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Posts Tagged ‘God’s Word’

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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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

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

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Untamable God – Part 2

Continued…

One of the most powerful kings to ever rule the earth learned the lesson of God’s sovereignty the hard way.  Nebuchadnezzar thought that he was in control and that he had accomplished everything without any input from a god.  In fact, he thought he was a god.  In a dream (Daniel 4), he learns that his kingdom will be taken away unless he acknowledges God’s sovereignty and majesty.  Four times (4:17; 4:25; 4:32 and 5:21) the reader of Daniel’s book is reminded “the most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.”  This echoes Psalm 47, which says, “God reigns over the nations…for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted” (vv. 8, 9).  This is a lesson that king Nebuchadnezzar was about to learn the hard way.

It took a long time before Nebuchadnezzar learned his lesson, but in the end he finally acknowledged that “the Most High…does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.  No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ ” (4:35).  As the Sovereign Creator, God does what He wants without questions.  He does not have to answer to anyone for His actions or non-actions.

This was the lesson that Isaiah learned and tried to teach Israel:  “You turn things upside down as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!  Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’?  Can the pot say to the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” (Isaiah 29:16, see also 45:9, 10).  Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Yet, is that not precisely what we often say or how we act when God seems to not work in the way we think He should.  We fall into completely denying Him (“He is not God…at least not my god.”) or accusing Him of not knowing what He’s doing (as if He should or would do what we would do).

After going through an interminable period of one trial after another, Job and his friends argued over what was the “cause-and-effect” of Job’s seeming down-turn in fortune.  Job didn’t want to accuse God, but did want to make his point to God that he should receive the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for all his troubles since he had been so good (i.e. “righteous”).  Job’s friends – rightly still called today “Job’s comforters” – argued that Job must have done something wrong and needed to repent.  Both Job and his friends seemed to think that they had some kind of “Club Membership” that allow them to skip life’s difficulties and traumas.  It is no wonder, then, that the Sovereign God finally shows up to put both in their places:  Job’s friends for falsely accusing Job, and Job for questioning God’s sovereignty.  (Turns out that we get into trouble spiritually when we take the judgment seat to pronouncement judgments against our friends and God.  It seems that seat is reserved for only One Being.)

God puts Job in on the spot, just as He does all humans who think they know better than God how to run the world, by asking him, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (38:1).  After that, Job gets an earful from God as God goes through a series of questions that ask, in one form or another, “Where were you when I….?” and, essentially, “When I was creating this…what were you doing?”

Finally, God the righteous judges sits down to listens to Job’s reply after asking him, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?  Let him who accuses God answer him!” (40:2).  Smartly, Job simply answers, “How can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth” (40:3).  God is not through, however, and launches into another series of questions that ultimately sound like, “Since you think you can do a better job, Job, you come up here and sit on this throne for a while!”  Again, Job, getting God’s message loud and clear finally admits, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwartedI spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:2, 3).

Grand Coulee Dam at Night, Summer 2009

Grand Coulee Dam at Night, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Three of Daniel’s friends seemed to understand this about God.  They were placed in the ‘hot seat’ for their faith – literally.  They refused to bow to a golden image of king Nebuchadnezzar; even with the king and his royal entourage right in front of them.  (Talk about being “put on the spot” and peer pressure at the same time!)  They were threatened to be thrown into a fire furnace heated seven times hotter than normal; so hot it instantly killed the soldiers charged with throwing them into the furnace.  One would think – according to our modern American pop-theology – that then would have been a great time for God to show up.  He did not.

Divine interference would have been the preferred action before the fire in our thinking.  However, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego recognized God’s sovereignty in their situation.  Their response to Nebuchadnezzar’s angry threat was “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (3:17, 18).  That, my friends, is faith in a big God who is Sovereign to do as He wills.  God did rescue them but in the midst of the fire, not before.  I cannot imagine these three Hebrew young men arguing with God, “Seriously?  Couldn’t you have showed up a little sooner!?

Perhaps some Muslims have an understanding of a sovereign deity better than American Christians do.  Granted, it has led many of them into a fatalism of their faith.  That has been a danger for Christians too.  However, when they do not readily recognize God’s plans or will, then they have learned to say, Inshallah” – “As Allah wills.”  Jesus, who as the Son of God knew the heavenly Father’s heart, will and plans better than anyone, also prayed “not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39; Luke 2:42).  No wonder He taught His disciples and us to include in our prayers, “Your will be done one earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9 – 13; Luke 11:2 – 4).

It seems that God refuses to be tamed and be made nice for us to play with in our leisure. On the other hand, do we really want a God that we can put in our pocket like a rabbit’s foot lucky-charm?  Is a God who is always disposed to our whims really big enough to serve or worthy of worship?  I don’t think so.  The One who sits over all His creation and all the nations of the earth is too big, too untamable.  He does as He pleases.  We serve Him, not He us.  If this is true, and I believe it is, then we better get used to being more like Job when it comes to things we cannot explain.  Admit that God is too big to explain and shut up.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Untamable God – Part 1

Most of us do not like the idea of serving a god we cannot somehow manipulate or control; that is if we are really honest with our selves.  No matter how “orthodox” our beliefs, we tend to want to invoke prayers, verses of Scripture and dubious faith promises to get our own way with our god.  Some believers will even use holy water, anointing oil, prayer clothes and other objects of faith like they were some type of medieval relic with a promise of power from this god to do what we want and think we need.  What if the real God of the universe looked at all of these efforts and said, “Meh.  Whatever.”  And then went on and did what He thought best for His plan and His creation.

That seems to be the picture we have of God in the Bible, though many evangelical believers, especially Charismatics and Pentecostals, will not like it.  Instead of an all-sovereign Being who serves His own purposes, we prefer a lesser god that can be manipulated with shaman-like faith chants and magical workings.  A careful reading of the Psalms, the book of Job, the Prophets (especially Daniel) gives us a completely different picture of God.  A portrait of God that seems to be missing from so much of our American Christian faith.

This failure to see the largeness of God – His majesty and sovereignty – has led many believers to a spiritually bankrupt faith.  When they enter into a difficult time, trial or test, they say all right prayers, quote all the right Scriptures and repeat the mantras of popular faith teachings.  They will seek prayer, the laying on of hands by other believers, anointing with oil and even send money to a popular faith preacher in hopes of getting their prayers answered – at least the way they want them answered.  If it works out the way they wanted, then their faith “works!”

However, if all of their efforts go by seemingly unnoticed by God, then they begin to question their faith and even God.  I cannot count how many times I have counseled with believers who think that they have done “all the right things” to get God’s attention and the answers they want only to discover “none of this works.”  I have been told by some seasoned believers who became embittered by such trials that “God has never done anything for me.  So, why should I believe in Him or serve Him?”  I have heard from others that “God has never answered my prayers or been there for me when I needed Him, therefore, I don’t believe He exists.”

God is reduced to a personal butler-deity or good-luck charm to get one’s wishes or at least protection from bad things.  What if God does not “play” by those rules?  Yes, sometimes out of mercy, grace or kindness He may act despite our ignorance.  However, what if in God’s Kingdom that is not the normal way in which the Sovereign of the universe acts or responds?  In fact, what if such approaches to His majesty is actually an affront to Him and offensive?

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One of the critiques of agnostics and atheists is If God really existed and was all-powerful, then why doesn’t He stop wars, famine, disease, etc from taking place?”  This, of course, is assuming that God would act in human history as…well, a human.  The bigness of God would, instead, require a God who is beyond human understanding and reasoning.  Since He knows His creation – especially the human ones – and sees all of history and all of future in total, He is not required to act for the benefit of anyone person or people group.

Others in the agnostic and atheist camp argueGod is morally responsible to do something about human suffering!”  The double edged-sword that 1) “God is responsible because He seems not to act,” and 2) “God is responsible because He seems not to care” is a powerful argument.  At least, it is if one assumes that God as God acts in the way a human agent would/should act in a particular space and time.  However, God is neither human nor bound by the limitations of knowledge or experience in our space and time.

Faith in an enormous, untamable God requires us to believe that He is not only all-powerful (omnipotent) but also all-knowing (omniscient).  Thus, He will act as He sees fit.  All creatures of the earth, the Bible tells us, must submit to His purposes.  When the Bible says that in the last day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) it is implying just that sentiment.  It does not mean just “Lord” as Savior, but also “Lord” as Master and Sovereign.  The uncomfortable fact of Scripture is that the One who sits over all His creation and all the nations of the earth is too big, too untamable.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the tragedies of being young or going to school for too long is that one knows all the answers.  It seems that when I was in high school and college that I had an answer or solution for everything.  Now that I have teenagers and children college age, I have that they are the ones with all the answers.

Of course, six years of college, two Bachelor degrees, three years of graduate school, and a master’s degree only compounds the problem.  In my related fields of study – theology, biblical studies, philosophy, pastoral ministry – I have a lot of answers for a lot of things.  My library of over 3,000 volumes helps me find one, along with the internet now, if I am unsure or need to shore up my thinking.

Alas, all of this has done me little good.  I have discovered as I have aged in years and grown somewhat wiser (using that term frugally) that having the answers and knowing the solutions are not the same as solving the problem(s).  This is true for my own life as well as those that I have counseled and coached over the years.  I can stare at the obvious answer in front of me.  I can clearly point out the solution to the person(s) needing an answer in times of trouble.  This, however, rarely, in my case or theirs, solves the problem.

What is the problem with the problem? Well, it is not enough to know answers or solutions.  You have to work the problem to get to the answer.  One must prove the solution to be true by working out the problem.  This is somewhat of a applying a scientific approach to problem solving.  The answer or solution is only the hypothesis.  The working out of the problem in reality either proves or disproves hypothesis.

Granted, this pragmatic approach to life does not always work.  Some answers or solutions are true whether they work out for us or not.  Their failure in our case may only reveal a defect in our method, approach or application and not in the answer or solution itself.  Thus, pragmatism is a poor philosophy to live life by.

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I wish that I had learned this lesson earlier on.  It would have made me less arrogant and cock-sure in my younger years.  Perhaps patience with myself and for others would have had a more fruitful result in my life.  In any case, it turns out that my math teacher in my Junior High and High School years was on to something.  Her name was Mrs. Durkin.  She was a stickler for working the problems and showing your work.  She taught in Curlew, Washington.

I spent some of my most important formative years growing up in Curlew, Washington.  It is located in Northeastern Washington State near the Canadian border, right across from Grand Forks, British Columbia.  I have so many fond memories of that place and the people there.  I have revisited it a few times over the years, but it’s been a long while since I have had a chance to return there.

The school was a two story brick school that housed all the grades.  A number of years ago they built a new building.  The old brick building was recently destroyed in a fire.  Mrs. Durkin’s room was at the top of the stairs, left down the hall (not a long distance) and the last classroom on the right.  The office was next door at the head of the hall.

When you stepped into Mrs. Durkin’s room, there was no question as to who was in charge.  There was also no question that she loved math and loved teaching.  But she was impervious to the pleas of students, like myself, who had the right answers on their papers but had not shown their work or whose math work was wrong even if the solution was right.  In either case, it was marked wrong!  How unfair.

How like life.  Life is a rugged classroom to learn in.  Wisdom is a ruthless teacher.  Wisdom does not care if you know the answers or have the solution.  It mocks your arrogance to just fill in the answer and think you can get by with that approach.  Wisdom will demand that you work the problem of life to “show your work” or prove your answer.

The demands of life and learning wisdom have turned out to be a lot tougher than Mrs. Durkin’s algebra classes.  She would often challenge us, “Students, you must show your work!”  She would remind us, “Unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer!”  This probably explains why she always assigned the even-numbered problems in the book when the odd-numbered ones had the answers in the back!

Even if she did on a rare occasion assign one or several odd-numbered problems, the only point was so that you could show or prove to her that you could come up with the same answer.  (Very tricky, Mrs. Durkin.  Very tricky!)  And it better be the right way to arrive at the answer or it was still wrong!  Creativity may count in art class but not in Mrs. Durkin’s math classes!  (You were so mean, Mrs. Durkin.  So mean.)  Yet, life can be like this – “assigning” to us problems we know the answers to but requiring us to work out the problem to get to the same solution.

It turns out that life’s classroom has been a lot more relentless than Mrs. Durkin ever was in her’s.  It turns out that Wisdom has been a much harsher teacher than her also.  Someone repeated the much worn contemporary mantra of American evangelicalism the other day that say, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”  Baloney.

Maybe I am unique in this, I do not think so, but God has frequently given me things way too big for me to handle.  It is not enough for me to point to an answer in the Bible and claim some truth or promise.  Neither does it work to simply spout some theological dogma I have been taught about life and its trials.  I find I am no better off by finding where to find the answers in the “back of the book;” even though I do appreciate a good concordance.  The little “Our Daily Bread” Scripture promise box on the table or a quote from the most recent pop-Christian author falls empty into the dirt of my work-a-day life.

Perhaps I hear the voice of the Lord in Mrs. Durkin’s classroom demands.  “Son, you must show your work.  ‘Study to show yourself… a worker…correctly handling truth‘ ” (2 Tim. 2:15).  “Son, unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer.  ‘Apply your heart to understanding…then you will understand…every good answer‘ ” (Proverbs 2:2, 9).  Turns out that math class taught me more than math.  I was a stinker of a student in Mrs. Durkin’s class.  Here’s hoping I will become a better student at solving problems in the future.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Competing Orthodoxies

A simplified chart of historical developments ...

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Let’s face it.  American Christians seem to be afraid of theological and philosophical competition in the market place.  Even among themselves, they demonize one another’s theological differences and trash each other’s denominations.  This is not a healthy environment for building the Kingdom of God.  Yet, when it comes to competing claims, they remain largely silent except in their huddles and clusters.

Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly afraid of competing against secularism.  Unrecognized by many of them, secularism itself has become a part of the American Christian thought and practice.  It is itself a type of dangerous syncretism that threatens the genuine message and power of the message of Jesus.

Except in missionary circles, the theological arenas of Bible schools or seminaries, or among expatriates overseas, any dialogue on American soil among Americans of different religious persuasions is almost nil.  This is due largely to American Christians buying into the secularist notion that religion is a personal and private matter and should not be discussed or carried into the market places.  It would seem that it is not a suitable topic for public discussion, we are taught.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the crowd on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, it was in a public place.  Frequently, the Apostle Paul used the market place to introduce and speak to the spiritual questions and needs of the people of the culture.  It will be necessary for Christians to regain that missionary zeal and practice if we are to transform our culture by being salt and light in it.

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There are many believers and leaders in America who are raising their voices and modeling this for the church.  One such person is Hunter Baker who is the Houston Baptist University political science professor.  He voices his concern about the dangers of secularism in society and the church in his recently published book, “The End of Secularism.”  Online editor for Christianity Today , Sarah Pulliam, had an interview with Hunter Baker in the October 2009 issue.

Francis Schaeffer

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Of course, the pioneer for this discussion was Francis A. Schaeffer.  His seminal book, “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” addresses much of the same issues but more in-depth and with historical background.  The fact that it is still an issue largely unaddressed by the average evangelical American Christian is alarming.  It registers just how deep secularism has dug into the expressions and practices of American Christianity.

Secularism teaches Americans from an early age that religion and spiritual discussions, particularly of certain subjects, should be private and not a part of public life at all.  The ideal is a social harmony that is absent of God-talk.  One is reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Imagine.”  The secularist likes to “imagine if there was no religion.”  For the true Christian, however, to act as if God does not exist in any part of our life is not just dishonest, it is hypocritical.  It is also worthy of some of the strongest words of Jesus against disowning him before others.

Hunter Baker, in his 0nline interview with Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today, also notes that to place this expectation upon Christians is unfair.  It is utterly mistaken to think that secularism is the center of our American culture, while the competing claims of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism et al all revolve around it.  Secularism is not the objective umpire attempting to control or regulate the debate.  Instead, it is a completing orthodoxy in the market place of ideas.

For Christians to buy into the idea that their spiritual life should be “private and purely devotional” is a mistake.  Instead, our faith in God should be vocal and visible in the market place of ideas.  It can be a voice against the ills and abuses of our society.  It can provide hope and answers to society’s ills.

As such, American Christians should not be afraid to speak up and speak out – with grace and love – concerning the answers their faith has for today’s issues.  Granted, this means that we will need to be well informed concerning those issues and just how Scripture and the ways and words of Jesus address them.  But when all is said and done, I am confident that the message of God’s Kingdom can stand on its own two feet and compete with any other ideology in the public square of American ideas.

American Christians should not hide or stay silent just because the answers they hold for our country are spiritual.  Let’s let them compete against the competing orthodoxies that are already out there.  I am confident that the truth of the gospel and the power of truth will prevail.  As Hunter Baker points out in the CT interview, “It’s not unfair to have a religious point of view, and a religious point of view is not an inferior point of view.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Old Abraham was a poor tailor whose shop was next door to a very upscale French restaurant.  Every day at lunch time, Abraham would go out the back of his shop and eat his black bread and herring while smelling the wonderful odors coming from the restaurant’s kitchen.  It was a wonderful addition to his unchanging daily lunch time meal.

One day, Abraham was surprised to receive an invoice from the restaurant for “enjoyment of food.” So he went to the restaurant to point out that he had not bought anything from them.  The manager said, “You’re enjoying the smell of our food, so you should pay us for it.”

Abraham refused to pay and the restaurant sued him.  At the hearing, the judge asked the restaurant manager to present his side of the case.

The manager said, “Every day, this man comes and sits outside our kitchen and smells our food while eating his.  It is clear that we are providing added value to his poor food and we deserve to be compensated for it.”

The judge turned to Abraham and said, “What do you have to say to that?”

Abraham didn’t say anything but stuck his hand in his pocket and rattled the few coins he had inside.

The judge asked him, “What is the meaning of that?”

Abraham replied, “I’m paying for the smell of his food with the sound of my money.”

Someone observed that “you can’t get something for nothing.” However, you can get nothing for nothing!  Many followers of Jesus seem to want to get spiritual maturity without investing anything into it.  Apart from salvation, growing in Christ takes the believer’s initiative and efforts.  Jesus’ parable of the talents implies that each believe is given something to invest in the Kingdom and will, in the end, be judged by him as to how they invested it (or did not) back into his Kingdom.

Likewise, the apostle Paul warned Christ’s followers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).  The MKJV version says “cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Each believer is responsible for his or her own spiritual growth and should attend to it as they would the vineyard of their Master.

When it comes to establishing God’s kingdom through the work of ministries in and through the local church, there is a cost. You can’t get ministry for nothing (though you can get no ministry for nothing).

  • Reaching in lost people in our community has a cost.
  • Preaching the gospel has a cost.
  • Discipling children and young people has a cost.
  • Ministering to broken lives has a cost.
  • Providing a safe, secure, and satisfying place of ministry to families and their children has a cost.
  • Reaching into the community to bring help and transformation has a cost.
  • Helping others to take the gospel around the world to people without the knowledge of what God offers through his son Jesus has a cost.

These and many more Kingdom efforts bear a cost in time, treasure and talents.  The question to the followers of Christ is, “Who is going to pay?”

These costs are covered by the many followers of Jesus who pay the price with their time, treasures and talents.  They choose to share equally sacrifice what they have towards the cost of doing Kingdom business by giving of their lives.  As a result, not only do they experience God’s blessings but also experience spiritual growth that the uninvolved will never experience.

It is a truly poor follower of Christ who does not join with others in bearing the cost of doing the work of the Lord’s Kingdom. In essence, they are hoping for a ‘free ride’ on someone else’s work.  They want to enjoy the fruit of the labors of others without sharing in the work in the Lord’s vineyard.  However, no one can grow by watching the efforts of another.  The Lord never planned for his Kingdom to be a spectator centered or focused work.  Yet, it seems that many of our churches and their ministries plan on just that expectation of their adherents.

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Martin Luther said it plainly, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” As a co-laborer in God’s kingdom, I am proud to share in the work and worth of doing the Lord’s Kingdom business.  Successful ministry that transforms lives and our community cannot happen without the many hours that people volunteer.  Kingdom efforts would be handicapped without the sacrificial giving of its family of faith.

Mobilized and motivated laborers in the harvest fields of the Lord are rewarded for their selfless sacrifices.  Yes, they receive a promised eternal reward.  Just as important, however, they receive the reward of growing in the knowledge and strength of the Lord, his Spirit and his Word, which a whole lot more than the smell of good food or the sound of money.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 3 and Conclusion

Part 3 and Conclusion –

Workable models and methods that transform lives and so transform communities are available all over the world. This is where the American church might be wise to humbly learn from her brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.  There are places in the world where the church is growing rapidly.  More important than just growth, however, is the transforming power the message of Jesus and the way of Jesus is having upon whole sub-culture groups.

This will require the American churches and their leadership to admit that:

  1. For the most part, what is presently being done is not working and is not sustainable;
  2. The American church no longer has all the answers to address the world’s problem;
  3. The American churched that birthed so much of the 19th and 20th century missions movements is now in need of missions help itself; and,
  4. Change must take place before the changes of our American culture make the American church wholly irrelevant.

There will be no one method or model that will work in every ministry context in America. The diversity of our cities and even our rural areas require flexibility and creativity.  Nevertheless, any method or model must answer a few simple questions:

  • Does this actually lead to obedience to the way of Jesus that will transform lives?
  • Is the reproducible from one believer to another, one church to another?
  • Does this encourage indigenous leadership, that is, does it raise up leadership from within the church instead of relying on leadership to come from outside of it?
  • Does this engage the larger ministry context of the community, town, or city and seek to bring transformation through Kingdom living and influence?  Or, in other words, what Kingdom benefit is brought to the surrounding culture?
  • Is it self-sustaining?  Or, will it burden the church with constantly “feeding the dragon” to keep it going?
  • Is it simple enough that children and young people will be able to communicate it and follow-through with it?

Much of the ministries in American churches today demand professional clergy leadership. On the other hand, in mission movements where the church is experience not simply growth but multiplication, there is not that luxury!  And yet, the church continues to thrive and grow.  Statistically, American church growth experts tell us that, overall, the higher the level of clergy education the less effective the church becomes (which will have to be a topic for another time).  I am not arguing for Scriptural ignorance, but simply pointing out that perhaps the way we educate and disciple is the wrong model and not working today.

Even in America, fast growing church that are effective in creating genuine followers of Jesus have learned to adapt and adopt many of the same methods used by missionaries and their agencies overseas.

First, they quickly embed new believers into the Body of Christ and a small group of believers to learn spiritual life through prayer, Scripture, worship and witness.

Second, they expect believers to disciple or mentor new believers and new believers to share their new story with unbelievers in their circle of influence.

Then, they look for radical obedience to the words and ways and Jesus and target those individuals to start new churches or lead small groups of believers.

Notice that all education and spiritual transformation occurs within the context of relationships, ministry and obedient devotion to Jesus.

Beach Pebbles, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Is this process messy?  It sure is!  But then, I’m not too certain that our current American models are any less messy.  We have just learned to cover it up, not deal with it, and sterilize the after-effects.  It is all about keeping up appearances for our professional image.

The New Testament church was very messy.  Amidst the rapidly growing young church, there were all kinds of problems.  (Read the New Testament letters to the churches!)  The apostle Paul did not seem to care if he made them public.  He asserted that dealing with disobedience publicly demanded proper reverence for the Lord, his church and those the Lord placed in authority over it.  At the same time, public affirmation and reconciliation, according to Paul’s methods, also testified to the restorative power of the message of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

By depending upon professional clergy for every aspect of church movement and growth, what we have we taught church people?

  • Church people have learned that they cannot teach others unless they are properly educated and trained.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot lead others in worship unless they have the right credentials.
  • Church people have learned that only professional clergy really know how to pray.
  • Church people have learned that there only purpose is to support the pastor and cheer him or her on in her Kingdom efforts.
  • Church people have learned that ministry is what happens on the church platform, not what happens in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods or other gathering places.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot really understand the Bible unless they have gone to Bible School or Seminary.

I do not know any pastor in America that would say that these are the things that he set out to teach his parishioners.  It seems to occur by default simply because of the model for ministry we utilize and the methods we use.  I know for certain, in fact, that many, if not most, American pastors beat their heads against the wall because they see the effects of ministry presently and are frustrated by it.  Almost every church leadership person that I have come across feels trapped by the structures presently at work.

Perhaps what are needed in order to teach and train church people differently are new churches.  For myself, as I talk to pastors, missionaries and other leaders, I perceive that a church renewal or reformation is on the horizon.  I pray that the leadership presently in place in our American churches and denominations embrace it.  I pray that we will be brave enough to welcome the change into a new wineskin.  Hopefully, the result will be that we will give church people something different to learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 2

Continued…

Another key to life transformation involves teaching for obedience not knowledge.  This last point may be the most important of all.  In our Western mindset and focus upon education, we have assumed: Education = Life Change.  In some cases this is true.  In many cases it is not.  This is probably no more clear than in the evidence we see in the quality of the followers of Jesus coming from our churches today.

Even though we have for the last 40 years stressed Christian Education in our local churches, our congregants have not grown more knowledgeable and obedient to God’s Word.  The evidence points to the fact that they have grown less so.  A number of recent surveys by the Barna Research Group point this out very clearly.  Our continued focus upon knowledge of doctrine and Scriptural truths apart from obedience nullifies our efforts to make followers of Jesus.

We must come to grip with the fact that teaching people what is commanded is not the same as teaching obedience to what is commanded.  We can confirm doctrinal knowledge, why can’t we confirm doctrinal obedience?  We should be as concerned with orthopraxy (correct practice of the faith) as we are with orthodoxy (correct beliefs about the faith).  This begins with our church leadership.

Somewhere between Bible School or Seminary and pastoral ministry and leadership the ball has been dropped in spiritual formation.  We have tended to advance people to leadership based upon their knowledge quotient, not their obedience quotient.  More time and effort is put into knowing the doctrines of the church denomination than whether the person’s spiritual and social life is obediently aligned with God’s Word.

In fact, it is not uncommon today to even make allowances for deviations in denominational beliefs and practices to gain church leaders!  As long as someone has taken the required courses to produce the sufficient theological education for ministry, it is assumed one is qualified.  How many times has that been proven wrong?

It is no wonder, then, that the measurement of spirituality in our churches is knowledge not obedience.  In today’s church model, the pulpit ministry is teaching oriented because right belief and thinking is considered most important.  Likewise, confirmation and doctrinal classes for church membership are important so that a person can knowingly agree with what the church believes and practices.  However, rarely do we measure and look at the level of a person’s obedience.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

We are too individualistic of a church and society to do that today.  Are we willing to be held to that kind of accountability?  Most American church parishioners as well as their leadership shudder as such a notion.  However, the apostle Paul threatened to make a personal visit to the Corinthian church and deal with a couple of immoral individuals if they did not practice church discipline themselves (1 Cor. 5).  In fact, he commands the Corinthian believers to expel the two and to disassociate with anyone who says they are a Christian but practices immorality.  According to the apostle Paul, judging those outside the church is not the business of the church, but judging those inside is its business.  Obedience was paramount!

Does that sound pretty harsh?  Unfortunately, in our individualistic church culture, the mantra has become, “You can’t judge me!”  This is usually followed up by a really bad misquoting of Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged!”  In fact, the church and its leadership are commanded to judge and deal with sin within the Body of Christ.  Unfortunately, church discipline is something rarely practiced today.  On the other hand, Jesus takes it so seriously that he warned the Christians at Thyatira that he would come and judge them personally if they did not deal with the immorality among them (Rev. 2:20 – 25).  Could it be that Jesus is coming to judge some churches today?

What we have managed to teach church people is that it does not matter what you do as long as you have right beliefs.  Church people have learned that personal comfort and convenience are more important in measuring their satisfaction with church than how much their lives are changed.

  • What church people learn is that it is OK to worship on Sunday at church but act like a jerk at home and work the rest of the week.
  • What they learn is that it does not matter what you do as long as you believe in Jesus and some of the stuff in the Bible.
  • What church people learn is that, as long as one has been baptized and confirmed into the church, sexual promiscuity, pornography, drunkenness and recreational drug use is permissible.
  • What church people learn is that as long as one is sorry for their sins, receive the Eucharist or communion and responds to an altar call, then returning to the same sin again has no real consequences.
  • What church people learn is that going it alone in their spiritual journey is the norm rather than going with others and being under spiritual authority.

What Jesus commanded from his followers, and so his church, is polar opposite.  The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18 – 20) does not require us to “go and teach them to know all I have said” but rather to “go and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.”  Knowledge does not seem to be the key ingredient to creating genuine followers of Jesus, obedience does.  Can knowledge lead to obedience?  Sure.  Does it?  No.  Yet, it seems that most churches rely on this one strategy to make disciples of the Lord.

True affection for the Lord is not measured by what we know or even by what we feel but our obedience:  “If you love me you will obey what I command…If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. [Then] My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:15, 23, 24).  It is pretty clear that in Jesus’ eyes obedience is the proof of love.

Jesus did not seem to mind drawing a line in the sand when it came to someone’s obedience.  He seemed pretty content to let individuals choose whether they were going to follow him or not.  He was not consumed with trying to be the rabbi with the most followers or the most popular spiritual teacher or the prophet with the biggest crowds.  He was willing to allow people to walk away because obedience to the Heavenly Father was more important than knowledge of the Heavenly Father.

Church people learn just the oppositewhat is important is knowledge of God not actual obedience to God.  However, the words of the apostle John challenge us and our way of “doing business as usual” when he wrote, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 1:3) and “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them” (1 John 3:20).  According to John, knowledge is not the test of whether an individual really knows God and has a relationship with him.  Obedience is the test.

It might be time to change our discipleship methods and models.  What worked in the past will not solve the problems we face today or will face in the future.  It is up to churches and their leadership to make the changes and transitions that will shape and form the lives of those that are in their spiritual care.  This might mean a radical shift in what and how we teach church people.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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