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Posts Tagged ‘God’s Grace’

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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God Surprises 3

There is a great debate among modern evangelicals as to whether faith is its own spiritual substance. Does faith cause miracles to happen?  Or, in a more benign manner, does it cause God to move, act or show up on our behalf?  On the other side, others argue that faith causes nothing, that God is sovereign and moves or acts according to his own will and that all that is necessary is for faith to believe and trust that God is present.

For my part, 6 years of Bible College and 3 years of seminary have left the question open ended for me. I have come to believe that faith and God are mysterious things.  The scholastic rationalism that came out of the enlightenment would eviscerate our faith by attempting to dissect our knowledge of God into its smallest parts.  Parts of God keep jumping off the table of knowledge, however, and escaping our reason.

So, the answer must lie somewhere in between what we know and the shroud of mystery surrounding the Holy One. In my life, there have been times when God has seemed to work in accordance with my expectations.  Then, there are those times when God seems to have worked outside my expectations or despite my expectations.  These are the times that God surprises me.

Shortly after our oldest son was born, we moved to Quilcene, Washington. I had accepted a small Assembly of God church’s invitation to pastor.  We found an old single-wide mobile home to live in and settled into a life on the rural Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.  Logging was the main stay of the economy besides a few Oyster farms around Quilcene and Dabob bays.  The church was newly built and most of the people who attended fairly new Christians.

My parents visited us one weekend. So, early on a Saturday morning, we were sitting around the breakfast table finishing breakfast and enjoying coffee.  I had just finished making a fresh pot of coffee and poured hot, steaming mugs for everyone.  Our son was walking by then and toddling around the kitchen between grandparents and parents.

Suddenly, faster than anyone could react, my son grabbed his grandfather’s coffee mug and pulled it on to himself. He instantly started screaming.  I got up to get to him.  My wife, Kelly, was already taking off his one piece sleeper that he was still in to get the hot liquid it had soaked up away from him.

I looked him over and noticed that his left forearm was already starting to blister with a big ugly red bubble. So, I picked him up and rushed him over to the kitchen sink, turned on the cold water and ran his arm under the tap.  He was still screaming as Kelly checked the rest of him over.  It seemed that his left arm, the one he reached for the coffee mug with, was affected the worst.

I continued to run cold water over his arm for many minutes and watched as the blister on his arm grew. I knew from personal experience that this was painful.  A few years before I had opened the cap on a radiator of a car and steamed my right arm.  I had one blister from my arm-pit to my wrist for many weeks.  It took a long time to heal.  The pain for the first week was excruciating.

As my son’s cries turned to sobs, he started to wiggle in my arms. I took this as a sign that he was done with the cold water.  So, I placed him on the kitchen floor and we looked him over again.  There was nothing else that seemed to have burned.  Only his left arm still had a big blister.

My dad suggested, “Let’s pray for him.”

So, as a family we gathered around the bewildered little boy and prayed. My dad led in prayer that his arm would heal and that Jesus would take the pain away.  Amen.  It was as short and brief as just that.  Nothing melodramatic.  Just a simple prayer.

I remembered that I still had some bandages and burn cream ointment left over from my burn experience. So, Kelly dug it out of the bathroom.  We applied a little cream, bandaged the bright red wound with its water-bubbly blister and watched as our son went to the living room to play with toys.  Soon, he was lost in his own little world playing and chattering to himself.

Stones in Beckler River, Washington, July 2010

Stones in Beckler River, Washington, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Later that day in the early afternoon, we were all outside. Our young son was running around the front yard.  He seemed oblivious to the earlier morning events.

Well, he doesn’t seemed bothered by the burn,” Kelly noted.  “His bandage is coming loose, though, I should adjust it before it falls off and he gets it dirty.”

I went over to him and picked him up to take him to his mother.

He watched as his mother unraveled the bandage so that she could re-wrap his arm again. When she got down to the wound, the blister was gone.  In fact, there was only a small red spot where it had been before.  We looked at each other amazed.  Then we called my parents over to look.  We were all surprised.

Kelly took the bandage off the rest of the way, cleaned off the burn ointment that was still on his arm and let our son continue to play. We all stood amazed as we watched him chase a ball around the yard as each of us took turns rolling it to him.  It seemed like such a small thing and yet such a surprising thing.

So, was it our faith displayed that caused God to surprise us with his grace? Or, was it simply that God enjoys surprising us with his goodness?  Maybe both.  Either way, we are always surprised.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 2 1/2

Where does it say in “the good book” that the Creator of the universe must continually prove himself to his creation? It doesn’t.  But yet he does.  I suppose that is a part of his sovereign choice; to continually reveal himself in and through his creation and also at various times in specific ways.

It seems to be part of human propensity to have the memory and attention span of a very average fruit-fly. We constantly forget to see God in his creative works all around us.  It takes us banging into something to cause us to sit up and take notice that our universe in its largest parts down to its smallest parts is fearfully and wonderfully made.  But then we go merrily on our way and soon forget again who made it all and who still holds it all together.

A constant refrain in Psalm 106 is that God’s creation “forgot” or “did not remember.” How like us!  It seems that part of The Fall’s curses was a short memory.  Psalm 106 recounts all the great and marvelous things God did for his people but then concludes each episode with “but they did not remember” or “they forgot.”  It seems that one of the purposes of remembering is to believe that what God did before in the past, he can do again.

I, at least, find my life constantly repeating the same mistakes of Israel:they forgot His works and His wonders which He had shown them” or “the day when he delivered them” (Psalm 78:11, 42).  At worst, the experiences laid out in the Bible become only ancient history lessons of what God had done at one time.  At best, my own experiences of God’s “works and wonders” in my life become distant memories of what God did that one time.

One cannot help reading Israel’s Old Testament history and want to yell at the pages of the Bible,C’mon guys!  Look at all that God has done already!  Why can’t you believe him?”  Of course, the arrogance in that is forgetting our own faith journey (or should it more appropriately be called “lack-of-faith journey”?).  It is a rare saint to whom God has not had to prove himself over and over again.  Like I said, I forget.  Forgetfulness tends to breed doubt and unbelief in me.

Fortunately, God is patient. Or, I prefer the old word long-suffering.  For, truly, he suffers a long time with us.  To our benefit and to God’s credit he does not forget.  He does not forget that earthly existences are mere breaths or mists in eternity.  He does not forget that we are as fragile as fruit-flies in a fruit bowl.  “God remembered that they were made of flesh and were like a wind that blows once and then dies down” (Psalm 78:39).

So it is that every new trouble is an opportunity to remember what God has done. Because what God has done before, he can do again.  At least, that is how it is supposed to work in theory.  More often than not, if you are like me, you have forgotten.  And you have forgotten to remember, recall and recount God’s many blessings.  So, if you are like me, I end up frustrated, angry and throwing a tantrum over my troubles.  Finally, exhausted, I turn to God for help.

Once again, fortunately, this is where God not being like me is really a good thing. As the psalmist reminds me, “When God saw the trouble they were in and heard their cries for help, He remembered his Covenant with them, and, immense with love, took them by the hand. He poured out his mercy on them…” (Psalm 106:44 – 46).  God remembers.  God is immense with love.  God is present.  God is abundant in mercy.  Boy, I sure wish I could remember that every time I’m in a place of need or trouble.

A few years after the last God surprise I shared in “God Surprise 2“, my family had relocated to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I was pastoring Valley Christian Center.  The house we were renting had to be sold and soon we were looking for a house to rent or to buy.  We wanted to be close to the church, which really limited our options.

Finally, we found a house to buy that we could afford with an unfinished basement. The previous occupants had done a lot of work to the house but left most of the basement unfinished.  They let their two young sons use it for a hockey rink.  You have to have lived in that part of the country to understand that idea.  It met most of our family’s needs and so we went ahead and purchased it.

The big problem was finishing the basement. We really need the room.  More importantly, a bare cement basement during a Grand Forks, North Dakota, winter is colder than most places in the lower 48 states.  And my wife absolutely hates being cold; more than she hates the devil.  Hell for her would not be a lake of fire but a frozen lake.  So, this posed two problems:  One was the money it would take to finish the basement.  Two was the “who” of who would fix it since I am no carpenter.  Nevertheless, my family moved into the house.

Late in Fall, I was visiting a plasma center to donate plasma and make a few extra dollars. I tried going once or twice a week.  The extra money paid for gas or for a few extra groceries in-between pay days.  During that time of the year leading up to the holidays, the plasma company held big drawings with prizes.  They hoped to get more people to come in more frequently to increase plasma donations.

Ever time a client went in and was screened, he or she was handed a little sheet or paper to enter the drawing. Those slips of paper were then added to a large wire drum about half the size of a 50-gallon barrel.  At first, it looked huge compared to the little pieces of paper.  Then, as the weeks went on, it looked too small as it began to fill up.  On top of this, this plasma center was one of five other centers that would have names entered into the drawing.

Now, I have never been a big one for drawings. Those that I have entered, I have never won anything.  I have plenty of friends who have had that fortune, but not me.  So, on this occasion I did not bother to fill out the slip of paper and enter my name in any drawing except when badgered by one of the screeners prepping me for a draw.  Only then did I reluctantly enter the drawing.  And, as the wire cage filled up, it only confirmed my suspicion of “what’s the use?”

On one visit to donate plasma, the cold air from the Canadian Arctic was settling into the Red River Valley of the North.  Snow was already blowing and the frosty air would take your breath away if you breathed too deeply.  I thought about the unfinished basement.  How in the world would I heat that to keep it comfortable?  My wife hates the thought of being cold more than the threat of catching the West Nile Virus.  What would we do?

As I entered the center, the young attendant screening the people that morning asked if I was entering the drawing.

“Naw,” I said nonchalantly.  “Look at all the names in there!  I never win anything from these things anyway.  I’ve put my name in only a half-dozen times at most.”

“Well,” she challenged, “you can’t win if you don’t enter.”

“Now you sound like a commercial for the state lottery!” I kidded.  We both laughed.

“This is the last day to get your name in,” she reminded me.  “What’s there to lose?”

“All right,” I relented.  “I’ll fill out the little slip of paper just to make you happy.”

“What if you won the Grand Prize?” she asked.  “What would you do with the money?”

The Grand Prize was $10,000.  That was beyond my ability to even think of winning that in the drawing.  I would set my sets a little lower on one of the dozens of Apple Nano-pods being offered in it.

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “I guess I would give some money to a hospital for handicapped children I just found out about in India on a recent trip there.  Then, I would finish my basement with the rest of it.”

“How unexciting!” she announced.  “No trip?  No party?  No buying something special?”

“No,” I answered back.  “In my book those would be pretty special enough.”  Leave it to a young college student phlebotomist to consider the average things in life unexciting.  Wait until she grows up and has a family, I thought to myself.  I smiled and moved on to the next station.

As I went back to one of the many beds to have my plasma drawn, I thought half to my self and to the Lord, “Lord, it sure would be great if I did win that $10,000.  What a great way to help with the children’s hospital and to also finish the basement in my house.  $10,000 is not big in your economy.  You’ve done that before for us.”

Soon, I was hooked up to a machine drawing out plasma and putting back in red blood. I started to read the stack of magazines I took with me each time I went.  I found the time to be a great way to catch up on reading.  A little over ninety minutes later I was on my way with a few more dollars in my pocket.

Sea Anemone, Port Townsend Marina, Washington, July 2010

Sea Anemone, Port Townsend Marina, Washington, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

After the beginning of the New Year, I returned to the plasma center. The place was full of University of North Dakota students back from winter breaks.  This was a popular place for university students to make a few extra dollars for school life.  After signing in, I went to the waiting room with the rest of them.  Soon one of the nurses approached me.

“Mr. Almberg?” she asked pensively.

“Yes?” I replied wondering what was up that a nurse was talking to me.

“Mr. Almberg.  We need to talk to you.  Do you have a few moments to come with me?”

“Sure,” I answered.  Inside I was thinking that my last plasma draw must have been off somehow.  If you have too low of iron or too high of something else, you have to take a break for a couple of weeks before you can come back in.  This had happened a couple of times before.  So, I was preparing myself for the usual dietary questions.

We entered a small room.  There were a couple of other phlebotomists there as well as the center’s director.  He sat down opposite me and said with a very serious face, “Mr. Almberg, we have something very serious to discuss with you.”

“Uh, oh.  What did I do now?” I responded trying to diffuse what appeared to be a serious situation with a non-serious response.  “Cholesterol too high again?”

“No, no,” he smiled.  “We’re just wondering what you’re going to do with $10,000?”

I stared blankly back at him.  I was sure that this was a joke.  One of my friends worked at the center and she was standing in the corner of the room with a Cheshire cat-like grin on her face.  I was suspicious.

“Who knows,” I smiled back trying to hide my nervousness for the punch line I knew must be coming up.  “I’ll let you know when I have $10,000.”

“Well, the reason we called you back here instead of telling you out in the waiting room is because you won the Grand Prize drawing of $10,000.”  His smile got bigger.

I looked at him.  I looked around the room.  I looked over at my friend and she was nodding her head like a bobble-head doll on the dash of a four-wheel drive truck gone mudding.  I was dumbfounded.

“You’re kidding me,” I spit out.

“Nope,” the director reassured me.  “Congratulations!  You’re our winner out of all the entries from all six centers!  It will be a few weeks before you get your check, but for right now we need you to fill out some paper work to get it processed.  Are you OK with that?”

“Good grief, yes!” I responded somewhat still befuddled.  Each of the people in the room came by to shake my hand and congratulate me.  My friend was last and said, “I’m so glad it was you who won it!”

“Unbelievable!” I responded.  “Who’d have ever thought!?”

After filling out the paperwork, I went back to one of the beds to do what I had come to do.  Give plasma and make a few extra dollars for gas and odd groceries.

As it turned out, I was able to donate $1,500 to the children’s hospital in India as well as finish the house’s basement with the help of a friend.  I paid him and he used the pay to launch his journey into full-time missions work with Royal Rangers International.

There is a frequently quoted “fact” that “Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.”  That may or may not be true.  I do not know.  What I do know is this: God’s blessings do.  What he has done before, he can do again.  We – that is I – just need to remember that important fact.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 2

When is a problem too big for God to handle? When the problem is bigger than you can deal with on your own.  At least, this is how most of us work in our faith.  Or, I should say, this is how my faith seems to work.  As long as it is a problem that I can imagine to be solvable or at the least manageable, then I envision that God can also take it on.

Yes, this is a rather anemic faith. It makes God – the Creator of all the universe – only as large as myself or my imagination.  In short, it makes God – the One who possesses all the power – small.  It reminds me of the line in the Walt Disney movie Aladdin when the genie is described as “all the powers of the universe in a teeny-weeny little bottle.”

This might sound strange coming from one who for 25 years was attempting to lead other people in faith. It is a lot easier to lead others in doctrinal statement and propositional truths than it is in living reality; that is for certain.  Nevertheless, life presents challenges that require us to either put greater faith in God or give up faith in him at all.  Ministry seems to only put an individual under greater pressure to reach either end.

Shortly after finishing seminary at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri, my family and I found ourselves back in Washington State. I was called to pastor a church in West Richland, Washington.  It was not too long after relocating that we found ourselves in financial trouble.

One of the disadvantages of many pastors of small congregational churches is a lack of health insurance. Their salaries do not provide enough to buy individual family coverage.  So, many go without.  This is what my family was doing.  Later, my wife would get a teaching job in the local school district, which would help solve this problem.  But until that opportunity came along, we were on our own.  And with four kids at home, betting against doctor visits, emergency room visits, dentist visits and optometrists visits is a losing venture.

We came to a situation where a combination of events almost undid us financially. Our son needed braces for teeth that made it almost impossible to eat.  A couple of visits from accidents by our children led to emergency room visits and doctor visit follow-ups.  To top it all off, our car quit and was of no trade-in value.

One day, I sat down to figure it out how much we were underwater financially. Adding up all the extra bills we accrued as well as a couple of thousand dollars for a down payment on a used car, I choked at the figure that stared at me on the page.  It seems we would need $10,000.  It might as well have been 10 million.

The next day, in my devotion time when I took time to write in my journal, I put in writing my need. It seemed laughable that I would even write the figure in my journal.  Like that kind of money would just drop into our laps, right?  Sure.  I was skeptical of any immediate answer.  Instead, I prepared for a long road of slowly paying off bills, doing without some things, and getting used to having only one broken down used car for my family instead of two.

I always close my journal entries writing out a prayer. It helps me to put in writing and in a tangible form the desires of my heart, the needs of my family, church and community, the worries I may have as well as the hopes that I carry.  I have found it refreshing in the way it unburdens my soul.  Like writing a “To Do” list, it prevents my heart and mind from attempting to holding on to these things so I won’t forget them.  By committing them to writing it gives my soul permission to breathe and let go of all those things committed to paper.

I wrote my request for my family’s needs.Lord, we are really hurting financially.  Along with regular bills and school bills, the bills of hospital, doctors and orthodontists are burying us.  It is not my problem.  It is your problem.  Help us be a good steward of what we do possess.  Please take care of all that we have no control over.”  I know.  Not a profound prayer.  It almost seems as filled with doubt as it does faith.  But it’s all I had at the time.

Life continued on and we did the best we could for a few weeks. Several weeks later, I found myself at my regular haunt at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore.  I regularly went there to plan, write and read leadership books.  It was a good place to get out of the office and focus my week.  My “To Do” lists were generated there.

As I wandered among the stacks, I ran into a member of a family who had recently joined our church. They were there wandering among the bookshelves looking for good books to read.  I greeted the mother of the family I ran into.

Me:  “Hi!  Surprise seeing you here.  How are you doing?”

Her:  “Good!  Yes, it’s a surprise seeing you too!  I was just thinking about you.  Our family has been praying for you.”

Me:  “Well, thank you.  We really need it.  What are you all up to today?”

Her:  “We’re just out to browse books.  Hey, listen, are you going to be at the church office at all later today?”

Me:  “Yes.   I’ll be in there after lunch until about 5:30.”

Her:  “Good.  Can we all come by to see you…say about 3:00?”

Me:  “Sure!  I’ll be looking for you!”

Her:  “Great.  We’ll see you then.  We have something very important to talk to you about.”

We parted ways and I head home to get some lunch.  Her last words hung over me with a dread. I never liked being left with, “Pastor, I have something very important to talk to you about.  Can we talk later this week?”  And them I’m left wondering what it is what it is so important to talk to me about.  It is often not good.  So, I’ve been left gun-shy from such announcement.  Being a new family to our church, I imagined that they had run into some problem they needed me to solve or address.

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

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

I went home and ate lunch. Later, I made myself busy at the church office catching up on mail, email, phone call-backs, and getting things on my “To Do” list done.  Soon, I was busy enough to forget about the family’s visit at 3:00.  It was the doors opening and closing at the front of the church that reminded me of their appointment.

Me:  “Hey!  Great to see you all again.  I’m glad you can make it.”

We shook hands and chatted for a bit.  Then the mother of the family picked up where we left off at Barnes & Noble.

Her:  “Pastor, we have something very serious we want to talk to you about.”

My stomach sunk with a lead ball of dread and foreboding.  This was not going to be good.

Me:  “Well…what can I help you all out with?

Her:  “To get right to it.  My grandmother passed away last month…”

Me:  “I’m so sorry to hear that…it must be a very hard time for you all.”

She smiled and said, “No.  She was a Christian and was ready to go to heaven.  We know that she is with Jesus and happy.  We’ll see her again one day.”

Me:  “Well, that is great to hear.  What a testimony to her faith and to Jesus.”

Her:  “Yes.  Well, the reason why we are here is that she left a rather substantial inheritance to me.  Our family has been praying about what to do with it.  We’ve decided there are several things that the Lord want us to do.  First, we want to give some to the Lord’s ministries we support which includes this church.”

She handed out a check to me.

Me:  “Well, bless you!  However, I can’t take the check.  It’s against our church’s policy.  Is there a way I could have you give it to our church treasurer?  That would be much safer and more appropriate.”

Her:  “Of course.  I understand.  That is perfectly acceptable.  Should I just give it to him this next Sunday?

Me:  “Yes.  That would be great.”  And I gave her the name of our treasurer.  “If he happens not to be here, you can give it to one of our ushers too.  If it is a large check, then they can put it in the safe right away.”

They all looked at each other.  She replied, “Yes.  It’s a rather large check.  I’ll give it to one of them first thing Sunday morning.”

Me:  “Wonderful.  Again, thanks so much. I know it will be a huge help at this time for our church body.”

Her:  “Well…there is one more thing.”  She turned and smiled at the rest of her family.  “We really felt that the Lord wanted us to give you something too just for you and your family at this time.  We know that it has been a hard time for all of you and want to help.”

Surprised, I offered, “You know that is not necessary.  I’m sure your support of the church is sufficient.”

Her:  “Well, we want to be obedient to the Lord and so must insist.  We prayed about it and feel this is the amount the Lord would have us give to you.”

She handed out an envelope to me.

This is where it can get really sticky in ministry. How do you judge whether a “gift” is coming with no strings attached?  How do you account for it?  Most gifts are small.  How much was this one?  Do you dare ask?  How do you accept it humbly and gracefully?  How does it affect relationships and those you show favor to over others?

As I looked at her and at her family, I had a deep sense that they honestly meant this as an act of obedience to something they felt the Lord calling them to do. They hardly knew me as a pastor.  Yet, I felt that there were no ulterior motives.  There was a peace surrounding this gift that gave me a sense that this was a God-moment for them and for me.  So, I reached out and took the envelope.

We said our goodbyes and I profusely thanked them for their obedience to the Lord and their generosity to the church and to my family. I put the envelope into my shirt pocket and returned to the immediate duties that called me attention.  I had a long list to complete before I could get home.

We I did arrive home, it was as usually – just as dinner was ready to be served. We sat around the dinner table as a family and shared our day.  Our family’s dinner time is rarely quiet.  At the same time, we are all fast eaters so it also tends to be rather short.

After dinner was cleaned up, I remembered the envelope in my shirt pocket.

Me:  “Hey, you know that new family that started attending our church just a short while ago?

My wife:  “Yeah.”

Me:  “Well, they wanted to meet with me today.  Apparently, a relative passed away and left them with an inheritance.  They gave some to the church.”

My wife:  “Wow.  That’s great!  How much?

Me:  “I don’t know.  I asked them to give it to our church treasurer or an usher Sunday.”

My wife:  “Oh.”

Me:  “They also wanted to give us a small gift.  So they gave me this…”

I handed the unopened envelope to my wife.  I thought I’d let her open it.  I was expecting a small gift that would help with groceries or maybe the next hospital or orthodontist bill.

She ripped open the top and looked over the check.  Then her hand flew to her chest.  “Ron!”

She said this in a surprised and started voice.  I turned toward her and took the check from her hand.  As I looked at the amount on the check, I had to sit down.  It was made out for $10,000.

That evening, I went to the journal entry of several weeks back where I had written that absurd amount down as a need for the Lord to take care of for my family. Now I was able to write in that same journal the date upon which the Lord through an unassuming family answered that very request.  My little faith was answered greatly and resulted in a great amount of thanks and praise to God.

I wish I could say that I have never since then struggled with doubt. It would be great to be able to announce to everyone my never-ending faith in God’s faithfulness.  It wouldn’t be true.  Yet, God continues to surprise me in the way that he shows how much bigger he is than my belief.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Relationship Scarring

It is impossible to go through life without ending up with scars from relationships. The fact that we wound at all is a testament to our humanity.  The fact that we are often as much the deliverers of scars as the receivers of scars speaks loudly to our own brokenness.  Children are scarred by parents.  Siblings grow up leaving scars upon one another.  Co-workers and bosses leave wounds that can range from minor paper-cut like ones to major open, seeping wounds.

Not all scarring from relational squabbles is the same. Minor ones leave their mark as do major ones.   All of them leave a lasting memory and reminder of a battle won or lost.  It seems that the closer the relationships, the deeper and longer lasting the wound and subsequent scar left behind.  Likewise, everyone deals with their relationship wounds in different ways.  Some people are more resilient and successful than others; while the others languish under memories and unforgiveness.

It may come across as naive, but it seems that people expect fellow Christians to never leave a wound or scar upon others, particularly other believers. So, when this does occur, the surprise and hurt go deep.  There is an expectation that “christians” will somehow exhibit a perfected humanity that is devoid of any ability to wound or scar with words, actions or attitudes.  This is far from the case.

The other day I was listening to a fellow believer share the story of their spiritual journey. Raised in a religiously strict, legalistic home, this person was not able to do anything “worldly;” which included among other things going to movies, playing billiards, bowling, attending dances or associating with anyone who did such things.  When this individual finally left home, they discovered a whole different world of Christian beliefs and practices.  It caused them quite a personal identification crisis.

The biggest problem for this individual, however, was not with the particular Christian expression with which they grew up. Instead, it was the readily apparent hypocrisy that was witnessed among parents, established church members and church leadership.  They could spout the doctrines of the faith, display a modicum of religious behavior and then turn right around and speak evil of one another, attack leadership and hold others in disdain.  Spiritual knowledge was greater than the spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Once liberated from their past, the person who shared their story with me expressed the joy of being able to work with other Christians. Seeing how others worshipped and practiced their faith gave a new perspective.  Unfortunately, the story shared with me included many places in the journey where terrible wounds were left by those in church leadership positions.  I felt the pain expressed.  I sensed the hurt and frustration over those that anyone would expect better behavior from in spiritual leadership.  I also knew that any such expectations were wholly unrealistic.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

We are a people of clay feet who follow the leadership of individuals with clay feet. We are a community of broken and wounded sheep who follow broken and wounded leaders.  This is all the more reason that love, acceptance and forgiveness should be the hallmarks of such communities.  Too often these qualities are absent in order to protect the appearance of spiritual perfection.  In the presence of such spiritual “perfection,” one is deemed an authority and a leader, regardless of true inward character.

Too often, what happens behind the closed doors of church offices between staff or at the board meetings or membership meetings of the congregation becomes the place where wounds are given and received. Instead of being the sanctuaries they are touted to be, they become torture chambers of spiritual abuse.  I have personal experiences with those meetings.  Unfortunately, I also have too many friends who have either left ministry or left church altogether because of the stinging scars they still nurse.

The ironic answer to all this lies within the very thing that causes us to hand out scars to others like Boy Scout or Girl Scout badges. It lies in our brokenness.  It is our brokenness within ourselves, towards others and towards God that fails us and causes us to fail others.  Like broken pottery, the shards of our life lie hidden until someone steps upon them or touches them.  Then we leave a wound.

At the same time, our brokenness holds the answer for all of us. Instead of attempting to hold up perfected lives before others to see and applaud, we would be better off acknowledging our broken places.  Instead of playing to our strengths to lord it over others, we would do better to lead and influence from our own woundedness.  Instead of attempting to portray a community of victors and overcomers who have no problems, we would serve ourselves and others better by admitting that we are a community of confessors and repenters.

I am not advocating for a fellowship of moaners and complainers who go around with sullen faces.  I am not suggesting that defeatism and spiritual poverty become the Christian model for spirituality. We have already been down that road before with the Puritans, Quakers and Pietists.  What I am suggesting is a spiritual formation and communal journey that includes a spiritual “sunshine policy.”  A “sunshine policy” is one that allows light upon a situation so that everyone knows what is going on.  It demands honesty, integrity, truthfulness, accountability, and openness.

This approach, of course, offers no guarantee against relationship scarring even among Christians. However, it does offer a more transparent way of healing our self-inflicted wounds upon the body of Christ.  This is much better than just moving from church to church or getting rid of staff for unexplainable reasons.  In this I readily acknowledge that because I am in community with and being led by broken individuals, I cannot expect to never be wounded.  Nor can I expect that I will never deliver a wound because I, too, am broken.  As such, I do understand that continuing in this community will require me to extend love, grace and mercy to others, just as they extend it towards me.

We are not called to lives of perfection on this side of eternity. We do not have the right to expect to come through this life unscarred and unwounded.  God in Christ Jesus gave us the model for dealing with sin and forgiveness.  Only through love, grace and mercy can the relationship scars we receive and deliver become the marks of true spiritual community.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Outward Posture, Inward Rebellion

There is something innate in human nature that makes most people want to conform to the social mores of a group to be accepted. It is the way we identify “those who are like us” and “those who are not like us.”  Even those who consider themselves mavericks, loners and social outcasts often conform to way of behaving and dressing that identifies them with all the other mavericks, loners and social outcasts.  As such, paradoxically, they become a part of their own self-identified group even though they want to exhibit their individualism and anti-group attitude.

No where is the propensity to want to identify with a particular coterie more evident than in or among religious and political groups. Even then, political assemblies do not hold a candle stick to the divisive nature of religious groups.  This is not just an issue with any one particular religion, but all religions.  Christians used to murder one another over doctrinal distinctives as quickly as Muslim Sunnis, Shias and other Islamic sects do today in the Middle and Far East.  Hindu castes war with one another and tribalism is known to rule many parts of the warring factions of Buddhists.

I am not able to speak to the other religions state of division, but I am not the only one among Christians who are dismayed at the lack of charity and love many Christians show one another from different doctrinal streams. This is especially ironic given the particular emphasis its founder, Jesus the Messiah, place upon “loving one another” in the Christian community.  It was these loving, grace-filled communities that were supposed to be a sign and witness to the rest of the world that God’s Kingdom had truly come to earth.

Without denying what is clearly described as the central tenets of the faith that all Christians can agree upon, nor marginalizing what all can agree Scripture clearly identifies as sin, it seems to me that there is a lot of room for allowing others to follow Jesus according to the dictates of one’s own heart and conscience without imposing those upon others.  Alas, this does not seem to be the case.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, Christians are determined to cluster in groups for the only particular purpose of identifying “who is in” and “who is out;” like they have some decision in the matter of who actually gets into heaven and who doesn’t.

So, we like to bunch ourselves around labels: conservatives versus liberals, fundamentalists versus evangelicals, pentecostals versus charismatics, dunking baptizers versus sprinkling baptizers, social gospel versus proclamation gospel, baby baptizers versus baby dedicators, congregationalists versus presbyteries, hi-church versus lo-church, liturgical versus non-liturgical, King James version only versus modern translations, traditional church music versus contemporary church music, denominational versus independent non-denominational.  And the grouping goes on and on and on.

It would be one thing if this was simply an attempt to gather like minds and hearts to worship and learn together. This could be done while at the same time recognizing and embracing other Christian fellowships that have different expressions and doctrinal emphases.  Sadly, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches and their followers.  The pride of triumphalism creeps into the gang gathered that emits an attitude that communicates, if not expressed overtly and outwardly at least inwardly, that they are the “only true” believers on God’s planet.  God must laugh, or weep.

All that we seemed to have accomplished with such behaviors is to confound nonbelievers and tarnish our testimony to the One we are striving to follow. Then, to make matters worse, our efforts to ensure group conformity in beliefs and behaviors only produce among us disingenuous and hypocritical believers.  The disciples we produce are able to spout our dearest doctrinal truths and exhibit, at least while within and among the group, the expected pious behavior.  Thus, they have an outward posture that says they genuinely belong to the Christian sect, but inwardly struggle with rebellion that will express itself sooner or later.

Once again, human efforts at religion create a human-focused and human-energized faith system. A faith system that holds in bondage its followers to a scripted religious expression and holds at a distance anyone who is at variant with that particular expression.  Is doctrine important?  Yes.  Is righteousness or right-living important?  Yes.  However, outward conformity to either of these without a change in heart only breeds a deadly religious syncretism where faith and belief do not really change attitude and heart.

Extending love and grace to everyone on their spiritual journeys, no matter where they may be in them, is the only way to live in the communal unity Jesus called his disciple to attain. Instead of attempting to identify “who’s in” and “who’s out,” what if every Christian fellowships goal was to identify where people are on their spiritual pilgrimage?  What if Christians permitted one anther to cluster around like interests and similar spiritual journeys without rejecting or disparaging other Christians of different interests and dissimilar spiritual journeys?

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my household, all four of my children are different from one another. They have different abilities and talents; dissimilar likes and dislikes; as well as a various mix of personality traits from their paternal and maternal side of the family.  In my household, I do not attempt to make them all like the same thing.  They do not all have to play the same sport or same games.  Even the formation of their behaviors and beliefs has taken on unique and interesting paths.

I do not love any one of them more than any other. I love each of my kids dearly.  I cannot imagine my household without them.  Each of their character, sense of humor, way of doing things, seeing things, approaching things and processing things adds variety to our family life.  Yes.  Sometimes it is frustrating and even maddening.  At the same time, all of our differences can bring hilarity and light moments.

The point is this: we do not sit around the dining room table trying to identify who is really part of the family and who is not.  As amazingly different as we are all from one another, there is enough family resemblance to assure us that there is no mistaking our family tree.  Instead of picking one another a part with differences, we attempt to celebrate them.  And, as we mature, those very traits that once drove us to distraction when we were younger now become the most endearing qualities we love about each other.

We are not a perfect family. We have our dysfunctions for sure; just like God’s family here on earth.  What if God sees his family like this?  What if he loves each of our clusters, fellowships and groups as much as the next one?  What if he looked upon us with loving eyes and just wished we would honor and love each other the way he esteems and loves us?  What if he recognizes our spiritual quirks, illogical dogmas and inconsistent righteousness and loves us anyway and wishes we would do the same for each other?  Imagine that for a moment.

In truth, humanity is broken. Along with the rest of humanity, Christians are broken people seeking healing and wholeness in their Creator.  In the long run, it may suit our efforts toward personal healing and wholeness and seeing God’s Kingdom truly come to earth if we simply stopped and rejected our own religious posturing.  Rather than expending so much energy identifying “who’s in” and “who’s out,” if we took time to recognize our own tendencies toward inward rebellion, we may be more apt to extend grace to others.  This, in turn, may allow us to broaden our acceptance, care and love to all our spiritual siblings in the heavenly Father’s household.  It is, after all, his house and not ours.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the surprising recurring themes in the Bible regards how often God’s people miss the point of God’s purposes while those far from God grasp it.  For instance, for all their study of Old Testament scriptures and religious disciplines, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day completely missed the arrival of the Messiah and his Kingdom.  Meanwhile, those they considered “sinners” – tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the demon possessed, the leprous, Samaritans, Canaanites, and Romans – welcomed the Messiah.

When Jesus went to a well-to-do religious man’s house for dinner, the man did not receive Jesus with the usual custom and courtesy expected at the time and in that culture – he did not have Jesus’ feet washed.  It was like saying to Jesus, “Come again when you can’t stay so long.”  The only point for inviting Jesus was to test him to see if he really qualified to be a teacher or rabbi.  This was despite the fact that Jesus openly taught and performed miracles for everyone to witness.

A sinner surprised the man and his dinner guests by showing up and washing Jesus’ feet.  Never mind that she inserted herself where she was not invited.  She was qualified on no spiritual terms to be in this host’s home, let alone touching a man who is supposed to be righteous and a teacher.  She does not qualify because she works in the sex industry; she is a prostitute – a modern day equivalent of a street walker, pole dancer and stripper.

The self-righteous host is put off not only by this sinful woman’s intrusion (What would the neighbor’s say!?) but also by the fact that Jesus appears to be unfazed.  He doubts Jesus’ credentials on the spot.  If Jesus was really a prophet or true teacher of the Law, he would know “what kind of woman” was touching him and defiling him.  This supposed saint, for all his prayers, religious education, and spiritual devotion missed a personal visit from the One that he and all of Israel had been longing for since time unmemorable – the long-awaited Messiah.  However, the sinner did not.

The sinful woman wept over her sin as she sat at Jesus’ feet and used her tears and her hair to wash Jesus’ feet; the same beautiful hair that she had used time and again to allure her clients into her web of manipulation and sin.  The same hair men lusted to touch and that invited them to so much more.

Her hair, the object of her worldly beauty and pride, became a dirty towel stained and streaked from the filthy feet and smelly toes of the promised Messiah.  The heaving and sobbing woman was an unwelcome spectacle and distraction to the dinner host and his guests as much as the unwanted Messiah.  Her pitiful condition grew as her hair matted in dirty clumps and her face streaked with tears and makeup.  To such well-off and proper folks, the woman and Jesus made a despicable scene that only repulsed them further.

It is then, I imagine, at the height of social discomfort, that Jesus used the occasion to point out how often sinners surpass “saints.”  He looked to the prideful host and religious leader and said, “You never welcomed me.  This woman [whom you consider full of sin and unworthy] has not stopped welcoming me. The one forgiven little, loves little.  But the one forgiven of so much, loves greatly.”

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jonah is another case in point.  The prophet is called of God to be used by God to go preach the message of judgment, forgiveness, and salvation.  The only problem?  It is to people he considers enemies and “heathen.”  God wanted him to go to the Assyrians’ capitol, Nineveh.  They had brutalized the nation of Israel.  Jonah did not just see them as beyond God’s love but also undeserving of God’s love.

Instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah decides to run from God and his mission.  In the middle of a storm, the heathen sailors are scared out of their wits.  They discern amongst themselves that it must be some kind of divine retribution and began to pray to their gods.  It was of no avail.  The storm continued to rage.  Meanwhile, Jonah slept uncaring and unaware of the danger they were all in.

When the sailors finally awaken Jonah to the imminent threat, Jonah understands what may be going on.  He coughs up the real reason for his story and tells the sailors that, for them to be saved from divine judgment, they must throw him overboard.  Unwillingly, the sailors obey the word of Jonah and are saved!  Barely able to contain themselves, they give God praise for their salvation.  Interestingly, their obedience and resulting worship of God surpassed Jonah’s – an Israelite and prophet of God.  It seems that they are more open to God and his message than God’s own messenger.

However, the irony does not stop there.  Tired of the stench and torture of riding in the belly of a great fish, Jonah repents and asks for God’s help – after three days.  (He is either a very stubborn man or a slow learner in God’s school of discipline.)  After being delivered upon a Mediterranean beach somewhere, Jonah obediently, but still reluctantly, goes to Nineveh.  He preaches God’s message of soon coming judgment, repentance, and forgiveness.  The people hear the message and turn to God and repent.

One would think that this would be Jonah’s opportunity to rejoice.  An enemy of Israel had accepted the God of Israel and received salvation.  However, just the opposite is true.  Instead of praising and worshipping God for such a miracle, Jonah goes to a nearby hilltop overlooking Nineveh to pout.  Jonah is mad at God.

When God sends a large plant to give Jonah shade, Jonah is glad for it.  When the shade plant dies, Jonah gets angry with God again.  He is more angry over the demise of a plant than the possible demise of lost souls.  He has more compassion for a plant he neither planted nor cared for than he has for a people that God placed upon the earth.

The one who pleaded for God’s mercy in the belly of a great fish and received it becomes angry at this same God who showed mercy to another people.  He could not stand the thought of God extending the same salvation he received to people he deemed to be unworthy of mercy and salvation.  God was treating those outside his covenant with Abraham the same as those within the covenant of Abraham.  And there is the rub for both Jonah and Jesus’ religious host.  The One who included them in a covenant of blessing and salvation also wants to include those who appear hostile or even unredeemable.  God’s inclusion and invitation is greater than theirs.

I must admit my own tendency to be like Jonah or that rich religious host.  Smugly, I assume and presume that God’s grace and blessings are for me.  After all, I like to “claim them” as my own and walk in them.  I have been taught that throughout my Christian journey.  However, I forget that God’s work of grace and salvation is for all people – inside and outside the covenant.  God’s desire is to show the world that he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending [judgment]” (Jonah 4:2).

Unwittingly, my assumption and presumption lend itself to a blind arrogance on my part.  I think that I have the inside track and have my “spiritual act” together, when in reality I may be farther away from God than the nearest sinner who is broken hearted over his or her sin.  Too often, I have pridefully approached God’s throne of grace and mercy and, when asked to confess my sin, have replied, “Let me think…ah…nope…got nothing.”  And then rejoice that my life is not the mess of “those sinners” around me.

I might as well be in Jonah’s place, asleep in the bow of a boat in the middle of a storm of judgment.  I can really be that spiritually unplugged and numb.  Broken and weeping sinners in repentance surpass me in spiritual awareness.  A visitation from the One I am looking for goes right past me and I miss the opportunity.  Worse yet, the One I say I live for and proudly proclaim to spiritually lost people visits them and I doubt their salvation and whether they really “got saved.”  I remain wary of whether God is really working to change their lives.  I suspect their claims to being blessed by the Lord.

Thankfully, God has not given up on working in people like me.  He is still interested in transforming doubtful, depressive, peevish, prideful, irritable, and obstinate Jonahs and religious people.  It may be time to take some lessons from newly redeemed sinners around me on humility and thankfulness.  Perhaps I can learn again the “joy of salvation” from “a gracious and compassionate God.”  At any rate, this “saint” has some catching up to do with the “sinners” around me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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