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Posts Tagged ‘Life’s Troubles’

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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Small Beach Crab, June 2003

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

This is a long journey
Much longer than I planned
It is hard for me
Much harder to stand

And continue the trek
To higher peaks
But the trail beckons
And the unknown speaks

Let me rest here for a moment
Settle me down for a breath
Take in refreshment
Consult the map in depth

Let me lay back a few minutes
Rest my head upon my pack
Close my eyes to signs
That there is no way back

Lay me down upon the earth
The place I came from
The final measure of my worth
And domain where I am undone

I am tired so tired
Of ascending mountains
With winding paths choired
By saints at matins

But why complain to God?
Did he not craft the way?
Did he not define the path to trod?
Did not our sin bargain for the day?

Arising wearily to my feet
I set my face to what is required
And set out toward what I must meet
Up the trail, around the bend, past the next peak
But I am tired so tired

©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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