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Posts Tagged ‘God’s Presence’

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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The story is told of Mother Teresa visiting Australia.  A new recruit to the monastery in Australia was assigned to be her guide and “gofer” during her stay.  The young man was very thrilled and excited at the prospect of being so close to this woman.  He dreamed of how much he would learn from her and what they would talk about.

But during her visit, he became frustrated.  Although he was constantly near her, he never had the opportunity to say one word to Mother Teresa.  There were always other people to meet.  Finally, her tour was over, and she was due to fly to New Guinea.

In desperation, the friar had his opportunity to speak to Mother Teresa.  He said to her, “If I pay my own fare to New Guinea, can I sit next to you on the plane so I can talk to you and learn from you?”

Mother Teresa looked at him.  “You have enough money to pay airfare to New Guinea?” she asked.

Oh, yes,” he replied eagerly.

Then give that money to the poor,” she said.  “You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.”

Mother Theresa pointed out a problem we all have or all have dealt with at one time or another.  The young man wanted to experience the feeling of being with someone when he needed to learn simply by doing.   After all, isn’t it much more enjoyable to absorb someone’s company with their presence and conversation than actually follow them in what they do?  We want to touch someone who makes a difference with their life, but we do not want to have to do what they do to make a difference our self.

Many saints of God want to dwell in his presence in worship but not serve at his table.  Many Christ followers want to sit and hear his words but not take up a towel and wash another’s feet.  We like being in his house with the nice furniture, good conversation, interesting topics of discussion and wonderful music.  However, actually doing work around the house or in the fields is more than we really want to bargain for right now.

We say to the Lord, “I want to hang with you.  It’s fun.  I can learn so much just by being in your presence.”

In turn, He says to us, “Feed my sheep…Serve one another…Care for the poor and hungry…Give and it will be given to you…Share my story and teach others my ways…Bear one another’s burdens.

The dynamic of the Kingdom of God is that the more of your life you give away, the more of the Kingdom life you will gain.  The part of this earthly life you try to keep for yourself will be lost for all eternity.  The author, Sheldon Kopp, had it right when he said, “You only get to keep what you give away.”  Similarly, John Wesley commented, “I judge all things only by the price they shall gain in eternity.”

In our American economy, we are weighed and measured by earthly goods that are very temporary.  Is it any wonder that after spending so much time and money on ourselves we feel no satisfaction and no fulfillment?  One man commented, “I’m a walking economy.  My hairline’s in recession, my waist is a victim of inflation, and together they’re putting me in a deep depression!

Heart-shaped Red Beach Pebble, June 2003

Heart-shaped Red Beach Pebble, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I want to invite you to join me by doing what Jesus did: He sacrificed himself for others.  He gave away his life so that others might live.

  • Do you have time to give to mentor children or youth or young adults?
  • Do you have time to sacrifice to encourage and strengthen others in their faith who are shut-ins, retirement homes, in nursing homes or homeless?
  • Do you have time to give for others to help distribute food, clothes or needed household items?
  • Can you faithfully sacrifice a tenth of your income to carry on the work of serving others?
  • Can you volunteer to serve at an after-school program that helps kids with homework?
  • Can you give construction skills or mechanical skills to help others or the agencies that help others?
  • Can you take time to gather food through gleaning for local food banks or volunteer at one of the local food banks?
  • Can you take time to help refugees get settled into the American culture and your community through World Relief?
  • Can you give time to answer phones at a local non-profit community agency that cannot afford to pay for more hired staff?

It really is fun when the Lord shows up in a gathering of believers and dynamic wonderful things happen.  It’s exciting to see and hear him work among us.  However, if we really want to know Jesus and his way we will take up a basket and serve others, take up a towel and wash feet, and encourage others to grow in their faith and service by our example.

God’s Kingdom is much more than just a place to enjoy God’s warm and welcoming presence.  It is also where you can invest your life in Kingdom things that last long beyond this life.  There is not only a place in the Heavenly Father’s house and at his table for you; there’s also a place for you in his vineyard to work alongside others.  You will find that everything you gave away and sacrificed for him, you will get to keep when it is all over.

©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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Wells Deep Enough To Get Living Water

During his ministry here on earth, Jesus was always a lot harder on religious people than he was on the spiritually lost and forsaken.  His ministry was frustrated more often by the attitudes of the religious people around him than those who were far from God and synagogue.  Sometimes, he could not perform miracles among them.  For the most part, his mission and message was not accepted by them.

The ones who should have known better and been most ready to receive his works and words rejected them and him.  In other words, the religious folks who thought they could see were really spiritually blind and didn’t know it.  Alternatively, those in spiritual darkness and blind were the ones to “see a great light” as it “shown upon them” (Isa. 9:2).  The irony of this should not be lost to us today.

I often wonder what kind of reception Jesus would receive among the religious folks who inhabit our churches today.  Would we be ready for him or miss him?  Would we recognize him?  Would we accept his challenging words and unconventional works?  Would he find faith and freedom among us to work miracles or a place where he “could not work any miracles” (Mark 6:5)?

Robert Beringer, in Turning Points, tells the story about a little boy who got separated from his parents in a large shopping center.  The Security Department quickly located the child and took him to an office, while the frantic parents were paged over the public address system.  One of the security guards got a large ice cream cone for the boy.  When his parents arrived at the office, there was their little son happily eating his ice cream.  Suddenly, as his parents embraced him, the child burst into tears.  One of the security guards said, “Gosh, I guess he didn’t know he was lost until he was found!”

Beringer goes on to point out, “There are many who are bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.  Many people have tried to substitute the accumulation of things for good relationships, but no matter how much they get, something is still missing in life.  Their pipe does not go down deep enough to draw living water, and they feel lost.”

Sadly, that describes too many people in the church today: “bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.”  In our materialistic society, we have been duped into thinking that filling up our lives with more things or filling our lives with more activities will bring satisfaction and substance to our lives.  Meanwhile, Jesus is left standing on the periphery at our hearts’ doors knocking.  Like the little boy, we do not know that we are lost.  Like the religious people of Jesus day, we do not realize what we are missing because of our spiritual blindness.

Orange Rose Bud, 2009

Orange Rose Bud, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the apostle John’s book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, two of the letters written to the seven churches are telling.  To the church in Ephesus, Jesus condemned them for leaving their first love.  He invited them to “remember, repent, and return” (2:5) to loving him first so that their spiritual light and life would continue in the world.

To the church in Laodicea, Jesus condemned them for their spiritual apathy and arrogance.  They thought that they had it all together – “rich, successful, and in need of nothing” – when they were really “pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  Jesus invited them to be “zealous and repent” (v. 19) because those he loves he will “rebuke and chasten” (v. 20).

This challenge to the church today became even more real to me when I ministered in India near Visakhapatnam and Rajamundri.  Before I left, there were many Americans who wanted to know if it was true that miracles were easier to witness overseas.  They carry the nagging feeling that somehow the mission field of America is more difficult than the mission field elsewhere in the world.  I do not believe it is.  I believe that there are no barriers for the work of God to be done except for the zeal and faith of God’s people.

If the work of the Gospel and its accompanying signs, wonders, and miracles are more prominent in other places; it is because the church there goes “down deep enough to draw living water.”  They are still vitally and vibrantly connected to the “Source of Life”.  At different times in its history, the American church has had the same connection to her Lord and Savior.  Like the American church, the church overseas struggles against the same declination towards spiritual apathy and arrogance that causes spiritual blindness.

However, in India, for the most part I saw a church strong and vibrant.  I believe it witnessed the Lord confirming his Word with signs, wonders, and miracles because it “dug wells deep enough to draw Living Water” by:

  1. A regular practice of “waiting upon the Lord” in prayer.  Like the church in the book of Acts, believers in India devoted themselves to prayer – lots of prayer and waiting upon the Lord.  Then, fearlessly offering prayer for anyone in need and willing.
  2. A regular practice of proclaiming the Gospel in market places.  Like the New Testament church, believers in India boldly preached and shared the Gospel in the public market places – even right in front of Hindu temples!  They regularly invited their neighbors over to their houses to share Jesus and love them.
  3. A regular practice of serving the orphan, the widow, and the poor.  They are more than will to prove their ministry through their generosity to the saints and everyone else (2 Cor. 9:13).  Their ministries of compassion open doors of opportunity to not only preach Christ but pray for the sick and oppressed.

These things place the Indian believers in a position where God’s grace and power must show up.  Then his Kingdom is built on nothing but his Word and his power.  There is a simple desperation in the life of the church that depends upon the Word and power of the Lord.  Ministry is simple: prayer, preach, and provide for the poor.

Wherever the church puts their faith into practice like this; the Lord shows up to work among his people – whether in India or America.  The American church’s nagging sense that it has lost something in connection with the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be the Lord knocking at the door just as he did in Ephesus and Laodicea.

The question is, will we return to our “first love” and the works we did at first – such as devoting ourselves to prayer, sharing the Gospel in the public market places, and providing for the poor?  Each of these practices places us in a unique position where we need the Lord to answer, show up, and provide.

On the other hand, are we too rich, too full, and too satisfied to hear the knocking at our door?  Whether Jesus shows up depends upon us.  It may be time to dig our wells deeper to draw upon the Living Water the Lord offers to those who are spiritually thirsty.  Perhaps we can take some “well digging” lessons from our brothers and sisters in churches such as those I visited in India.  Now is the time to start digging!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (2010)

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Trying to explain God is like trying to explain a kiss.  You can check the dictionary definition of a kiss.  Webster says a kiss is “a caress with the lips; a gentle touch or contact.”

But does that really capture the essence of what a kiss is?  Does that describe what a mother does when she tenderly places her lips on the forehead of her newborn child?  Is that what the young lover does when he or she says good-night to his or her love?  The dictionary definition kind of falls flat, doesn’t it?  It is not quite adequate to capture the experience of a kiss – affectionately or passionately given.

Just as words cannot completely capture all that is involved in what we know by experience and attempt to describe as a “kiss,” we also cannot fully comprehend, explain, or define “God.”  We can, however, know him through experiencing his revelation of himself to us in the Bible and in the person of his son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to show us what God would look like in a human body.  In Jesus, we experience the presence of God in a very personal way – not to an historical figure of the past, but to an alive and living Savior who calls us into a personal relationship with himself.  The reality of his living presence is best seen among those who today live in his every-abiding presence.  They show us Jesus.  They reveal to us a partial picture of God.

Rose, Bush House Garden, Salem, Oregon 2009

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

Art Linkletter saw a small boy drawing a picture.  He inquired,

What are you drawing?”  The small boy replied, “A picture of God.”  Linkletter told the lad that no one knows what God looks like, to which the boy confidently responded, “They will when I get through.”

When you are through with today will someone that you have met and interacted with know what Jesus looked like?  Do you have a deep personal experience with God that leaves upon friends and family an impression of what God must sort of be like?

In the end, your life and mine may be the best explanation or definition of God’s image in his character and nature to the people around us.  Sure, we can point them to a dictionary or a theologian’s systematic theology tome or even the Bible itself.  However, what they may need is a real, live picture.  You and I may be the best opportunity for someone today to experience God.  There are a lot of people in need of such an encounter.  So, we have a lot of explaining to do.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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I have come to believe that the most powerful spiritual transformations usually do not take place on Sunday mornings between 10:30 am and 12:00 pm.  Do not get me wrong.  I believe public worship is important.  I think it is powerful when God’s people gather to worship the Lord and hear his Word proclaimed.  I abide by the biblical injunction to “not forsake the gathering of yourselves together.”

Nevertheless, it is not always that brief period of time devoted to Sunday worship services that always dramatically changes us.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us wouldn’t know what to do if God really did “rend the heavens and come down.”  When God’s Spirit does work in someone’s life during that time, we are pleasantly surprised.  I have often joked that the modern American Evangelical has changed the old hymn from “I Need Thee Every Hour” to “I Need Thee One Hour.”  Perhaps we are missing something.

I think we are more like the little girl in church listening to her pastor begin his sermon.  “Dear Lord,” the minister began with arms extended toward heaven and a rapturous look on his upturned face,  “without you, we are but dust.”  He would have continued but, at that moment, the very obedient little girl (who was listening) leaned over to her mother and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice for the rest of the congregation to hear, “Mom, what is butt dust?”

The preacher might as well have laughed with the rest of the congregation and closed in prayer.  Anything he said after that would have been forgotten.  He was trumped by an inquisitive little mind caught in a misunderstanding.  Yet, how many times does that happen to us as adults?  When I was a pastor, I cannot count how many times I had people share their thoughts on a sermon I am certain I did not preach but a few minutes earlier.

Yes, public worship is important and the preaching of God’s Word is paramount to being a fully “Bible-believing” church.  Nonetheless, I have seen deeper and longer lasting spiritual change take place in the lives of God’s people when…

  • they obeyed God at work among unbelievers.
  • they sought his presence and wisdom in a quiet moment of personal devotions.
  • they took a risk to step out in faith and serve in Jesus’ name when they were not sure whether they would meet success or failure.
  • they walked with someone else through a tragedy or trying time with prayer and personal presence.
  • they served out of obedience others who could or would never repay their kindness and devotion.
  • they taught, mentored and discipled others who needed help, guidance and instruction in their spiritual journey.

I have seen ‘spiritual giants’ raised up in living rooms and at kitchen tables.  I have seen ‘wise biblical counselors’ grown in small groups.  I have observed ‘strong servant-leaders’ recognized and promoted while they served ‘the least of these’ among us in small classrooms and nurseries.  I have witnessed growth and spiritual maturity take place in individuals who bravely stepped out and served their community in jails, pregnancy centers, food banks, and homeless shelters.  On the other hand, I have yet to see any of these emerge in an individual who just came and occupied a seat for public worship on Sunday mornings.  In fact, as a pastor/spiritual guide, I have been humbled by the work of the Spirit that did not involve me or my input.

Cara on the Cape Alava Trail boardwalk

Cara on the Cape Alava Trail boardwalk ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Are you longing for spiritual transformation? Do you want to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord?  Does your heart yearn to learn God’s ways and find favor with him?  Do you find yourself stuck in the same place on your spiritual journey?  Is there a sense in your spirit that what you need to grow spiritually is a spiritual challenge that requires a risk and step of faith?

It might be that you will need to move your Sunday worship from 10:30am to 12:00 pm into other areas of your life.  Live a life of worship at work.  Make his ‘praise glorious’ among a group of friends you can grow with spiritually.  Learn to serve Jesus by serving ‘the least of these’ in the world around you.  Go ahead.  Risk putting yourself in a position where God must show up and work through you.  You may be surprised at where that journey will take you.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Harold Sherman quite awhile ago wrote a book entitled How To Turn Failure Into Success.  In it he gives a “Code of Persistence.”  If you have a tendency to give up too easily, write this down and read it daily.

1.  I will never give up so long as I know I am right.

2.  I will believe that all things will work out for me if I hang on until the end.

3.  I will be courageous and undismayed in the face of odds.

4.  I will not permit anyone to intimidate me or deter me from my goals.

5.  I will fight to overcome all physical handicaps and setbacks.

6.  I will try again and again and yet again to accomplish what I desire.

7.  I will take a new faith and resolution from the knowledge that all successful men and women had to fight defeat and adversity.

8.  I will never surrender to discouragement or despair no matter what seeming obstacles may confront me.

These are great maxims to live by. They can help a person to reach wonderful goals.  These personal declarations can help a person overcome all obstacles in order to be successful in life.  And success is good.  It can be not only personally rewarding but also God-honoring and God-glorifying.

Fall Rosehips, Turtle River State Park, North Dakota, 2005

Fall Rosehips In Turtle River State Park, North Dakota 2005 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Yet, for the Christian, there is another maxim for success that must not be forgotten in regards to persistence.  It is more important than any of these in Harold Sherman’s list.  We find it over and over again lived out in the lives of people portrayed for us in Scripture.

For example, Joshua was reminded of it when he had to take over the leadership position vacated by Moses and lead Israel into the Promise Land.  The maxim that Joshua needed to take with him to be successful was that the strength to be persistent until success lies in the knowledge that God is with you.  As long as Joshua acted upon that truth and led others by it, he could not fail.

God’s promise to Joshua was very simple, “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  This is a powerful truth to take to heart and live by everyday as we seek to accomplish great things.  God has promised His presence wherever his people go in service to him.  Every believer in Jesus can draw strength and take courage in the knowledge that the Lord God is with us and will help us.  So, don’t give up too easily!

Jesus gave his closest followers a similar promise that is passed down to us.  After commanding them to make disciples for him in the entire world, he promised, “I will always be with you, even to the end of time!”  As they went out into the world to do their work and live their lives, they were to take strength and comfort from Jesus’ promise that he would always be with them wherever they went.

Jesus’ promise to his obedient followers did not come with an expiration date.  It is a promise that continues down to our time and place.  We also are to take the same strength and courage from Jesus’ promise.  His presence encourages us and strengthens us to be persistent in our daily battles.

When we give up, we are essentially saying back to God, “I don’t believe your promise.  I don’t believe that you are really present with me in this situation.  I don’t believe that you want me to succeed.”  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  God does not fail in the promises he makes.

We win in the end because he will see us through until we are successful.  This does not mean the absence of temporary failures or set backs.  It does not mean we will not face obstacles and trials.  There will be challenges.  We will have to fight some battles.  Nevertheless, if we remain persistent like Harold Sherman suggests and never let go of our confidence in God’s promise to always be with us and lead us, we will finish successfully.

So, whatever you are faced with, hang in there.  Do not give up.  Remain persistent at what you know you need to do and you will be successful.  Remind yourself daily that God is present in your life and leading you as you trust and follow him.  You will win your battles and be victorious.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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