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Posts Tagged ‘Flower Photography’

I consider myself somewhat of a manly man. I like to do physical things.  Admittedly, I am not the best at fixing things.  But give me a chance to hike, fish and hunt, and I am right there.  I have gutted my fair share of fish and deer and various birds and smaller game.  Like most outdoors men, I have had a chance to push the limits of my own endurance and then take pride in retelling the experience.

There is, however, one thing that cowers me into a namby-pamby girly-man. It is the site of my own flesh-and-blood’s flesh and blood.  The experience of being at the birth of my two sons was not inspiration for me.  It was traumatic.  The birthing instructor was a bold-faced liar when she cheerily told my wife and me, “Blood?  No!  There’s almost no blood involved in child birth.”  Yeah, right.  My wife screaming in pain and the sight of blood sent me into a shock that rendered me mute and useless to my poor wife.  Good thing her best friend was there.  She took over.

When our two daughters were born at home with a mid-wife, it was mutually decided that my wife would be better off with close friends and family at her side than her husband. And so it came to pass.  I do not think I missed anything by not being there to “play catcher”.  I enjoyed my newborn daughters shortly after their loudly proclaimed and bloody arrival.  They were handed to me clean and pretty as all newly born little girls should arrive into the world, not wrinkly and bloody like my two boys arrived (which, come to think of it, may be a proper portent of things to come).

Our oldest daughter arrived into the world with a sweet tooth. As soon as she learned to totter on her own two feet, she could easily be called to one’s side with the sound of unwrapping candy and gum.  Her acute hearing for such sounds was a marvel to everyone.  At the sound of any wrapper crinkling, she would come running.

Unfortunately, for the grandmotherly types in our little church at the time, her cuteness and irresistible personality caused them all to disgorge their purses of any gum or candy they had available every Sunday. So, my daughter would return home from church each Sunday looking like she had just gone trick-or-treating on Halloween.  For her, every Sunday was Halloween.  Church was not a place to find God as much as it was a place to find candy.  After she went to bed at night, we would find candy and gum wrappers under her bed and pillow as well as leftover uneaten pieces tightly gripped in her tiny fists as she slept.

This, sadly, did her no favors as she developed really bad cavities in her baby teeth by the time she was three. Several were serious enough to threaten the budding permanent teeth behind them.  Thus, we were advised by our regular dentist to take her to see a pediatric dentist to have the cavities taken care of as soon as possible.  We made an appointment with one in Gig Harbor, Washington.

I was still a young father then and had not yet learned my physical and psychological limits to familial pain and blood-letting. So, I offered to take my daughter to the dentist.  I figured it would be a good father-daughter bonding time as we had an hour-and-a-half drive to the dentist and back again.  I loaded her into our little red Subaru wagon and off we went.

After a long drive of noticing the passing scenery, singing to the “oldies but goodies” on the radio and chattering away upon childhood topics, we arrived at a beautiful brand new building. The pediatric dentist’s office was located on the second floor of the building, which had a large, airy open atrium with a glass ceiling and tiled floor with a coffee barista right in the middle of it.  As we walked into the main doors, the smell of fresh coffee hung in the air along with the sound of an espresso machine working overtime to satisfy the thirsty and drowsy morning customers.

I decided against the elevator, so we walked up the double stair-flight to the second floor. Soon, we were standing in front of the dentist’s office door.  I looked down at my daughter with her blonde golden curls and bright blue eyes.  She looked up at me and smiled her big, wide toothy smile full of confidence.  I smiled back and opened the door.

The large room we entered was made for children. Bright colors, big toys, cartoon pictures on the walls and balloons decorated the room.  There were children playing and parents looking on, smiling, and talking in whispers to other parents.  Needless to say, I was impressed.  What a great place to bring your very young child to have dentistry work done.

I took my daughter’s hand and we made our way over to the registration counter. After acknowledging our names and appointment, I was handed a clip board with a cord’s worth of firewood for paperwork.  I have never liked filling out paper work.  But I found a seat with my daughter and started on the hundred’s of questions.  Every page needed the same information at the top: name, address, phone number, social security numbers, emergency contact and their numbers and the VIN number of the first car you owned.

I returned the filled-out paper work to the kind lady at the counter and took my seat to wait. It was only a few minutes before a nurse called my daughter’s name and my name.  We were escorted into a small dentist’s work room with the same childhood decor that we saw in the waiting room.  I thought to my self that it would be fun to work in such a bright and cheery place.  Such surroundings couldn’t help but bring out the innocent child in all of us.

Soon, the doctor arrived. She was a very beautiful young doctor, well dressed in a bright yellow colored pant suit that accentuated her red hair.  She looked like she was dressed to go to a professional presentation for pediatric dentists, not about to delve into the mouth of my daughter or any other child’s mouth for that matter.  Her demeanor and look reflected a person who had it all together with her prefect hair, make-up and clothes.

She smiled sweetly to my daughter, knelt before her and engaged her in a friendly conversation. Soon, she easily maneuvered my daughter up on to the dentist’s chair and was looking in her mouth.  I thought to myself, “This lady is good!

I felt myself relax and more willing to place my daughter into her care. Shortly, she turned to me and explained to me what she was going to do.  Then she invited, “Mr. Almberg, you are more than welcome to wait in the waiting room or go downstairs and get a cup of coffee.  We will be about an hour.”  I thanked her and shook her hand, turned to my daughter with a reassuring smile and kissed her on the forehead, which was returned with that big toothy smile.

Confidently, I left the room, walked through the waiting room and headed to the atrium to the coffee stand. As I made my way down the stairs to the first floor, I crowed to myself how easy all of this was going.  The warm fragrance of coffee caught my attention and I was soon focused on getting some caffeine in my favorite latte flavor.  It had already been a long day.  The appointment was made for early morning so we had been on the road since 6:30 am.

I paid for my coffee and found one of the overstuffed leather couches located near by. I selected one that was situated with the sun coming through the window upon it.  I picked up several magazines lying around on various tables and finally settled upon an old dog-eared PEOPLE magazine.  I planned on relaxing and enjoying a few moments of solitude before the long ride back home.

Only into the second page of the first article in the PEOPLE magazine, I heard a faint scream come from a far away room.  “Wow,” I thought to myself.   “That must be what the Spanish Inquisition must have sounded like.  Poor person.  I wonder where that is coming from…who that is?”  There was another scream, but this one more discernible.

Suddenly, a sick feeling came over my stomach as if my latte had been served up with sour milk. I recognized the voice in that scream.  There was no mistaking it as another scream echoed through the atrium.  It was most certainly my daughter.  I looked around at the people scattered around the room.  They all looked at one another and then it seemed as if they looked at me with an accusing stair, “How could you!!?”  I stuck my nose deeper into the magazine trying to find some anonymity.

I tried to enjoy my latte but, with every piercing cry, it was becoming more difficult.  I had given up on attempting to read any magazine articles after the first fifteen minutes went by on the clock.  Fortunately, the screams grew more and more less frequent.  However, this only tended to add to the tension.  The silence in between led to an anticipation of when the next one would come.  Just about the time that I thought it would never come after all, there would come another crying echo throughout the building’s chambers.

Pink Wild Flower, Summer 2009

Pink Wild Flower, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Finally, I could not stand the suspense any more.  I drained my now cold latte and headed up the stairs to the dentist’s office.  After a half-an-hour, I was starting to think that they perhaps needed my help.  I did not consider what that help could possibly be, but I had to find out any way.  I entered the office, only to enter another universe.

As I came through the door, the same calmness that had greeted me the first time was still there.  The room had not changed decor, children were happily playing and parents were mildly watching and chatting with one another.  “Don’t they know that my daughter is being tortured in there?” I wondered.  I went to the front desk.

Yes, I am Ron Almberg.  My daughter is being worked on right now and I am wondering if she is all right.”

The polite lady behind the counter smiled at me and said, “Let me check for you.  I’ll be right back.”  Then she disappeared around a corner.  I could imagine her going down the hall and into the little torture room that they were keeping my daughter in.  I waited impatiently for some news.

Finally, after only a few moments, she returned and said, “The doctor said that they have had some difficulty with your daughter but everything is going fine right now.  She said she should be done in about 15 or 20 minutes.”

OK,” I timidly returned.  “I’ll just wait over there.”  And pointed to a chair in the waiting room.

I took my seat. However, moving into the waiting room only made things worse for me.  Not only was the noise level louder, but one could hear the sounds of dentist tools doing their worst.  My hands grew clammy and I started to shake.

Just about the time I thought that I could not take any more, all of the noise stopped. After several more minutes passed by, the door to the way to the dungeon opened and out stepped my daughter.  Her mouth was stuffed with a few pieces of cotton, her hair mussed up, her eyes almost swollen shut from crying so hard.  Later, we discover that she had broken blood vessels in her face from screaming so hard.

I looked up at the doctor as she came through the door behind my daughter. She was the polar opposite of the picture of perfection that I had seen earlier that morning.  Her dress suit’s blouse was askew, her fair fell out in several places and the make-up on her face was worn and blotched like she had just come from someone’s funeral.  She smiled a crooked but victorious tired looking smile.

As you probably heard,” she began.  “We had some difficulty getting your daughter to settle down so that we could do the work on her.  We finally had to put her in what we call a “papoose”.  I was able to treat all the real bad cavities; however, we just were not able to get to the lesser ones.  I would recommend just monitoring them.  As long as they don’t get any worse, she will be fine until they fall out when her permanent teeth come in.”

Thank you, doctor,” I replied.

Without further comment she turned and disappeared behind the door.  “She looks terrible,” I thought.  “I wonder if she’ll take the rest of the day off.

I picked up my daughter with her swollen and Novicained face. We returned to the car for a long ride home.  I had planned on stopping in Silverdale for a treat, but she immediately fell asleep in the car and did not awake until we got home.  Then I laid down and slept the rest of the day.

The next Sunday, an announcement was put in the church bulletin and made from the pulpit.  “Please do not feed the Almberg’s daughter anymore candy of any kind!  She had to have cavities filled in her baby teeth this last week.  Anyone found doing so will be excommunicated and shunned.  May the Lord have mercy upon your soul.  The Almberg’s thank you for your help.  The pediatric dentists of America thank you.”

Except for one little church grandma lady who turned to sugar-free gum, we had no more trouble with church candy coming home.  Thanks to the pediatric dentist who saved her teeth, our daughter, to this day has a wonderful toothy smile.  But you will always find a piece of gum stuck in it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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Off Task

I had another one of those disappointing conversations with someone who used to go to church. I have had many of them over 25 years of leading churches.  However, in the last few years, my conversations like this have become more frequent.  I have also found that I have run out of answers or excuses for these very personal, heart-wrenching stories.

The experiences are as widely varied as the reasons for giving up on church as organized religion. Sometimes there was true spiritual abuse that scarred the individual.  Other times there was gross mismanagement of funds or responsibilities from the leadership.  Of course, the stories of petty in-fighting and ugly behavior come up too.  All of these things have not led the individuals to give up on God or their belief in the salvific work of Christ.  No.  They just cannot bring themselves to try church again.

Granted, there are those individuals who have caused their own problems. They brought trouble to the house of worship and left in a cloud of trouble.  They reaped what they sowed and left an unfortunate mess of weeds behind for others to clean up in God’s vineyard.  I am not addressing those individuals.  I am with the Apostle Paul when it comes to these individuals: “Let them go.”  I like the Apostle John‘s attitude, “They were from among us but were really not one of us so they went out from us.”  That is as it should be, I think.

No.  I am addressing those poor souls who really gave “church” a try; even multiple times. Perhaps they had just a run of bad luck in picking churches or they had anomalous experiences in otherwise great churches.  Not every church can bat 1.000 or even .333 for that matter.  No organization of people can.  We are all prone to make mistakes and miss opportunities.

Still, my conversation with this young man left me wondering.  Are most churches just “off task”? You know what I mean.  It is the same term a teacher uses for the student who is present but not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are “off task” and therefore are not getting their work done and turned in on time.  This usually results in a lot of extra homework and heartache for the parent.

In one blog article I wrote last year, I addressed the issue of the church needing to be “On Mission” – or “on task.” If we are not “on task” – fulfilling our mission as the body of Christ on earth – then we must be “off task” – present but not doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Like a poor performing student, this not only invites potential failure but a lot of heartache as well.  Thus the stories I run into time and again.

A young family in our apartment complex had been struggling financially with this economic downturn. The husband had lost his job and could not find another.  The wife had a part-time job with very few hours that barely kept food on the table.  Soon, the bills started piling up.  Then their car was repossessed, making it that much harder to get and keep a job.  Finally, they were getting eviction notices from the apartment managers.

This young family attended the largest church in our community; a church of a couple thousand. This growing congregation had recently finished building a new multi-million dollar facility and had just launched another campaign to build a 1.5 million dollar gymnasium.  It has all the marks of outward success.

Humbly, the young man approached the church for some kind of help. He figured they had been attending a number of years, had given financially to the church to support its ministries and had been actively involved in a few of them.  When he finally was able to talk to someone about his family’s needs, he was informed that the church had no resources to help them.  He was informed that one of the reasons was because the financial rough times had also hit the church and they were doing all they could just to keep the gymnasium construction going.

He went home desperate and broken. The one place he expected to be able to receive some kind of help and encouragement was gone.  There was no follow-up visit or phone call to offer helping the family connect with community resources.  They were on their own.  Well, not exactly.

The people of the apartment complex heard about this family’s needs. Some of them, complete strangers who did not know even their apartment number, chipped in to help catch up on rent.  One of the apartment complex repairmen, the young man I alluded to at the beginning of the blog, donated one of his cars to the family.  The family at this time is not interested in going to any church.  And it may be some time before they do.  I cannot blame them.

There is also an apartment with two women living in it. It has an elderly daughter taking care of her elderly mother.  Her mother has numerous health issues and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s.  They both looked forward to visiting church on Sundays because it was the one place they thought they could go, get out of their apartment and the about the only place the mother felt safe in a growing unfamiliar environment.  However, one Sunday they were pulled aside by the pastor who asked the daughter not to bring her mother to church anymore because her hearing-aides kept squeaking and disturbing the other parishioners around them.  Now they sit at home.  The daughter tending wounds from a church she and her mother had attended most of her life.

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As a former church leader, I understand that church experiences can be a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. I get that it is full of faulty humans who do not always behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.  I know all too well my own missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes that hurt others.  I also recognize those as times when I – when we – have lost sight of why we exist at all as the body of Christ: do his work and speak his words to reconcile the world to the Heavenly Father.

When the church gets off task, it becomes the worst of civil organizations. It would be better to become an Elks Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club or some other club members.  We are the worst because we so violate the high ideals to which we profess and call one another.  In the world of business, companies that get off task and away from the main product that made them successful in the first place go bankrupt.

When church becomes more about our buildings, positions of leadership, preferences and comfort, then we have gotten off task. When so much is expended to keep so few at ease and comfortable, then we are off task.  When our message is made irrelevant because of the life we model, we are off task.  When the life we model for others no longer reflects the mission of our founder, we are off task.

How do we know when we are “on task”? When our life and words express sacrificial love for God and for neighbor.  This is, after all, “the first and greatest commandment.”  It is the mark by which we will be identified by the rest of the world (“they will know you by your love for one another“).  It is the test everyone must pass to show they truly love (“greater love has no one than this, that s/he lay down his life for a friend“).

The exercises and lessons of this life’s classroom all have to do with teaching us how to love God and others sacrificially. It is the example and standard that Jesus set for us.  It is the command that we are given.  It is the test we must all pass, especially as the body of Christ.

Too many things can take us off task. They are too numerous to count.  It is perhaps one of the main weapons the enemy of our souls uses to distract us from our original task as a follower of Jesus.  However, at the end of the day, whether we were “on task” or “off task” will not be determined by sizable budgets, comfortable buildings or the number of butts in the seat on a Sunday morning.  No.  I think we will be asked only one question on our final test:  “How well did you love me and others?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

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

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The State of Fear and Ignorance

Most of us do more out of fear and ignorance than we do out of courage and wisdom.  I know that my personal track record in that arena is not that good anyway.  Why is it that fear is such a greater motivator than courage or bravery?  Why are we so susceptible to acting in our ignorance before seeking wisdom and understanding concerning our circumstances?  Even the best of us can be taken down by these two imps of degenerate humanity.

I am constantly reminded of this in our current world affairs in the Middle East.  The West’s attempt to conquer the enemy of freedom and democracy as it appears in Al Qaeda and Taliban groups underscores this problem.  Instead of addressing the human equation, Western nations think that they are simply dealing with something that requires a military solution.  As history has showed us in all of our wars, it is never that simple.  There are many reasons why people go to war to protect their land or to force out a perceived invader.  Sometimes it is as raw and simple as “It pays the bills.”  Thus, it is another career choice and creates and military economy.

I just recently finished a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin entitled, “Three Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time” (Penguin Books, 2006).  It is so good that I purchases the follow-up book, “Stones into Schools:  Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Greg Mortenson.  It is a remarkable book about how one man is changing the world through building schools for children, especially girls.  His personal story is so remarkable and well known among the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he is accepted in some of the most hostile places to any other American.  It only begs the question: “How come more people are not doing this?  How come our American government is not taking more of this approach to defeating the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in this part of the world?

Greg Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea is not a tale of unbroken successes.  It includes many failures as well as starts-and-stops.  Nevertheless, Mortenson’s persistence and willingness to be humble and learn the ways of others wins the day.  The key is relationships; by willing to take the time to build relationships, which takes time and patience, Greg Mortenson gained permission to have influence to help tribal groups better the lives of their children.  Thus, the work of Central Asia Institute was born and given life.  This is the idea of the three cups of tea Greg Mortenson had to experience in every village with every leader:  “The first cup of tea, you are a stranger.  The second cup of tea, you are a guest.  The third cup of tea, you are family and we will die for our family.”

California Poppies, Spring 2009

California Poppies, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

What is discovered vicariously through Mortenson’s experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that the Muslim people there want the same thing that everyone in the world wants for themselves and their families: jobs, peace, and a secure future.  Poverty, warfare and instability drive even the most peace loving people to desperate actions for a different life.  We have witnessed that as Americans in our own history during and immediately following the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Mortenson’s conviction is that education is a key to freedom from poverty, constant war and government instability.  The early results from his successes at building schools in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to confirm this proposal.  The local people are willing to fight for themselves against the Al Qaeda and Taliban if they are given the right tools, starting with an education, then with clean water and finally economic development.  Groups like Pennies for Peace help advance this very simple premise.

The saddest part of the book, “Three Cups of Tea,” was the reaction of some Americans to Greg Mortenson’s efforts.  It would appear that fear and ignorance on the American side of the equation is just as dangerous as it is on the Muslim side.  There is still a state of fear and ignorance that many Americans hold to all Muslims; just witness the recent reaction of so many Americans to the idea of a mosque being built near the ground zero of the World Trade Center.  The assumption is that most or all Muslims are terrorists who want to kill, maim, and destroy anyone from the west.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The largest single effort to defeat radical, extremist Islamic Fundamentalists can only be through building relationships that bring about mutual understanding and respect.  By taking time to build relationships that binds the hearts and minds of people together, the world can change.  We must face the fact that there will always be haters and destroyers in the world.  We may not be able to change them.  However, we can change the state of fear and ignorance in which they hold everyone.  Let’s pray more Greg Mortenson’s arrive to help us get there.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Red Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Red Rhododendron Flowers, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg (2010)

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Bleeding on the Altar of Self-sacrifice

Humanity’s relationship with the divine has always been a miserable one.  In the Judeo-Christian system of belief, the fault is laid at the feet of the first couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  The shattering of an idyllic relationship with humankind’s Creator and surrounding creation was the result of their disobedience and rebellion.  Their offspring, right down to us who are alive today, still refers to that episode as “The Fall.”  A clear indication that something was lost.

Efforts by humanity to regain that privileged position with their Creator and with creation has resulted in a myriad of convoluted religious beliefs systems.  Of course, in the modern era, the idea that one can completely opt out of any and all religious belief systems is now an option.  Thus, atheism has become a religion and religious expression all its own.  However, for the majority of the world, some type of belief in a deity(ies) still exists.  It affects how life is conducted on every level of human existence.

One thing they seem to bear in common is some sort of system for sacrifice to appease their god(s) or spiritual beings (if they are animists).  There appears to be a human universal need to “pay for one’s sins” to gain approval from these divines.  A predominant idea throughout all religious systems is that reality involves more than just what can be seen.  There is a larger reality in the unseen world that affects what is going on in the seen world.

Where the Christian faith diverges from these other world religions is the view that a sacrifice is no longer needed (at least in the Protestant stream).  It begins with God’s revelation to the children of Israel, the Jews.  God, by his revelation through the ancient patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – then later Moses and then reaffirmed through the Prophets, set up a better sacrificial system.  More important, meaning and explanation accompanied the revelation for the sacrificial system that pointed to a time when sacrifices would no longer be needed.

The sacrifices of grains and animals really do not change the heart of humanity.  They only bear witness to the cost of our continued rebellion and disobedience to our Maker.  Thus, in God’s timing, He sent His son, Yeshua = Joshua/Jesus.  According to His divine plan, this God-man who lived a perfect life became a sacrifice for all of humanity and all of human sin.  Ironically, we killed him.

Our Jewish and Gentile fore-bearers unrighteously judged him, unjustly condemned him and then put him to death in a cruel fashion by crucifixion.  Nevertheless, because of the Son’s willing obedience to take all of humanity’s punishment, God raised him from the dead and restored him to his heavenly place of rule and authority.  A few hundred people testified to seeing him after dying and being buried.  We have their testimonies written down for us to digest, accept and believe or disbelieve.

One would think that this would be the end of the story – at least in the Christian realm.  But, no.  The story continues to unfold in human history.  There are many who reject the idea that one person, no matter how perfect, could die for another and that it would be enough to satisfy God’s demand for justice and judgment against human sin.  Still, there are many others who believe the story and accept the sacrifice of God’s son for their own sin.  They continually remind themselves of this by partaking in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Nevertheless, even among those who accept the story witnessed to by so many, believe upon it and choose to live their lives by it, there is a creeping attitude or idea that something more must be required.  So, Christians create their own altars for their own sacrifices hoping to add to what Christ already did upon the cross, in the grave and through the resurrection.  Even those who are children of the Protestant Reformation and think of themselves as holding to “evangelical” beliefs struggle with this issue.

This struggle is more particularly acute when Christians go through troubling times and hardships.  A whole “Christian” nation can take on this attitude in turbulent times.  We want to find a reason for our suffering – or bad turn of luck.  We too quickly turn back to a pagan view of God that determines we must have done something – sinned – to anger the deity and now he is poised against us.  So, we search for ways to satisfy the deity’s anger, appease it and regain its approval and blessing – or at least neutrality so as not to oppose us in our plans and desires for a peaceful and happy existence.

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010 Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I was reminded of this troubling trend in our Christian history when I came across how many responded to the Black Death Plague – also called the Bubonic Plague – in Europe during the middle ages.  I have just finished reading John Man‘s book, “Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words.  He highlights in one chapter the actions of “the flagellants.”

The popular idea then, much as it is now, is that the God of the Bible promised not only salvation in the next life but also constant support in this one.  However, in the face of the troubling Black Death (Bubonic Plague) epidemic He seemed impotent, if not hostile towards humanity through the disease.  The explanation?  God must be angry and was clearly out to punish all of Europe and the Church – either actively or by neglect and indifference.  So, God must be somehow mollified.  This took many forms, of course, but one of the radical forms were the crazed devotees who marched from city to city through Europe lashing themselves with iron-tipped whips while crying out for God’s mercy.  Fellow devotees would then follow them moaning and dabbing themselves with the blood of the flagellants.

Another radical form was to find blame in someone else and make them pay the price.  While today the Church likes to look outside itself and blame homosexuals, pornography, gambling, liquor, liberal politicians and other spiritual “enemies”, the Church then chose to blame the Jews.  Already labeled as Christ-torturers and child-murders, all across Germany the rumor spread that they were also “well-poisoners.”  Thus, one series of many Jewish persecutions took place all across Europe.

Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the churchyard in Strasbourg.  This was replicated in almost all of the cities along the Rhine river.  In Antwerp and Brussels, entire Jewish communities were slain.  In Erfurt, 3,000 perished as sacrifices for the cause of the Black Plague.  In Worms and Frankfurt, instead of facing the same fate, the Jews chose to go out in Masada-like fashion and committed mass suicide.  In Mainz, Germany, 100 were burned outside of St. Quentin’s Church on St. Bartholomew’s day.  All were ultimately sacrifices to attempt to appease “God’s” anger and restore deserved blessing and peace to Europe.

While reading about these sad episodes in human history, I could not help but think that we really have not come that far in the Christian faith.  There is still a propensity to want to “pay back” God for our sin.  When bad things happen, Christian too often look for a cause-and-effect.  We want an explanation; preferably an understandable one.  The fact remains that there often is not one.  God remains God and does not need to explain his actions or non-actions to us.  His goodness comes to those who deserve it and those who do not.  Likewise, bad things visit humanity indiscriminately – to good people and bad people.

Christians often think that their faith in God somehow gives them a “Club Membership” to a trouble-free life.  So, when disease, tragedy, disaster or unexpected death visit us, we think that our “Membership Dues” must not be paid up.  We think we must “sacrifice” something to get back in to the “Club” of God’s favor.  How wrong!

As a spiritual leader in churches, I have witnessed good Christian people go through all kinds of agony trying to find an explanation for why bad things happen to them.  Early on in my spiritual journey, I always thought that I owed them and explanation.  After all, I am the one who went to Bible School and Seminary.  I should have the answers, right?  What a relief to finally come to the conclusion that I do not.  And I do not have to have “the answer(s).”  The fact is that most of the time, there is no answer.

And perhaps that is just the point.  When God remains distant and in the shadows of human tragedy and suffering, it may be that He is there to witness our faith in action when it is needed most.  After all, no one really knows what they truly believe until they are put under the stress of a trial or spiritual test.  It is then that what we truly believe in our hearts – our souls – really comes out and is evident to us and all those around us.  It is then that we discover the real bankruptcy of our “faith” or when we realize how very vibrant and real our faith truly is for us.

At any rate, faith in what God accomplished through the Messiah should be sufficient for us.  There is nothing more that we can add to his sacrificial death or resurrection.  We cannot create another altar and offer our own sacrifices upon it.  There is no other altar, no other sacrifice and no other payment necessary to appease God’s wrath.  He only accepts his son, Jesus the Messiah.  No other.  Only those who come to him through what his son did are received by him.  There is no other way.

So, the next time you feel the tug to “offer a sacrifice” to please God, remember that He has already made one for you.  There is nothing more that you can offer.  There is no trophy, no price, no sacrifice anyone can offer to God where they will be able to say to Him, “Look what I have offered to you!  Are you not pleased with me?  Don’t you owe it to me to bless me and always keep me happy now?”  Such an approach is a bankrupt one.  It fails to recognize the cost of His son’s sacrifice and is an affront to Him.

If you are finding yourself bleeding on the altar of self-sacrifice because you thought you could earn God’s favor, it is time to get off of it and be set free.  No amount of guilt, hand-wringing, praying, fasting, giving, worrying, church attendance or any other spiritual flagellation will earn you any credits in His account book until you learn to accept and live in the forgiveness and grace freely given to you through Christ.  Like so many before me, I too have often “beat myself up” mentally and spiritually thinking that everything that went wrong was my fault and that I must have done something to displease God.  I have learned to recognize that as a subtle spiritual lie of the enemy of my soul, the devil.  He would have me do anything but accept and live freely in what Christ accomplished.

After all, self-sacrifice is just another form of self-worship.  Self-worship is what caused Satan’s downfall in the first place.  By attempting to make our own sacrifices and meet God on our terms, we are only attempting to do what Satan did before His fall from heaven.  Only God dictates the terms for the satisfaction of divine judgment and justice.  Otherwise, He would not be God.  So, He has provided the answer or solution.  He has already established the altar and received the sacrifice.  It is time for us to stop bleeding on the altar of our self-sacrifices and worship at the throne of grace and mercy.

©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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I live in an area where there are a lot of well-to-do people, especially retired well-to-do people. It is interesting watching many of them in the twilight years of their lives.  Some find really purpose and meaning with their lives.  I know many that volunteer at the local food banks.  I was talking to one lady last night who had spent most of the day reading to elementary school aged children and was going to do so again today.

One of the big questions in our American culture as one nears retirement is the question of “quality of life.” Retirement communities sell their time-shares boasting the quality of life they offer to potential members.  Everything from senior travel excursions to activities at the local senior centers offer to improve one’s quality of life.  This is selling short, I believe, the whole idea of “quality of life.”  It is selling out to the idea that the American twin-gods of Comfort and Convenience are the altar at which we should be worshiping when we approach the end of our lives.

There is a potential for larger impact in one’s retirement years than one may expect. The freedom of time and the possibility of disposable income could increase one’s footprint upon bettering society and leaving a more promising future for the next generation.  Whether it involvement in a Creation Care organization or project, volunteering at a local school or after-school program, helping at a homeless shelter, clothing or food bank, or giving time and energy to one’s place of worship, there is a lot of life left in life; too much life to only give away to golf courses, cruise ships, bingo and shuffle boards.

Yellow Flower, June 2007

Yellow Flower, June 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I was driving through one of the retirement neighborhoods in my area, I could not help but notice the well-kept yards and gardens. Personally, I think this is a great way to get out-of-doors and exercise.  Then, something caught my attention that jerked me into reality.  An elder lady had a shop-vac out and was vacuuming her driveway!  Of course, I had to slow down and do the looky-loo thing.

Sure enough, she was cleaning her driveway with a shop-vac! I suppose it beats sweeping.  However, in this part of the state of Washington, in the Spring-time one only needs to wait for the next windstorm to come through and clean up the place (or pile it against the back fence, which in itself is also a convenience as it puts all the neighborhood garbage and desert tumble weeds in one easy-to-get-to location).  In any case, it is a pointless effort.  Then, the reality of what I saw dawned upon me.

I can only surmise that this particular retired person was bored. Why else would one waste their time vacuuming a driveway (and it wasn’t a small one, I might add).  There was nothing more important to do with her life or her time!  She and her husband, who was standing nearby watching (probably waiting his turn), needed a place more important to give their time and energies than cleaning their driveway with a vacuum.  The well-manicured lawn and gardens revealed that they were taken care of already.

Of course, witnessing this geriatric exercise in futility touched my funny-bone deeply. I’m suddenly wondering to myself if that is something I will find myself doing in another 25 years.  Lord, please, I hope not.  I hope my neighbors get annoyed with me because my yard and gardens never quite look right.  I hope that my drive way goes unswept; let alone unvacuumed.  Why?  Because I hope that I’ll be too busy giving my life to more important things that will last beyond my lifetime and into eternity.  Otherwise, if in another twenty-five years you happen to pass my house and see me out vacuuming my driveway?  Please call hospice.  It’s time to put me asleep.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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