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Posts Tagged ‘God’s Love’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.

Nineteen,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

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

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

Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure.  I would like that,” Stephen replied.

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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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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Distant and Silent God

American popular theology likes to focus on the joys of a relationship with God; and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, it has left many Christians with an anemic theology that does not adequately grapple with pain, suffering, death and times when God seems to be distant and silent.  We like to talk about the nearness of God, but not his farness or otherness.  We like to express the beauty of his revealed Word and share times when the real presence of God broke upon us in a difficult time.

My limited experience among American Christians has been that we avoid looking into the times that God appears silent and distant toward us.  We squirm in awkward silence when someone shares such an experience.  It seems to us to walk the edge of doubt and unbelief in the goodness of God and the rewards of following him; and we are afraid of falling off that edge.  Particularly among Pentecostals and Charismatics, who relish the personal experience of God’s presence and power, admitting to such a struggle almost comes across as a complete abandonment of the faith.

I have known the distance and silence of God.  Some spiritual fathers and mothers of the faith have called it “the wilderness.”  They have likened it to the wilderness experiences of others in the Bible; most notably Elijah and Jesus.  Elijah fled to the wilderness.  Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit.  For both, God does not appear, speak, or comfort until the end of the wilderness experience.  The “desert fathers” of the early Christian faith sought out the wilderness experience and what it could teach them.  Me?  I would rather avoid it.

Nevertheless, I have had my experiences in the spiritual wilderness where God is silent and distant.  One such instance marked me for life because of what I both experienced and learned through the ordeal.  A number of years ago, during my first pastorate at Quilcene Assembly of God, the Lord allowed me to go through a dark and terrible time where he seemed silent and distant.  Nothing I seemed to do appeared to help – no spiritual discipline, no trumped up spiritual fervor, nor any amount of crying out in prayer.  I felt abandoned.

I was warned of the coming wilderness event, however, by a good friend.  Ron Frantz and I had begun a close spiritual relationship and began speaking into each others life.  Ron had displayed great love for me and was interested in helping me grow spiritually as well as a leader of that small congregation of believers.  We both had a passion to see God glorified in the small logging community.  I not only knew that Ron prayed, but I also knew that he heard from the Lord.  One day, on his way to work for a few months in the Eastern United States, he stopped by the office to pray for me and say good-bye.

Before he left, he told me that the Lord had given him a word of encouragement for me.  I was excited to hear what the Lord might possibly say to encourage me and our small congregation.  With a small grin on his face and a look of compassion that expressed a genuineness that those who know Ron will know well, he told me,

The Lord wants you to know that in the days ahead you are going to go through a very dark time.  While it may seem like the Lord is not present, the Lord wants you to know that he will be with you and not leave you.

I was stunned.  “THAT’S the ‘encouraging word’!?  I’m going to go through a dark time?

No,” Ron said.  “That the Lord is going to be there in the midst of it.”

And you’re leaving town,” I noted.  “Thanks for the warning...and encouragement.  I think.”

Well, I’ll be praying for you while I’m away.  I’m sure the Lord has something special for you through it because He loves you so much.”

That is a typical Ron Frantz’ response.  He always focuses upon the goodness and love of God in all circumstances.  It is what makes him so endearing, such a great friend, and wonderful spiritual companion on life’s road.  I am sure that even as a child, when his mother or father spanked him, he must have turned around afterward and said something like, “Thanks for that.  I know you did it because you love me so much.”

We prayed and parted our ways.  Ron headed east and I headed went back to pastoring the folks of Quilcene and raising a young family.  Soon, I would forget about what Ron shared with me as time and activity erased the memory of it.  It would take being in the middle of a spiritual wilderness to jog it loose.

It was only a few months later that I found myself entering into unfamiliar spiritual waters.  It was a time of a spiritual wilderness that brought uncertainty about my call to ministry, my worth, and my relationship with God.  I slowly slipped into a period of time where God seemed remote and distant.  Prayers did not seem to go any farther than the ceiling.

The heavens seemed closed.  Studying God’s Word for personal devotions or for sermon preparation felt lifeless.  Preaching and teaching God’s Word was drier than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found no joy or satisfaction in any of it.  But the worse of it was how distant I felt from God and how silent he seemed to become.  Yet, despite all of this; strangely enough, the church congregation grew and prospered.

This brought about a real crisis of faith and torment of the soul.  Did I do something to displease God?  Did I sin and alienate God?  No amount of soul-searching brought any answers.  I doubted my call to ministry.  I doubted my ability to lead a congregation.  I wrestled with giving up and throwing in the towel.  Then, one day, Ron’s encouraging word before he left came back to me.  I had been forewarned about this experience!  This is what Ron must have been talking about and encouraged me to remember that God was present despite what I felt.

For a few months, the words Ron spoke into my life were the only thing I had to hold on to.  Sure, I had the promises of God’s Word.  But whenever I read God’s Word, there seemed to be no life in them.  Sure, I had personal communication with God, but fellowship through prayer seemed dead and to be only one-way.  I would often repeat to myself, “Lord, you promised your presence at all times.  You even sent Ron to personally tell me.  I choose to believe that you are here even though it seems that you are not.”

Soon, however, that personal confirmation did not seem to be enough.  I could not talk myself out of the dark despair of what seemed to me to be God’s absence and silence.  My prayer became singular and focused upon only one request, “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  For many weeks, that was my only prayer.  I shared it with no one.  Few people knew the cry of my heart.

Mount Rainier, 2002

Mount Rainier, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Months later, Ron Frantz returned from working out east.  He was anxious to go to a conference in Moses Lake, WA. with me and a mutual friend of ours, Ray Canterbury.  I was not as excited about the conference as much as I was looking forward to time away with two good friends.  The Lord had knitted our lives together spiritually and we were learning a lot from each other.

The last meeting of the conference, we sat up front and were anticipating the return trip home.  The speakers and worship had been good.  However, for myself, I did not enjoy them as much as others appeared to be around me.  My soul was in anguish.  God seemed to be distant and silent.  I sat in my chair and prayed only one prayer.  I went to the pre-service prayer times and prayed only one prayer:  “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  I had no other prayer.  I could pray no other prayer.

As the meeting was wrapping up, and we began to look at each other to check on whether it was the right time to exit, one of the speakers came over to us and said, “Do you guys all know each other?”

Yes,” we replied.

I believe that Lord has a word for each of you.  Why don’t you come up here for a moment,” he offered.

At this, I have to admit I was not spiritually minded at all.  My first thought was, “Great!  This is all I need.”  Truthfully, I just wanted to head home and was anxious about getting back on the road.  We had a long drive ahead of us.  Plus, the fellowship and discussion in the car would be much more invigorating than whatever this guy had to say to us.  I am more than a little skeptical of strangers who do not know me, and whom I do not know, giving me “words from the Lord.”  My experience has been that more often than not, they are good intentions that completely miss the mark.

As the guest speaker was talking to each of my friends, I felt my spirit shrink.  “All right, Lord,” I prayed.  “If you want to speak through this person to me, then I will receive it.  But the only thing I am really interested in is what I have already been asking you for these past months.  God, I am only human.  I really need to know you that are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  Then, I waited.

Soon, this spiritual stranger was standing in front of me.  I shifted me feet nervously, wondering what the outcome of this chance meeting was going to bring.  My main worry was that it was not going to be too embarrassing.  I was suspecting that “the word from the Lord” was going to be some meaningless, generic pabulum spoken over countless lives before me.  My expectations could not have been any lower.

He stood in silence a few moments before me as if to examine me.  “You are the pastor of this group, aren’t you?

Good guess,” I thought.  I was dressed very unpastoral, but something must have given him a clue, I thought.

Well, the Lord wants you to know that he is with you.  That he has never left you.  And that he is pleased with you.”

I was shocked.  These were the only words that he could have spoken that would have meant anything to me.  It was as if he read my mail.  Of course, he did not, but the Holy Spirit at work through him did.  He said a few things after this but I heard nothing else.  I broke into tears and weeping as the realization of what I had just heard hit me.  God had heard my hearts cry, spanned the distance I felt, and broke the silence by speaking directly into my life and situation in a way that was unmistakable.  Ron was right.  The Lord did have something special for me in it all.  He does love me very much.

As you can imagine, the ride home was very lively as we all shared our impressions and experiences of the conference.  It went much faster than we wanted.  I shared with Ray and Ron my experiences over the past months and the impact of my experience as the speaker at the conference spoke into my life something no one else could have possibly known.  From that time on, there was a freshness to my spiritual journey I had never experienced before.

I cannot explain to anyone why God sends us through periods where he seems to be distant and silent towards us.  I know some who have had an experience like this last years instead of months.  I know some who came through these times scarred instead of healed.  I know others who have come through wilderness times more spiritually empowered than ever before.  God does not seem to need to explain himself.  He is God – even when distant and silent.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the challenges of the Christian faith is steadfastly and securely standing upon “Christ, the solid rock.”  These words harken back to a familiar 19th century Church hymn.  The hymn, “My Hope is Built” or “Solid Rock,” is as familiar a hymn about God’s grace as John Newton‘s “Amazing Grace.”  It carries in its tune the hope of every Christian as well as the recognition of the trials every Christian faces.

The author of the hymn’s words is not a readily recognizable name.  Reverend Edward Mote (1797 – 1874) was a Baptist minister in Horsham, Sussex, England from 1852 – 1873.  He was not raised in a Christian home.  He spent he early life running the streets and largely neglected as his parents ran a pub in London.  In fact, his upbringing was so devoid of religious education or spiritual instruction that he claims no knowledge of God until he heard the Word of God for the first time and was baptized at age 18.  After that, he was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and did well at that for 37 years, until he was called into ministry.

It was during his years as a cabinet maker that the words of this song came to him in 1834.  He was on his way to way to work when he describes it this way in a letter to the Christian publication “The Gospel Herald”:

One morn­ing it came into my mind as I went to la­bour, to write an hymn on the ‘Gra­cious Ex­per­i­ence of a Christ­ian.’ As I went up Hol­born I had the chor­us,

‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.’

In the day I had four first vers­es com­plete, and wrote them off. On the Sab­bath fol­low­ing I met bro­ther King as I came out of Lisle Street Meet­ing…who in­formed me that his wife was ve­ry ill, and asked me to call and see her. I had an ear­ly tea, and called af­ter­wards. He said that it was his usu­al custom to sing a hymn, read a por­tion, and en­gage in pray­er, be­fore he went to meet­ing. He looked for his hymn-book but could find it no­where. I said, ‘I have some vers­es in my pock­et; if he liked, we would sing them.’ We did, and his wife en­joyed them so much, that af­ter ser­vice he asked me, as a fa­vour, to leave a co­py of them for his wife.

I went home, and by the fire­side com­posed the last two vers­es, wrote the whole off, and took them to sis­ter King…As these vers­es so met the dy­ing wo­man’s case, my at­ten­tion to them was the more ar­rest­ed, and I had a thou­sand print­ed for dis­tr­ibu­tion. I sent one to the Spir­it­u­al Mag­a­zine, with­out my ini­tials, which ap­peared some time af­ter this. Bro­ther Rees, of Crown Street, So­ho, brought out an edi­tion of hymns [1836], and this hymn was in it. Da­vid Den­ham in­tro­duced it [1837] with Rees’ name, and others af­ter…Your in­sert­ing this brief out­line may in fu­ture shield me from the charge of stealth, and be a vin­di­ca­tion of truth­ful­ness in my con­nect­ion with the Church of God.” (http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/m/y/myhopeis.htm)

Thankfully, the original title he gave it – “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope” – did not last as long as the enduring words did for our benefit.  The tune that most of us are familiar with was given to it by William B. Bradbury in 1863.  So, it would be interesting to know to what tune it was sang before that time.  In addition to the four stanzas we already sing, there are two more attributed to him:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
’Midst all the hell I feel within,
On His completed work I lean.

I trust His righteous character
His council, promise, and His power;
His honor and His name’s at stake,
To save me from the burning lake.

I have often wondered who gets to edit or redact the hymns that are handed down to us.  Many of the ancient hymns of the church have many more stanzas than what we know or acknowledge.  It is a curious piece of ecclesial musicology that eludes me.  I am sure one day I will research and sort it out to see if the decision were based upon practical musical qualities or theology.

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

That aside, my spiritual journey embraces the personal and private struggles of this great hymn.  I am too acquainted and familiar with times when “darkness veils His lovely face.”  I have faced “the whelming flood.”  And I can too well relate to the words not included in our hymnals: “’Midst all the hell I feel within.

In other words, in all honesty I have more often than not stood on the “other ground” – “the sinking sand.” I have been to the edge of doubt and peered into unbelief or disbelief.  Whether due to circumstances resulting from my control or because of my lack of control, these painful experiences have led me too often to the place of spiritually shaky ground.  Like a violent earthquake, when the ground, which appeared so solid beneath you, begins to move, you question the reality and solidity of everything in your life.  It is a time, truly, when “when all around my soul gives way.”  These terrible undulations of the soul shake everything that is not secure.

Suddenly, my faith in my faith – or faith in my ability to believe – is no longer enough.  I need something more.  I need someone outside of my shaken reality to help me up off the floor.  I need something more secure than confidence in my own ability to maintain a faith system.  Otherwise, I remain on “the other ground” – a quick sand that sinks me deeper in my own shaken and insecure knowledge and experiences of reality.

This “someone outside my shaken reality” and this “something more secure” is what captured the heart of Edward Mote.  It is a faith I aspire to in my spiritual journey.  Mote points me to “His righteous character” and “His completed work.”  My spiritual journey is no longer about me and my ability to make it through this life with all its struggles and disappointments and failures.

There are no trophies that I will present to him that will make me worthy of his salvation or his heaven.  I will not stand before his throne with any confidence.  It is all about, and in the end will be all about, “His oath, His covenant, His blood.”  It is what the Heavenly Father did for me through Christ’s cross and resurrection.  It is his work, not mine.  This, finally, is the anchor for my soul and my faith.  Now, I just need the Lord’s help to stay off the “other ground.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a highly significant relationship between the ability of a Christian or church body to demonstrate love and overall spiritual health.   Ask yourself how you are doing in demonstrating love to others.  I am not talking about how you are doing at “feeling” loving toward others.  I am addressing how we are at “doing” loving things for others.  Biblical love is always other focused.

I challenge you to look at all the ‘one another’ passages of the New Testament.  You will find that the church is called to love, serve, encourage, forgive, restore, help, build up, and be at peace with ‘one another.’  This is a huge challenge.  It is our sinful human nature to meet our own needs first.  Even in loving, often the focus on whether we “feel” love or loving toward others.  This is just another deceptively simple form of self-gratification.  The focus is upon me and my feelings instead of another’s needs.

The Biblical definition of love is fruit, action, and deed.  The secular concept of love as a feeling which overwhelms you (if you’re lucky) and may disappear is unbiblical and counterfeit.  Held up for us to measure ourselves against is the love of God expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus, his son, upon the cross for our sins.  We are reminded in the New Testament that we have done nothing to deserve God’s love.  In fact, before we were lovable or could even return our love to him, he loved us first.  He initiated this relationship and invitation by serving us – washing our feet, healing our wounds, and paying all the costs to buy us our freedom from slavery to Satan and sin.

As loved-ones, he now asks us to love others in the same manner and way in which he loved us.  This goes far beyond mere sentimentality or sympathy.  It digs deep into costly actions that display a patient and gracious love.  The world is dying to see this kind of love displayed.  Where it is displayed, it transforms lives and cultures.  The truth of the matter is – unfeigned, practical love has a divinely generated magnetic power far more effective than any formal evangelistic program, which depends almost entirely upon verbal communication.  People do not want to hear us talk about love; they want to experience how Christian love really works!

This will require us to step out of our comfort zones at times.  It will mean looking past our close circle of relationships and work to include others who are unknown or new to us.  It will mean making time for one another.  It will mean doing loving actions far beyond my capacity to evoke loving feelings.

This means for most of us that we must confess the sin of being too busy.  We have pushed the margin on the limits of our time and energies so that we cannot do what Jesus would do in our world, our church, and our home.  Biblical love is a commitment to be a person with a high love quotient that includes and serves others.

Orchid, Cancun, Mexico, Summer 2003

Orchid, Cancun, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the Christian community we call the Church, it will mean extending forgiveness, grace, and mercy toward others in the body of Christ to the same extent and measure that I have received it from my Heavenly Father.  This will challenge us toward long-suffering and gentleness to keep the bonds of peace and unity even when we have been wronged, hurt, or taken offense at someone else’s thoughtless actions or words.

Through such a community that actively displays such forbearance in its love; the world will be attracted to the message of Jesus.  It is only then that his life, ministry, and message take on a real quality that cannot be refuted.  After all, Jesus said, “They will know you by your love for one another.”  He was not just talking about people witnessing the good feelings that Christians have for one another, but the self-sacrificing serving love that cares for the least, last, and lost among us.  Then they will know that we really are followers of Christ.

©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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