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Posts Tagged ‘Job’

The movie Forrest Gump is one of my favorites. Yes, I know one must suspend belief to hold on to the story line.  And, yes, I know that there is a certain sappy sentimentality in it.  Nonetheless, I like it for the interaction of its main characters and the certain philosophical message summarized at the end.

Now, I’m not an extremely emotional person. However, I can never get through the scene of Forrest‘s monologue at Jenny’s grave with a dry eye.  At the same time, I find the underlying existential question Forrest is wrestling with very engaging because I think we all struggle with it.  Forrest, standing over Jenny’s grave, tells Jenny…

I don’t know if mama was right or if it’s Lieutenant Dan.
I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.
But I think maybe it’s both.
Maybe both is happening at the same time.

The man with the IQ of 75 probably has it right. Life is most certainly like a box of chocolates, like his mother told him: “You never know what you’re going to get.”  Some of life is made up of an apparent series of accidents.  Thus, as is often said, “You have to play the hand your are dealt.”  Like a feather blowing in the wind, as the ending screen shot of Forrest Gump shows us, life can take us in unexpected and unplanned directions.  Forrest’s life seemed to be one accident after another.

This worldview is comforting to those who find themselves unable to control the direction into which the circumstances of life has thrown them. Tossed into a raging river, one does well just to keep afloat and the head above water.  In truth, we cannot always control life’s apparent unfeeling and meaningless events cascading our way, but we can only control how we respond and deal with them.  Thus, we retain some sense of autonomy and determinism and, thereby, meaning and purpose.  I have a feeling that the great majority of people in the world, intentionally or unintentionally, operate their lives with this in view.

Struggling to squeeze some sort of meaning out of life seems to be a part of the human condition. There is a longing to know, “Why am I here?” and “What does this all mean?”  At one point, Jenny asks Forrest, “Do you ever dream, Forrest, about who you’re gonna be?”  Forrest responds, “Who I’m gonna be?”  Jenny, “Yeah.” To which Forrest replies, “Aren’t – – aren’t I going to be me?”  Struggling to be someone other than himself completely escapes Forrest.

On another level, Forrest Gump’s life may seem to be divinely ordained. His destiny has taken him in a different direction than Jenny’s or Lieutenant Dan’s.  Jenny tells Forrest as she is about to leave him again, on a bus heading back to Berkley, California, this time, that they have two different lives meant to come out differently.  Lieutenant Dan tells Forrest essentially the same thing, believing that he missed his by not becoming a martyr for his country on the battlefield in Vietnam.  Does Forrest’s life tell the tale of a destiny fulfilled?  This is what Forrest is trying to figure out while talking to Jenny over her grave.

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

World religions attempt to answer the question of life’s meaning amidst apparent chaos. In fact, it seems that humankind has spent much of its existence from the beginning attempting to find meaning in the chaos of existence.  Religious answers run the gamut.  Some suggest meaning can only be found by escaping chaos through mindless detachment to the physical realm of chaos.  A dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realm results in a metaphysical battle between the two.  The physical in any form is bad.  The non-physical must be pursued to escape the physical.

Other world religions suggest that chaos is a result of humankind insulting gods or interfering with the unseen spiritual realm. The only correction is to make some type of appeasement, usually a sacrifice or penance of some sort.  Chaos results in life because humankind is constantly offending spiritual beings.  The work is to somehow keep them happy.  Other religious strains portray these spiritual beings as capricious and outside human influence or control.  Thus, one can only hope to offer some type of offering that will please the immaterial beings so that they will leave the material beings alone.  But there is no guarantee.

These two existential attitudes reflect the “flight or fight” approaches that humankind takes towards most threatening things. It should not surprise us, then, to find them evident in its worldviews or world religions.  We all seek to escape our troubles or wrestle some kind of meaning out of them.

Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. “Mark Twain”) remarked that existential meaning may also be determined by class. He noted that the Christians had one god for the rich and another god for the poor.  Taken another way, this may also mean that there was, and perhaps still is, one kind of theology for the rich and another kind of theology for the poor.

When one is born into privilege or arises to privilege, it is easy to assume that it must be because of some sort of “manifest destiny.” However, it is hard to come to that same conclusion when one is born underprivileged or descends into want and poverty.  It beggars the prosperity gospel message of American Evangelicalism to think that God would destine some to affluence and some to poverty even though it fits seemingly well with American Calvinism.

For example, Forrest Gump knew his mental condition effected his life. Was it a part of his destiny or just an accident of nature?  Visiting his mom just before her death, he asks, “What’s my destiny, Mama?”  Mrs. Gump responds lovingly, “You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself.”  In other words, it is not something that is handed to you.  One must figure it out as he or she moves through life.

When one is born into a low class, it is easier to accept that life is simply what you make it than it is to accept that it is your destiny. No one faces life’s tormenting trials and failures and says to their self, “I was born for this!”  No.  Rather, one accepts it as one of the capricious circumstances of life.

Even Job, in his unfailing faith in God, when struck with heart rending and life altering tragedies, declared to his embittered wife, “Should we accept only the good things that come to us as from the hand of God and not the bad things that come to us also?”  Or, to put it as Mrs. Gump did, “You have to do the best with what God gave you.”  This view lends itself towards a self-determinism that supports an Arminian approach to one’s destiny.  We may not be able to control what comes our way in life, but we can control our own choices and outcome.  At least, we hope so.

I have often argued that the tired and worn out Calvin versus Arminian debate is attempting to make too simple what is really very complicated. I do not think proper theology fits neatly into all of our categories and systems.  So narrowly defining whether our meaning and purpose in life is divinely determined or self-determined attempts to remove life’s questions and mysteries when, instead, we should probably leave them alone.  As Forrest answered, “I think maybe it’s both.  Maybe both is happening at the same time.”  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 5

If we fail to acknowledge God at work in the ‘big events’ of our life, what is the likelihood that we will ever recognize him at work in the small, ordinary, everyday events of our life? Yes, it is a ‘step of faith’ – perhaps even a leap – for an individual to look at their life this way.  We are more prone to give Lady Luck, good fortune, or coincidence the credit than God.

It is perhaps the height of human hubris to refuse to give our Creator credit for anything good that happens in our life; let alone what good happens on earth in general. However, let something fall apart, a tragedy strike, catastrophe fall upon us or another part of our world and suddenly we want to point our finger heavenward and blame the Divine.  We want an explanation from God for our hurt and sorrow, even if we do it in doubt, “If there was a god, he/she would have prevented this!  That’s what I would have done if all the power of the universe were in my hands.

The Bible teaches us that, out of his sovereign will to run his creation or allow it to run according to the laws of creation he established, God permits his blessings to come to both the just and unjust of the world. It confounds those who think that they belong to a special religious club, which gives them privileges to God’s blessings and protections against bad things happening to them, that Jesus would teach us, “He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, MKJV).  It does not fit our theology, so we avoid it.

However, Job was a man in the Old Testament who knew both the blessings and the trials that come in this life. He was a man who looked like he had everything in life.  He was the model of success.  A day came, however, when everything he had and more was ripped from his life: financial security, family, peace, and good health.  Standing on the brink of his trust in God staring into the abyss of doubt and despair, his wife encouraged him to abandon all hope and leap by offering him the advice, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

At that moment, Job decided to take a step back from that abyss and offers this answer to his wife’s solution,Stop talking like a person who does not know God!  We accept the good things that God allows to come to us.  Shouldn’t we also accept the bad things that he allows to come to us?” (Job 2:10, my own paraphrase).  This seems to be the reverse side of the faith equation Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of Matthew (see above).  Instead of the sun and the rain, Job is thinking in terms of killing frosts and monsoons.  Everything that comes to us comes to us through what God allows.

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

This whole idea messes with our desire to have a god who is a benevolent benefactor handing out goodies to all his good children and handing out punishment to all his bad ones. However, this approach makes the Creator sound more like Santa Claus than a Divine Sovereign of the universe.  It also makes him petty and capricious.  In the end, we are left always trying to figure out how to keep God happy – be on his “nice list” – and on our side, lest we offend him somehow and get put on his “naughty list.”  After all, there are worse things than ‘lumps of coal’ in store for us if we do not stay on his good side, right?

The problem with this is that it makes the God of the universe as small as we are in our thinking and behavior.  Job seemed to understand this in the midst of his troubles. Jesus pointed us to a larger more complicated picture of God.  In his own day, many people who assumed they should have been on God’s ‘nice list’ were not and those who thought they were on God’s ‘naughty list’ were actually favored and shown mercy.  This really messed with the heads of the religious people of Jesus’ day and still messes with them today.  It is so unlike us and how we would do things.  And maybe that is just the point.

The key may not be what we focus on and weigh: whether events are good or bad for us.  It may be how we view them in light of our trust in God to work out all things for his purposes and his glory, not ours. This makes God bigger than us and our personal agendas or happiness.  God has a bigger picture and bigger story to tell.  We can allow our lives to be woven into that story or refuse.  Either way, it is all about the story of God’s glory revealed in all of creation.  Our redemption is a part of that story.  If we refuse, so will be our fall.

So, one of the keys to finding purpose in this life is to see how God is at work in all of our situations and the events that come to us – good or bad.

  • What is the story of faith and trust he wants to write through us?
  • How do the small acts of love, kindness and obedience add up to tell a larger story of God’s activity in our life?
  • When has he visited us or interrupted our lives in small or large ways to reveal his ways to us?
  • Who are the individuals in our lives with whom he wants us to weave our stories together?

And the questions and searching goes on.

A pinnacle for me in the realization of this was an experience that my wife and I had early on in our lives together. We were a young married couple just out of college.  I had just finished almost two-and-a-half years of being a youth pastor at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington.  Sensing a change coming, I quit the position fully expecting the Lord to open up something right away.  At least, that what I sincerely believe was going to happen.

Kelly had just finished teaching at Bremerton Christian School. However, she had become pregnant with our first child and they had a policy of not allowing young mothers to teach.  This left us both unemployed.  However, we were still hopeful and expecting the good Lord to bless us and show us the way.

Soon, however, as the months clicked away, it became apparent that nothing was going to materialize as quickly as we thought. Our savings became depleted.  The last pay check from the youth pastor position and teaching position came and went.  It was August of 1987, our son was due to be born at the beginning of October, and we were out of money.

I started taking the Seattle-Bremerton ferry to look for a job in Seattle. Out of desperation, I signed on with an employment agency in hopes that they could find something for me.  Finally, I was signed on with a job with the Pay-n-Pac Corporation – a large chain of home improvement stores.  I was assigned to the Rainier Valley store in Seattle.  This meant a long commute.  While it offered hope down the road, it only added to our immediate financial burden since I would need money for commuting and couldn’t expect a paycheck for two weeks.

We had no idea what to do. We limped financially through the beginning of August.  But unpaid bills were piling up.  September’s rent was soon to be due.  We were desperate.  We prayed and asked God to help.  But our situation only seemed to grow worse and more desperate.  We were reticent about reaching out to family and friends for help.  For Kelly, the days at home alone and pregnant with our first child were depressing and unbearable.  For me, the long commutes to Seattle were depressing.  Instead of listening to the radio like usual, I spent most of the hour-plus commute complaining to God about our predicament.

Where are you God?  Why aren’t you answering us?  Why don’t you provide?  What about the promises you made to us in the Bible?  Do you care about us?  How are we supposed to make it?  Are you really there?  Are you even listening to us?  What have we done to make you angry?  I left me job because I thought you had a plan, did I not hear you right?  Was my ‘step of faith’ a ‘step of stupid’?  Why are you putting us through all of this?  Do you want us to homeless and broke?  After serving in ministry for these last few years, are you just going to leave us hanging in the wind?”  You get the picture.  It was pretty much an hour each way each day of writing my own imprecatory psalms to the Lord.  Only mine didn’t sing as sell as King David’s.

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, while I was in the middle of my morning commute to Seattle’s Rainier Valley, a knock came to our door. It was early enough that Kelly was still in her pajamas.  Not knowing who it was that would be at our door in the morning, she looked through the peep-hole.  It turned out to be an elderly couple from the church we had just resigned from a couple months prior.  Bruce and Lois Wilkinson had become dear friends and a joy to be around.  He was retired from the Bremerton Shipyard.

Kelly wrapped herself in her bathrobe and opened the door to them.  “Good morning!” she greeted them.

Good morning,” Bruce answered.  “We have some things for you.”

And with that they began to bring in to our apartment bags and boxes of groceries.  Kelly was overwhelmed with the amount of food being brought in.  She continued to thank them profusely as the brought the items in from their car.

Finally, with the last bag of groceries brought in, Bruce and Lois turned to Kelly and said, “Our granddaughter and her husband got a hold of us the other day.  Apparently, they have been praying for you and felt led by the Lord to do something for you to help you guys out.”  He then handed Kelly an envelope.  “And we decided to add something to it ourselves,” Lois added.

We had come to know their granddaughter and her husband only briefly as he had been transferred to Guam by the Navy shortly after we had arrived at the church. Someone in Guam had been praying for us, felt led to “do something” for us, and acted upon it.  Pretty extraordinary when you take into consideration that we had shared with no one our situation.

Kelly looked surprised at first. Then, looking into Bruce and Lois’ smiling faces, began to cry.  She explained to them that they were truly an answer to prayer.  Little did either of us expect that an answer to our prayers would come via friends in Guam!  Bruce and Lois prayed for Kelly and I and our unborn son before they left.

After they left, Kelly put away the groceries. She was amazed at their generosity.  Then she sat down and opened the envelope.  It contained a check and cash.  Stunned, she added up the amount between the two.  Of course, the amount came to what we needed to pay August’s rent as well as September’s and catch up with all of our bills.

About that time, I arrived at work to one of my co-workers calling my name.

Hey, Ron!  You have a phone call.  Sounds like your wife,” they called out to me.

She never called me at work, so I worried, “What could it be?

Hi,” I tentatively greeted her.

Good morning,” she said cheerfully.  “I know you’re at work.  But, I just had to call and tell you.  You’ll never guess just what happened…

She was right.  I couldn’t.

Would I ever want to go through that experience again? No.  Have I gone through tough life situations since then?  Oh, yeah.  But what happened in August 1987 has helped me to learn and remember that even in the midst of our trials and troubles; God is weaving a story line bigger than just our parts.  In the midst of our troubles, someone else’s faith was being stretched into an act of obedience.  To minister to our discomfort and worry, someone else was being prodded to reach out in kindness, care and love.  So, on the good side and on the bad side of life’s experiences, God seems to be at work.

This perhaps is a key to discovering God at work in the big and small events of our life, whether they are good or bad. Solomon seemed to understand this spiritual axiom when he penned the proverb, “In whatever direction life’s road takes you look and listen for Him, and He will make your direction clear as you go” (Proverbs 3:6, my own paraphrase).  Life’s road can have some great stretches that bring us much joy.  But it can also have some rough patches and steep climbs that cause us grief.  Wherever you are, he is there.  Just look for him.

©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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Let Us Make God In Our Image

The Bible uniquely positions God before and above all his created order.  This goes against the rest of the world’s religions who make God a part of the created order.  After God speaks his creation into existence, he declares that he will make one more unique being to set among his created order – humankind.  Genesis tells us that God said, “Let us make humankind (‘adam – “beings of/from the earth”) in our image.”

Humanity is then set into the middle of God’s creation to tend to it, watch over it and protect it.  We are not given a time-frame, but sometime after creation this idyllic life God established is marred and destroyed by the work of God’s enemy – the devil or Satan.  The first man and first woman are deceived by this wily, rebellious creature and choose to believe the words of God’s enemy over the word of God.  And, thus, begins humankind’s descent into bondage to sinful rebellion, the resulting separation from life with God and the continual struggle to return to and reclaim what was once theirs by privilege of God’s personal, God-breathed creation.

It this particularly human struggle to return to God that sets us apart from the rest of creation.  No other creatures on earth seem concerned about their Creator.  There is no creature that intentionally searches out, speaks to and communes with their Creator – at least to the level that our 21st century sciences have been able to detect.  To be sure, every creature and all creation speaks for God and reflects his image and glory; even “fallen” humanity.  Yet, it is only humankind out of all of creation that seems to agonize over knowing and understanding their Creator and returning to some fashion of intimate knowing.  It is a primal instinct and desire to return to the Garden of Eden.  It forever marks us as spiritual beings, not just material beings made up of evolving unintelligent matter.

This search and longing often brings humankind to two attempts:  a determinate attempt to return to communion with the Creator by ascending to where we believe God rests and resides or a creative attempt to recapture the communion that was lost with the Creator by imagining what God must really be like and want from his creation.

The Bible is a long history of the futile attempts of both approaches to God.  Humankind can neither ascend to where God is to meet him on his terms.  Nor can humankind correctly and accurately portray God in any image.  Both fail.  The reason is simple.  God is transcendent.  He is other than us and his creation.  While his creation reflects him, it does so like a landscape on a foggy morning.

Interestingly, millennia of human existence seems to have taught us nothing.  We continue to attempt to reach God and meet him on equal terms through our own efforts in knowledge, work ethic, spirituality and human “advancements.”  Such arrogance itself speak against any such work.  After all, if God can be approached by any human effort, then he ceases to be God – or a God big enough to be worshipped, let alone the effort to be known!

What makes God God is that he is completely transcendent.  The Bible continually portrays God in this light: “My ways are not your ways.  My ways are higher than your ways.”  In biblical history, God frequently refuses to explain himself.  When questioned by the righteous-ab0ve-all-men Job for a reason for his suffering, God puts Job in his place by reminding him that he never once sought counsel for Job and was not about to begin to do so now.  Job was smart enough to shut up.  God is transcendent and reveals himself when and how he pleases.  His is not like us.

Any futile search for God on our own terms should alert us to our own folly and foolishness.  However, that does not seem to be the case; even in the 21st century.  With so many millennium of trial and errors behind us, one would think that we would have evolved to a higher understanding of God’s existence.  But, alas, no.  Still, today, if we are not attempting to reach God on our own, then we are attempting to fashion him in our own image.

The renewal and revival of pagan religions in Western society is evidence of this continued human folly.  The neo-pagans and wiccans have cleaned up the old world religions and reduced them to user-friendly creation worship and moral codes.  Without animal or human sacrifices, though some admittedly still do practice these, they preach the morality of paganism and wiccans.  Not a few even like to link their neo-pagan morality to the teachings of Jesus to give them some credence, as if to say, “Look!  We believe and attempt to practice the same things Jesus taught and practiced.”

If spirituality is only about morality, then anything and everything is permissible in our society’s moral relativism.  After all, who is to be the final authority about what is right and what is wrong?  Without a transcendent being outside of humanity to clarify this, we are left to our own individual choices and moral devices.  One culture’s values and practices – headhunting and cannibalism – is no more morally wrong than the next – child-brides and widow burning.  So, it turns out that perhaps the ol’ serpent in the garden was correct!  We can be like God and make up truth and the rules for righteousness.  After all, God, as we imagine him, is just like us.

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Bible addresses humankind’s propensity to imagine God in our own image.  Isaiah humorously points out the useless of making images of God:  Take one log.  Cut it in half.  Use one half to split into fire wood.  Cook dinner.  While dinner is cooking, take other half of log.  Shape log and decorate it.  When meal is ready to serve, bow down to decorated log and declare, “You are my god!  You are my god!  Thank you for this delicious meal.  Amen.”  (Rev. Ron’s Paraphrase)  Sounds ridiculous?  We have not come too far since Isaiah’s day.

The Creator realized the result humanity’s rebellion would have upon its spirituality.  So, he warned, “Do not make an image of me to worship.”  This was so important, that he included it in his “Top Ten Things to Remember” as he launched the Israelites toward the land he promised them.  Moses called them, “The Ten Commandments.”  And we continue to violate this to our own detriment, forgetting that God is not like us.  He is completely transcendent – apart from this world.  He is beyond what we can imagine or think.

The temptation to make God in our image is not left to just pagans, neo-pagans, wiccans or those who use religious icons.  Christians have fallen into the same temptation; the ones who should know better, supposedly.  Throughout Church history, the followers of God through the Messiah Jesus have slipped into the same sin.

Icons that were meant to draw the worshipper’s attention to heavenly things and “the great cloud of witnesses” in the portraits of the saints, soon worshipped the created things instead of the Creator.  In reaction against such abuses, some attempted to rid the Church altogether of icons (iconoclasts); while others attempted to restore them to their proper place.  All such Church reforms and renewals have attempted to draw worshippers back to God, but it continues to be a problem.

The Bible, meant to be God’s written revelation to his people through various people in various times and various places, became worshipped in “bibliology”.  Reverence for the book took on greater importance than the Author.  Magic qualities were ascribed to not only its words but its paper and bindings as well.  Reverence for God’s Word became twisted into revering and worshipping a book; the content of the book not as important as its condition.

Music, meant to draw the hearts of God’s worshippers toward him, became more about style than content.  The chant, organ, piano, guitar, drum and musical style all vie for affections above that for the Creator.  We think that because we like it, the Creator must like it; that because it moves our hearts, it must move his also.  Of course, this is a fallacy.  He is transcendent above it all.

It is not the sounds he wants but the music of the souls in worshipful adoration.  Whatever harmony, whatever tonal equation, whatever vibrating sound, it is all music to his ears when the content of the heart is in tune.  Otherwise, it is only annoying noise amongst the more beautiful sounds of all his other creation.  He would rather listen to the whale song or songbird music, or other such creative sounds, as listen to the drones of humankind worshipping their music rather than the One who gave them music.

Biblical and historical examples are replete with examples of humankind worshipping the furniture and the house dedicated to the Lord rather than the One who  transcends it all.  In similar fashion, we shape our image of God by our doctrines and theologies, leaving no room for further exploration or understanding of God and his character and nature.  We deem anyone outside our theological group-think as deviant or heretical.  So, we use our systematic theologies to scientifically break down humankind’s understanding of God into phylum, genus and species like some biological specimen.  Still, we are no closer to intimately knowing or understanding God because he transcends such confines, boxes and buildings.

Jesus came as the image of God.  What God wanted to convey through his written word, he revealed fully in his son, Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus brought into closer proximity to humankind the very real nature and character of God.  Suddenly, the transcendent being became eminent in “Immanuel” – “God with us.”  The Transcendent One lived among us for awhile – in a house, in a family, among friends and all in real time and space.

Unfortunately, he did not meet humankind’s idea of what God would look and act like if he came to earth to reveal himself.  So, in our continued ignorance and rebellion we killed him.  However, defying death, he resurrected and continues to call humankind to himself through his followers.  Yes, some did believe.  Some still believe.  Meanwhile, others are still searching for the Creator.  Some are attempting to ascend to where the Most High resides.  Others have decided a more do-it-yourself approach.  “Hey,” they invite us.  “Let’s make God in our image.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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When Nothing Goes Right

Have you ever experienced a period of time where nothing goes right for you?  We all probably have at some point, or will.  I seem to have had a rash of bad circumstances lately.  Some of them are life altering.

My car breaks down and it is not a minor fix.  Then my computer crashes and it is not a minor fix either.  It takes a couple of overhauls to finally get my computer running right.

My car?  Let’s not talk about that.  One of my friends at church joking with me told me that he and his buddies knew what to get me to help me out.  A mountain bike and a note pad!  We both laughed.  We also both know that his day will come when nothing goes right for him too.

Health problems.  Relationship problems at home or work.  Child raising problems.  Broken cars and broken computers.  Did I mention an appliance to fix or repair?

At times like these one would like to limit trouble and hassles to one-a-day.  Unfortunately they usually come to us in bunches.  Sometimes BIG bunches.

When this happens, do you ask, “Why?” I do!  I want to fix it and stop it or get out of the pain as soon as possible.  I want an explanation for why this is happening to me.  I want to find the “cause” that brought the “effect” of all these bad things.  Is it just bad luck?  Bad karma?  Is God mad at me?  Is it just life and life sucks?

The optimist tells me that for every dark cloud there is a rainbow on the other side.  Or, when life hand me lemons that I am supposed to make lemonade.  Wonderful.  But I do not find too much comfort in that sentiment in the midst of my pain and frustration.  On the other hand, the pessimist tells me that life sucks and then we die.  Great.  Will someone put me out of my misery, please!?  Neither philosophical approach to life adequately answers the question “why?” in the midst of suffering.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to that simple question.  Sometimes it’s just life.  Life can be harsh.  We live in a world taken over by sin and wickedness.  Both good and bad happen to people all the time whether they themselves are good or bad.  So, it is not a reflection upon me.  It is a reflection upon the environment I live in.  People I don’t know, circumstances I can’t foresee or control can change my life forever.

At other times, I have to honestly look myself in the mirror and say, “It’s your own fault.”  Whether lack of experience, lack of wisdom, lack of knowledge, or just plain stupidity, I sometimes cause my own greatest pain.  I will freely admit it.  There are times when I am my own worst enemy.  However, I can learn from these experiences and go on while I reap the consequences of my own actions.

Or, you may have “Job’s Comforters” to help you dig yourself a hole of guilt and shame.  You’ve sinned and so God is judging you.  That’s why all these bad things are happening to you.  God is mad at you for your imperfections.

You ever hear that?  I’ve heard it.  Sometimes from my closest friends.  Then they stay away from me as if I had the plague and “God’s judgment” was contagious.

I see many people today loaded down with shame and guilt.  Our society seems to thrive on it.  Some people’s relationship with God is based upon a constant sense of shame and guilt.  They are never good enough.  God is always waiting to strike them with lightning if they don’t get it right.

This is a very faulty view of God, yet one that is so predominant in our world.  Thus, we are forced to paganistically try to appease the wrath of God.  Every bad thing that occurs in our life then just reinforces to us that we have not got it right yet.  And so we toil under the weight of shame, guilt, and condemnation trying to make “it” right with God.

Yes, sometimes we do suffer the consequences of our own sinful actions.  But that is not God hammering us.  It is reaping what we sowed.  Just like the laws of physics, there are laws of the human spirit, laws of human relationships, and laws of behavior.  We all violate them at our own risk.  And it doesn’t matter whether you know about the law or not.  It’s just the way life works.  Either you know and understand them, or life will be very difficult.

White Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

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

Many of our insurance policies make allowance for “An Act of God.”  When bad thing fall upon you, are you apt to look to heaven and ask, “What did I do to deserve that?”  You’re in company.  Most people do.  However, when things do not go right in life, it is not always “An Act of God.”  The Bible tells us a different story about God’s actions toward us, even in our rebellious and sinful state.

The Good News that is in Christ Jesus is that He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world.  The world is already under judgment and condemned.  He didn’t come to add to it.  He came to remove people out from underneath the guilt, shame, and condemnation.

In other words, God is on your side.  He wants to free you and me from the prison of shame and guilt.  He wants to remove the sense of condemnation that comes every time something bad happens in your life.  He wants to raise you above such circumstances with the assurance of his presence and power that will help you get through and overcome such demoralizing events.  They no long have to have power over you.  They no longer have to shape your life, how you feel about yourself or how you see God – even when it is your own doing.  Like a loving parent, he does not cast you out of his household.  Instead, he comes with reassurance to say, “Come here.  Let’s get you cleaned up so you can keep going.”

So, when trouble strikes, it is not God “out to get you.”  In our own doing, or just because we live in an imperfect world, things happen to us.  When they do happen, even at our own doing, we no longer need to look for guilt and shame from God but for help and power to overcome.  After all, he’s on our side now.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healing Haiti

Another catastrophic disaster hits a part of our world.  It is something that we never get used to witnessing via newspapers, news magazines, television news cycles, or internet pictures and videos.  The suffering is overwhelming.  The feeling of uselessness from our living room chairs suffocating.  Some of us pray.  Some of us give to our charities of choice hoping that our dollar will go where it is needed most.  All of us wonder, why?

There is a human propensity to try and make sense of our world; especially when struck with natural disasters.  In some ways, we deal better with blatant human evil that reeks suffering and destruction.  The “why” is answered for us.  We see the results of twisted evil human nature every day.  We recognize evil in one another.  When it spills over into our lives, we at least have some semblance of a reason for our suffering; there are mean, evil, wicked people in the world that cause pain and suffering.  However, what reason do we have when it is impersonal “Mother Nature”?

Natural disasters catch us in a web of meaninglessness like Victor Hugo’s fly in the spider web of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There is no one to blame.  It is just how nature works.  It is “the circle of life” at work in our world.  Death and birth continue on in an unfeeling, meaningless cycle.  There is no rhyme or reason.  Whether tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, disease or cancer, nature takes its course in all our lives.  Even if we live our lives without succumbing to disease or accident, we will end our days in a “natural” death.  We are the products of natural courses at work in the world.  We are also subject to the work of natural courses in our world.

In our modern, scientific age we like to arrogantly think that we can control or predict nature.  And, while our ability at prediction has gotten better, we are constantly and painfully reminded that nature is full of surprises for us.  We are far from reaching the limits of human knowledge.  We are constantly discovering what we do not know.  After all, that is part of the mystery of human science and discovery:  We do not know what we do not know!

Nevertheless, there are still those who like to attempt to negate the mystery of creation by offering a “cause and effect” answer for every event.  The recent example of Pat Robertson’s explanation for the disaster in Haiti is a great (or perhaps, better, tragic) example of this pernicious human trait.  He claims the mythical legend of Haitians making a pact with the devil to be free from French rule is the cause of Haiti’s troubled history as well as present disaster.  Not surprisingly, his comments have created an uproar.  Unfortunately, he has had a history of “foot in the mouth” disease.  His reason for the tragedy of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and New Orleans destruction from Hurricane Katrina’s?  American abortions.

All such attempts at explain or come up with a “cause” for disasters in the world will always be controversial.  It may very well be an effort in futility as well.  When biblical Job suffered the loss of everything through one disaster after another, his well-meaning friends attempted to come up with a reason or cause.  It was the very same one that Pat Robertson uses.  It is the result of sin.  While personal sin has its consequences, it is not always the case.  In fact, God brags about Job’s righteousness.  In the end, Job’s friends get a rebuke from the Creator for their lame attempt to explain what God was trying to do in the world and in Job’s life.

While Job’s friends wanted to find some personal sin for the cause of Job’s sufferings, Job wanted to blame God.  He assumed that he deserved God’s total and complete protection from every trouble.  He attempts an in-your-face chest bump with God.  God puts Job in his place simply by pointing out that the Creator does not need the advice of his creation on how the universe should run.  The courses of nature were established by God without Job and his “wisdom”.  In the face of God’s creation and grandeur, Job does the wise thing.  He shuts up.  Oh, that our modern day commentators and wisemen of God’s ways would do the same thing!

In Jesus’ day, there were two tragedies that captured the attention and heart of the country.  First, apparently, an evil ruler brutalized and massacred some people in Galilee (Luke 13:1 – 5).  Second, a tower in Siloam fell down and killed some people in a tragic accident.  One was a tragedy by human evil.  The other was a tragedy of meaningless accident.  Jesus exposed the futile human attempt to explain these events by blaming human sinful conditions by asking, “Do you think they [the ones who suffered and died in these events] were sinners more than anyone else?”  Jesus’ answer is in the emphatic.  “Absolutely not!”

Jesus offers us no explanation for these disasters.  He seems to be content to let the mystery of the “why” to rest upon his listeners and us.  Instead, he does offer a universal explanation for humans everywhere and in every age.  “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Huh?  At first his answer – or explanation – comes across very cryptic.

Jesus does offer us a parable.  He tells of an owner of a fig tree who finds it not bearing fruit.  He wishes to cut it down but at the intervention of his arborist decides to give it another chance.  This story, like a laser beam, is aimed at Israel.  However, it speaks to us all too.  God delights in showing mercy.  He is not put off by “giving more time” to those who are due judgment.  Jesus’ point to his listeners is that we are all due judgment!  Therefore, we all had better discern our spiritual condition and turn to God.  Jesus uses the tragic stories of his day to point out that the sudden demise of these people should remind us all of our frail condition and existence.  It should remind us all to look to our own spiritual conditions instead of looking to point fingers and blame such events on someone’s sin.

Red and White Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Fire and Ice Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Haiti’s suffering should be a reminder for us all.  We all have our own “pact with the devil”.  If Haiti’s suffering is the result of such a pact then we are all under the same judgment and deserve the same, no less.  Likewise, we are all at the mercy of the natural forces at work in God’s creation – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, disease and cancer.  These strike the righteous and the unrighteous.  There were many believers in Jesus who died in the earthquake and many who continue to suffer today.  Are we more righteous than they because we were not there and did not experience it?  I think not.

Instead of wondering why, it is perhaps more constructive to take a personal spiritual inventory and ask ourselves, “If something like that were to befall upon me today, am I spiritually ready to go into eternity and meet God?”  This would help us far more than sitting in the seat of self-righteousness and pronouncing judgment upon the sin in the lives of others.  It only makes us as useless as Job’s comforters and deserving of similar rebukes from God and the suffering Jobs.

Instead of looking for a cause for such suffering, it is perhaps more constructive to approach these situations with the same attitude that Jesus did on similar occasions.  When faced with overwhelming human suffering around him, Jesus did not attempt to explain the reason for human suffering.  He, instead, looked for ways in which God could be glorified in such circumstances.  This was the case of a man blind from birth (John 9:1 – 5).  The disciples, so like us today, wanted to know the cause or reason for this person’s suffering.  “Rabbi.  Who sinned?  This man or his parents so that he was born blind?”  Jesus’ astonishing answer is that it was not because of sin.  Instead, “This happened so that the work of God could be displayed in his life…we must do the work of him who sent me.”  Could it be the same with Haiti?

Perhaps the best response to Haiti is not looking for reasons or causes.  Perhaps the best response is, instead, to ask, “How can we do the work of God in this situation?”  On this side of eternity, we might not know all the answers and reasons.  However, we do know that God has a work he wants to do.  Perhaps the best response to such tragedies is to seek to do God’s work of healing and restoration.  In the end, God is not going to quiz us with, “Did you come up with a plausible explanation of why this happened to them?”  Instead, he’s going to want to know, “How did you do my work in the midst of such sufferingDid you bring healing to Haiti?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Just saying the words, “New Year,” breathes hope into the heart and soul that the next 365 days will be different than the last.  We hope that there will be new opportunities of course.  But it is much more than that really.

What we want is not just more “new” of the same kinds of things.  Deep down, I believe, what most of us want is “new” different kinds of things.  We want new beginnings – fresh “start overs”.  We want different results from for our efforts and hard work in the professional and personal realms.  Some may want a new job (personally, that is on my short list since I have been gainfully unemployed now for over a year except for a few weeks in construction and a short writing assignment).  Some may want a new lifestyle or way of living.

hooked on phonics

When we say “Happy New Year”, then, we may not really know what we are wishing upon the persons we greet.  New more of the same kind?  Or, totally new of a different kind than they one they knew and experienced?  I have a sneaky suspicion that most people really want a new of a different kind.  I may be wrong and would readily admit it.  Perhaps this is born out of my own experience and constant dissatisfaction with the status quo.  I’ve never been happy with the stagnant, same ‘ol – same ‘ol.  I like to see progress and movement forward in my life.

However, I do not think that I am unique in this manner.  I think many people want their lives to be different.  I offer up as my evidence the perennial “New Year’s Resolutions”.  Most lists that I have examined, besides my own, consist of how things are going to be different in the New Year.  It may include lifestyle changes – lose weight, stop smoking, attend all my AA meetings, go to the gym more often, keep the kitchen clean, start and maintain a savings account among other things.  It may include spiritual changes – pray regularly, read the Bible everyday, start tithing, give monthly to missions, lead a small group, journal every week among a host of other things.

We want our future to be different. That means that we must become different, right?  Yeah, most of the time.  However, I do not think that any New Year’s Resolution will create a new me or new you.  What we really need is not more different but more of the same but right things in our lives.  All the ingredients for a Happy New Year are already in the cupboards of our life.  We just need to focus upon those ingredients and have more of them added into the daily mix.  In other words, we might not need a different recipe but just use what we have differently.

Want a New Year? Then add more of what is already available to you.  You already have God in your life?  Then add more of him in it by increasing his presence through prayer, praise, worship, and fellowship with like-minded believers.  You already have church fellowship and friends in your life?  Then add more fellowship and friends in your life be intentionally involving yourself in a serving or leadership role.  Already have family in your life?  Then add more through personal presence with them and heart-to-heart communication.  Already have a good job?  Then add to the joy of your work by doing it well and learning to be indispensable to others.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

As 2009 closes and 2010 opens to us, the one thing you can determine for this next year is how much “happy” and “new” you will have in it.  Sure, there will be trials and disappointment.  There may even be a major set back or two.  But remember, all the things you need for this New Year to be brand new and joyous may already be in your possession.  So, with that, I wish you a “Happy New Year”!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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