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Posts Tagged ‘Life’s Problems’

God Surprises 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She handed out a check to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She handed out an envelope to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My wife:  “Yeah.”

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

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

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

My wife:  “Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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