to continue down the beach to my planned camp site.  I have only been caught during the day.  I cannot imagine what would happen to anyone needing to wait over night or until the next morning.

So, not only is it important to get good low tides to hike up and down the beach, but it is also important to make sure the timing of the tide coincides with when you plan on traveling.  Get a tide too early, and get started too late or get up too late, and you will find yourself scrambling to make the tide before it comes all the way in and blocks your route.  Get a tide to late in the day and you limit the amount of time you actually have to walk or hike the beach.

Starfish Cluster

Starfish Cluster

The biggest challenges in the tide changes are the headlands.  These rocky, sometimes mountainous, stubs of land that stick out into the surf pose an interesting challenge.  Should the backpacker or hiker get there at low tide, they may be rounded at ocean level.  This often means scurrying over rocks and boulders, navigating seaweed slick rocks, and getting around tidal pools.  Take your time and go carefully, and it will be a fun adventure.  Hurry and you may slip and fall and injure your pride and tender body parts.

Fortunately, the Park Service has provided ropes and ladders for many of these headlands.  This makes getting over the headlands possible at high tide.  However, these can be a challenge themselves.  The hillsides are often slick with mud and clay.  The ropes, while sturdy, are often wet and muddy.  So, navigating these ropes and ladders takes some care and a little skill, especially with a backpack.

When many first-timers think “beach hike”, they immediately assume walking long, firm sandy beaches.  However, nothing could be farther from reality.  The seascape along the Washington coast is forever changing and is very rugged.  Prepare to have your feet and legs tested as you trounce through loose sand, bounce along from boulder to boulder, slip and slide on slimy rocks, shimmy along logs, fjord creeks and rivers, and shuffle along gravelly beaches.  This is besides the times you must use rope and rope ladders to get over headlands or spend time walking above the beach in the forest.  It is nature’s veritable obstacle course for the backpacker and hiker.

Rock Island in Mist

Rock Island in Mist

The weather itself can be its own challenge.  Despite what any weather person on the local cable or TV channels will tell you, it will most certainly be the opposite.  Late July, August and September are the only reliable months for some guarantee of drier weather.  However, one must always keep in mind that this is the Washington coast after all.  It is also the home of North America’s rain forest where precipitation is measured from 110″ – 200″ per year.

The advice that I give to all my fellow travelers is simply this:  “You will get wet at some point.”  Whether it is from crossing a stream, stepping in a tide pool, getting caught unexpectedly by a wave or rain, one should simply expect to experience some portion if not all of their body being wet.  For this reason, I pack everything I want to remain dry in gallon zip-lock bags.  Air mattresses, sleeping bags and larger items are wrapped in garbage bags.

A rain proof backpack cover is helpful.  Wearing wool is necessary because it is better to be wet and warm than wet and cold.  Finally, a large tarp or plastic sheeting is handy if one does not mind the extra weight to provide cover to get out of the rain or extra shielding for the tent.  Most places along the coast a fire can be used to dry out gear.  However, on the north part of the coast between Yellow Banks and Cape Alava no fires of any kind are allowed.  Just remember to bring fireproof fire starter to build fires with wet wood.

Small Crab

Small Crab

The Park Service requires all backpackers to have hard-sided bear proof containers.  This is not so much to keep bears out, though that is important, as it is too confound the raccoons that plague the camp sites near the major trail heads.  Personally, I have had more gear and food stolen and ruined by the small critters than the large ones.  Seagulls will destroy anything to get at food left where they can eye it.  Mice, chipmunks and squirrels have eaten holes through backpacks and knapsacks to get a a goody or power bar.  All of this I speak from personal experience.  So, put all your food in a hard sided, tight lidded container and hang it!

Proper preparation can make hiking and backpacking the Washington coast an enjoyable experience.  It is well worth the hard work and effort to get away from the heavily used trail heads.  Get a few miles up or down the beach during the off season and one won’t see a soul for days.  The beauty and solitude is refreshing to the soul.

I have often claimed that nature is God’s biggest Cathedral.  As much as humankind has spent countless hours and untold riches to build the Creator cathedrals and temples to honor him, none can compare to the natural wonders of the world.  I have often said that I feel more close to God in the out-of-doors wild places than I do in the sanctuaries built by human hands.  Is it any wonder that humankind had a much more reverent and awe outlook upon the divine when it more closely dwelt in and among nature?  Our sterilized and concrete world has only removed us from what inspires the human soul to look up and wonder in awe.

When wandering the wild places of creation, I am often reminded of the old hymn’s words that sang, “…were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  I think Isaac Watts wrote that in the out of doors.  He was not sitting in some darkened office and cloistered away in a cubicle.  He was looking upon and considering the expanse of nature in all its beauty and thinking, “There must be a God and he must be bigger than all of this!

Oceanside Stream

Oceanside Stream

I have found myself on several occasions caught breathless in the beauty of the ocean and seascapes.  After a stormy day before and night, when one wakes up to a crystal clear blue sky reflecting off the gently rolling waves along the shore, there is nothing that compares.  I remember waking up one night late to step out of my tent because “nature called” only to be captured by the site of nature before me.  Hung low on the horizon, like the setting sun before it, rested the moon that created a shining road of light across the hundreds of miles of oceans right up to the beach in front of me.  And sprayed in vast array in the sky above and around the moon were sparkling lights of planets and stars in the thousands, if not millions, with the Milky Way gathering them all into an eternal trail of heavenly light.

I stood there for a good 20 minutes in the chilly, cold night air.  I sensed something sacred in what I witnessed.  Moving too quickly would have seemed as sacrilegious as getting up in the middle of Sunday worship to loudly excuse oneself to leave.  I have often said that people move too quickly through nature.  Like irreligious folks who just want the songs and sermons to be done so they can go about the more important duties of their life, when it comes to observing and spending time in creation, many people simply scan, sniff and move on.  One might as well have a drive-through Eucharist.

One of the advantages of being an aging backpacker is that you are forced to take it slow.  When I was younger, I was guilty of just wanting to eat up the miles of trail to get to a destination, which usually had a lake with trout in it.  While I took time even then to stop and admire creation, I did not do it with the same intention that I do so today.  Perhaps it is the idea that “this backpack trip may be my last one”.  My knees are not holding up well.  Sleeping on the ground, even with a good backpack mattress, is harsher on my body than it used to be in years gone by.

Island at Sunset

Island at Sunset

I would like to think that it is because I simply realize I have the time.  I am not in such a hurry.  I have learned the great value of pacing myself in whatever I do in life.  I have become more observant of my surroundings.  I have learned to live in the moment with joy and less anxiety.  I have learned to breath.  This is more than just a “stop and smell the roses” philosophy of life.  It is the idea that revelation and life are all around me if I will only take the time to get out and see it.

I suppose one does not need to go into the wild places of nature to experience this.  Some may find it in the middle of the busy city.  Others may find it in music or writing.  Still others may find it in beautiful deep relationships.  Each one of us has a place where we discover “deep calling to deep”.  Mine just happens to be on the wild reaches of the wet Washington Coast.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

Lone Starfish

Lone Starfish

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Deciding to leave the comfort of one’s home to enter the world of the poor in another culture is not to be done blithely.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Once determined to enter such an experience, a traveler must brace for a test of endurance and flexibility.  I am reminded of Bilbo’s warning to Frodo in the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “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.”

I had heard of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyonof Mexico over 20 years ago when friends of mine made

Tarahumara Woman

annual trips with blankets and clothing to donate to them.  Their plight then was very bleak.  It seems that it has not improved much in 20 years.  There are somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people who live in the Copper Canyon.  The exact population is unknown because the Mexican government does not count them.

Three native Indian tribes make up the population in the Copper Canyon: Tarahumara, Pima and Yaqui.  Each tribe has its own language.  The Tarahumara alone have 5 distinct dialects which can make communication among their own tribe difficult at times.  They prefer the name of their own language, Raramuri  (“those who run fast” or “runners on foot”), and are known for running very long distances.  Living isolated and deep in the canyon has helped them preserve their culture, language and music.

The Copper Canyon is over 25,000 square miles or 4 times larger (some say 7 times larger) than its sister canyon, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, U.S.A.  The Sierra Tarahumara is actually made up of 6 large canyons with rivers that feed into the main part of the canyon and the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez.  The remote and rugged nature of the area isolates the Tarahumara and makes getting help to them very difficult.

This area of Mexico has been under a drought for the past several years.  This has made the bleak living conditions of the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes very difficult.  Death from hunger is a very common occurrence.  The infant mortality rate is 50%, mostly due to nutrition issues.  The high elevation (8,000 ft) and cold winters can also bring its own misery.  The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly bitter and reports of children freezing to death were regularly heard.

There are a number of different non-profit organizations and Christian ministries at work attempting to bring relief to different parts of the Copper Canyon.  My church, Central United Protestant Church (UMC), in Richland, Washington, partners with Tomas Bencomo and Tarahumara Ministries based out of El Paso, TX., and Juarez, Mexico.  We have had Tomas and Maria Bencomo and their co-worker and translator, Brenda Granados, to a few of our missions conferences, which we call Global Impact Celebrations.

Our team flew into El Paso, TX, and stayed at the Micromotel right next door to the airport.  We spent the night and then got up early in the morning and rode to a little village 8 hours south called Rio Chico.  Rio Chico is the staging area for humanitarian trips into the canyon.  It also has an experimental farm to train Tarahumara farmers.  Another experimental farm is located in Rio Bravo about 12 miles away.  These help train farmers in better farm methods.  After a season, the farmers are sent back home with seed and a steel plow that can be pulled by a mule.

The first few days were spent planting 200 fruit trees and digging and pouring a foundation for a small building.  This was done all by hand with broken shovels and picks.  So, it not only made for hard work but also frustrating work.  The elevation of Rio Chico (about 7,000 ft) made the work seem even more difficult from us lowlanders.  We joined a group at Rio Chico from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota.  So, at least we had plenty of hands to do the work.  Still, those few days produced sun burns and lots of blisters and sore backs.

Finally, we loaded up to go down into the canyon with a supply of food.  We took a large four-wheel drive box truck and a four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban.  It is a 10 hour ride from Rio Chico down into the Copper Canyon where Tomas Bencomo and his team have a boarding school.  It serves about 300 families.  It takes 4 1/2 hours to travel the last 60 miles of dirt road.  The last 2 1/2 hours is descending 20 miles into the steep canyon by a steep twisting road with 31 hairpin turns.  They are so sharp that the driver must stop in mid-turn, backup and finishing the turn.  Fortunately for our driver, we descended it at night so he did not know what he was facing as the headlamps of the Suburban shown out into the pitch black night.

Finally, we arrived at the canyon camp tired from 4 1/2 hours of constant jarring and jostling in close confines.  It was

good to get out.  The night sky was brilliant with a splash of stars, but only the narrowest portion of the sky could be seen as the walls of the canyon pinched the night sky.  It would not be until morning that we would gaze up the steep canyon wall and be amazed at what we had ignorantly descended in the dark.  We all agreed that we were glad we had done it in the dark.  Some of us may have gotten out and walked down the road otherwise.

The morning was clear as we made our way to the main boarding school.  Out buildings were scattered all along the sides of the canyon, which meant that almost everyone had to move up or down its walls.  Level ground is a precious commodity reserved for buildings and gardens.  The sounds of chickens and children filled the morning air around the school where 80 – 90 children are housed and fed.  A government teacher comes in, when she can make it, to provide education at a small building close by.  This week, apparently, she was not able to make it.

The children that stay at the boarding house or who travel up and down the canyon to go to school travel long

Food Distribution in the Copper Canyon

distances to get there.  Parents send them because they know that their children will receive food and an education.  A few of the mothers come with their children and help in the kitchen and with other duties with the children.  They are paid with food to take home on the weekends.  Typically, children head home on Fridays and return late Sundays for a new week.  The ages range from a couple years to almost 6th or 7th grade.  After that age, there are no other resources for the children.  Many of them go to work.

One young brother and sister there had been rescued last Fall from starvation.  The family could no longer feed the 1 and 2 year old boy and girl.  So, they asked another family to take care of them.  However, that family too finally came to the heart wrenching decision that they, too, could no longer feed these two and feed their own kids.  So, they were placed in a corner, covered with blankets, and left to die of starvation.

One of the workers at the children’s home heard about it and went to see what she could do.  She encouraged the family to give the children to her to feed.  They were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid of the social stigma that may accompany when others find out about their plight.  After much coaxing, the two youngsters were given to her.  She drove the 4 1/2 hours over the rough dirt road to take the children to the nearest medical clinic.

The doctor at the clinic took one look at the 1 year old boy and declared there was no hope for him.  The two year old girl seemed to be in much better shape and a chance to live.  The compassionate worker who had spent all day hiking into the canyon to rescue the children and then driving over the jarring road to get there refused to allow the doctor to deny the boy treatment.  Finally, the doctor declared, “Fine.   If you can get him to eat something, perhaps there is hope.”  The only thing she had available was a small bag of potato chips.  She gingerly took out a small piece of a chip held it up before the listless boy.  Once the morsel was registered by the boy, he lunged at the potato chip and jammed it in his mouth.  “Well!” declared the surprised doctor, “It looks like he’s going to live.”

Tomasito - saved from starvation

While we were there we had the joy of holding these two lively kids.  They were full of life and joy.  This is one story among many that reveals the importance of this type of service to the indigenous people of the Copper Canyon who are locked in poverty.  Our team passed out bags of groceries that families were able to take home.  The food was available to everyone and anyone who came to receive.  The week’s worth of food, which many of them would attempt to stretch into a month, was gratefully received.  Women received food first and then the men who had come received food for their families also.

There are no shortcuts out of the Copper Canyon.  A train rides along the rim from Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean.  For most of the residents of the canyon, the only supplies available are those that the hike out to receive and then pack back in to their families.  Some, a few, are fortunate enough to have a burro to help with the chore.  Most, however, continue to live as they did when the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them into the canyon 500 years ago.

So, we climbed back into our vehicles glad that we did not have to hike out of the canyon.  Instead, we bounced along for 4 1/2 hours until we got to a paved road, that led to the town of Creel that brought us to a good road back to Rio Chico.  After 10 hours on the road, we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted only to get up early the next morning for the 8 hour drive back to Juarez and El Paso.  It would be good to get home.

The illusion of short-term mission trips is that one has experienced fully what it means to be embedded and fully embraced in a mission project.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We were returning home.  We would go back to our routines in our American suburbanvilles.  The ones we were leaving behind would continue the work.  On Sunday, the next day, Tomas would preach a 7 am service in Juarez, an 11 am service in El Paso, and another 3 pm service in Juarez.  Then, Monday morning, he and his team would take the long torturous road back to the land of the Tarahumaras.  And do it all over again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (April 18, 2011)

Tarahumara Dwelling

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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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