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Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Founding Faith

I really enjoy reading good history books. Since my interests are pretty eclectic, so is my library.  The startling thing about reading history is how much is not new to human experience.  It almost makes one believe that life is an endless cycle that experience death and rebirth or reincarnation.  Still, learning from people who have gone before us and the histories they leave behind can be very instructive.

Recently, I finished Steven Waldman’s national bestseller, “Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical a New Approach to Religious Liberty” (Random House, 2008).  I have read conservative writers and historians take on this period of American history as well as extremely liberal writers and historians treatment of the same period.  Both sides seem to want to use this common history to push a political or religious agenda.  Waldman’s treatment of this formative period of American history and its major players was far more balanced (he takes shots at both sides’ attempts to use this history to prove their points).

I appreciate an historical perspective that allows the characters and events to be complicated. Steven Waldman does just that with how he portrays the beliefs of the different Founding Fathers.  They were complicated individuals who changed their religious and political opinions throughout their life times.  Some mellowed with old age, while others hardened with it.  Some began with a very narrow view of religion and then ended their life with a much more liberal view of it, while others had just the opposite experience.

The formation of the founding documents that all these key players had a stake in reflects a part of all of their journeys toward maturity. However, being a part of a political process, they also reflect the various and many compromises that all of them had to make concerning religious and political views.  They did this to bring unity.  Thus, necessity, once again, proves to be “the mother of invention.”  Individuals who found themselves at odds and even hostile to others’ opinions came to believe that compromise was needed to accomplish a larger mission.  After the revolution’s dust settled, then the gloves came off and parties returned to their factious ways, which made for some truly colorful politics.

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

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

Whatever one has studied about the faith of the Founding Fathers of the United States, one thing is pretty certain from Steven Waldman’s book: they defy easy definition or categorization according to our present political or religious definitions.  In other words, the words “conservative” or “liberal,” whether religious or political did not mean the same thing at the end of the 18th century as it does in the 21st.  At the same time, our present understandings or assumptions concerning the Masons, Unitarians, Puritans or Congregationalists are not completely adequate.

Just like the hot button issues that drives our political agendas today; the Founding Fathers had their own hot button issues surrounding politics and religion. Thus, they reacted against the perceived abuses of both spheres of influence in human affairs.  The common perceived threat was a political or religious authority that interfered with the liberty of a person to act according to his or her conscience. Thus, politics and religion was the battle ground then as much as it is today; perhaps it will always be a part of American politics.

The diversity of religious expressions throughout the colonies demanded liberal documents that would not too narrowly define religion or faith. The various economic experiments that the colonies had gone through since their foundings also demanded broadly worded documents that allowed states to continue their systems of governance.  Of course, the power struggle between states and the federal government continue up to this day and have had some interesting developments over the past almost 250 years.

In short, the seeds of the religious and political dramas being played out today were planted in the soil of this country by our Founding Fathers. Just as compromise marked their work, so it will and must mark our work today.  There is a larger ideal in the formation of the United States of America than what particular religion or faith must be expressed.  The critical issue for the Founders and for us today is the question as to whether any religion or no religion at all contributes to the moral character of our self-government.

As such, the Founding Fathers guaranteed that the game of politics in the United States would also be a rough and tumble sport. This can be witnessed in the lives of our very first leaders.  Politics is not for the faint of heart.  We need people who are willing to contend for issues that are central to the way we live and the way we govern ourselves.  At the same time, let us remember the larger principles for why we exist as a nation.  These can be seen in our founding documents.  Of course, this will require a faith in our Founding Fathers, whatever side of the political or religious aisle they stood.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, I was in a gathering of community pastors praying for our nation, national leaders, military personnel and community. The emotions among all of us were raw and ranged from bewilderment to anger over the act of terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on that terrible September day.  The overall consensus was that the United States needed to pursue the masterminds behind this attack on our soil.  In short, everyone favored attacking/invading Afghanistan.  I found myself in the minority.

It was not that I stood against military action to seek out the perpetrators of this heinous act. Rather, I strongly believed then that only military action, and military action gone awry in particular, would do the U.S. more harm than good.  I had read history books that detailed the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms and nations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.  So far, the success rate was abysmal.

One can go back to the ancient Babylonian, Mede and Persian empires to see how quickly control of governing power in that part of the world can change hands. Alexander the Great lost a great portion of his army and ultimately died in that part of the world.  The Romans and their military machine never really fully conquered or controlled it.  Violent tribalism raged for centuries.

In more modern times, the Ottoman Empire succeeded only when it ruled these areas with an iron fist. Then, the British Empire was more than willing to give up control over these areas after World War I and the close of the colonial period.  It had paid a heavy price economically and militarily to just maintain a presence in that part of the world.  Its attempt to bring “civilization” and Western style government to these areas almost bankrupt it.  The nation building that followed World War I and World War II did little to bring about actual, viable governments.  The results of these efforts are what we are still dealing with today.

I may be wrong. Time will only tell; more so because the military work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (with unstable Iran in the middle) is not yet done.  The most wanted of the 9/11 conspirators are still at large.  It looks to be possible that America’s longest war will linger on another few years at least.  So far, the success of building a strong government in these areas is spotty at best.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

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

At the same time, I am delighted to discover that others are taking a different approach to addressing the struggles and needs of this part of the world. One such person is Greg Mortenson.  After reading his book, “Three Cups of Tea,” I started right into his most recent book (2009), “Stones Into Schools.”  It continues the tale of a mountaineer’s failed ascent of K-2, becoming lost in the wilderness and recovering in a very small, remote Pakistani village.  Greg is that mountaineer and “Three Cups of Tea” details his adventures that end in the building of a school for that village, along with the promise to build many more in the remotest areas of this part of the world.

This is the story continued in “Stones Into Schools.” However, the setting switches from Pakistan to Afghanistan.  Through contacts made with the people from the most remote parts of Northeast Afghanistan, called the Wakhan Corridor, Greg Mortenson and his team of unlikely heroes do the impossible.  They build schools for liberal arts education – math, science, reading and writing – in the most remote and poor of parts Afghanistan; the places where its own government will not go.  These schools, while open to boys and girls, specifically target the education of girls.  This is something that challenges the radicals of Islamic extremism – Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

By including village elders, tribal leaders and local workers, Greg Mortenson has guaranteed that these schools are locally owned and controlled. The finances provided for materials and some of the labor come with the caveat that the education will focus on reading, writing and math and that at least half the students will be girls.  Not only is the idea of a school enthusiastically embraced by the villagers, but so is the promise of educating their girls!  They are so committed to both of these that they are willing to defy the Taliban who threaten the teachers, students and their school buildings.  Not only are they doing this, but they are succeeding at it.

The success of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan has captured the attention of many world leaders. The book “Three Cups of Tea” became required reading for all military leaders involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The approaches that Greg has taken to build relationships with village elders and allowing them to be decision-makers is now the approach the military personnel is taking toward building solid local governments in the communities in which they are placed.

The military leaders who have read “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” is a list of “Who’s Who”: General David Petraeus, Admiral Eric Olson, General Stanley McChrystal, Major General Mastin Robeson, General James Conway, Colonel Stephen Davis, Major Jason Nicholson, Major General John Macdonald, Major General Curtis Scaparrotti to name just a few.  Likewise, these books are well-known among some of our governmental leaders: Rep. Mary Bono, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Rep. Jean Schmidt, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Senator Max Baucus, Senator Olympia Snow, Senator Mark Udall, Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Ben Cardin, Senator John Kerry, among many others.

Whatever the future may hold, I believe that anyone who has strong opinions or cares about what happens in this part of the world owes it to themselves to read these two books. They are delightful reading.  Besides a captivating and moving story, they give you an insight into a culture that is terribly misunderstood.  More importantly, I believe these stories can show us another way of bringing peace and stability to this war-torn part of the world.  Instead of creating more enemies through military action and violence against innocence, this is a model for a way to build healthy relationships with people who are far removed from where and how we live in the U.S.  It will take “Three Cups of Tea” to turn “Stones Into Schools.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot.  He wanted more of everything.  Here is how Tolstoy tells the story:

One day a farmer received a novel offer.  For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day.  The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown.  Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace.  By midday, he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground.

Well into the afternoon, he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point.  He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run; knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost.  As the sun began to sink below the horizon, he came within sight of the finish line.

Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared.  He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth.  In a few minutes, he was dead.  Afterwards, his servants dug a grave.  It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide.”

The title of Tolstoy’s story was: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (Adapted from Bits & Pieces, November, 1991.)  In the end, Tolstoy suggests, all a man really owns is a 6-foot by 3-foot piece of earth, so we are better off putting our confidence elsewhere.

Jesus, like Tolstoy, warns us (Matthew 6:19 – 24, 33) that we had better not put our trust in the promise of materialism.  If we do, we will be sadly disappointed.  Instead, there is something of eternal value that we can give our lives to pursue.  Anything we forfeit here on earth to gain what is in heaven will be returned to us there 100 times over (Matthew 19:29) along with eternal life!

Unfortunately, the western church in particular has drifted away from this teaching of Jesus.  Like first century Judaism, we associate material blessings with God’s favor.  Yet, very few people as well as nations have ever passed the prosperity test (Deuteronomy 8:8 – 10; 31:20; Jeremiah 5:7; Hosea 13:6).  The antidote to the poison of material envy and greed is “seek first His Kingdom and righteousness and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

However, this is not a prescription for poverty either.  We are not more spiritual if we are poor – or act poor because we do not want people to think we have anything, which is hypocrisy.  Instead, in abundance or in want, the Lord wants us to trust him for all our needs.  He wants to use us to pour out his riches and grace upon “all nations” so that through us all people will know that He is God.  Like Abraham, he was to bless us so that we can be a blessing!

Nowhere is this more evident than in the churches of nations of the two-thirds world that are marked by material poverty but spiritual abundance in revival, signs and wonders, and miracles.  These saints do more with less for the Kingdom of God, while the American church does less with more.  While we are rich in available materials and resources, we are growing more and more Biblically illiterate and spiritually impoverished.  Thinking that we are rich and blessed, we are truly “blind, naked, and poor.”

Waitsburg Tombstone

Waitsburg Tombstone ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

While in Albania, I saw a church that was struggling with the simple resources that we take for granted everyday and every Sunday.  Can you imagine attempting to teach Sunday school or disciple without materials in your own language?  Can you imagine a church without any resources to pay for a staff of pastors and office help to keep ministry going?  Can you imagine doing Children’s ministry without any props or tools?

This is what I witnessed in Albania.  Yet, I saw a vibrant church in prayer, reaching lost souls, fellowship, and growing future leaders.  I witnessed creative people and pastors inspired by God who gathered dozens of children to teach them about Christ.  I saw the church gather for prayer and then “hit the streets” to find people to pray for and possibly be a witness to them about the love of Jesus.

My family has paid a price for my trips abroad to Albania and India.  Seeing such poverty among the world’s poorest of the poor ruins a person.  It gives one a jaundiced eye toward our western materialism and consumerism.  As such, for the past several Christmases we have not exchanged gifts.  We have not given gifts.  Plus, we have asked our friends and relatives to help us express Christmas in a new way.

Every year we pick a world poverty problem to target and give towards efforts that attempt to meet it.  We have supported homes for girls rescued from forced prostitution; bought and put together medical kits for AIDS patients; bought chickens for a impoverished family.  This year we are buying a goat to be given to a family in need.

This is a great time of year to ask ourselves:  How much stuff do we need to be successful?  How many material things do we need to feel God’s care and love?  How long do we wait until we have the earthly things we need so that we can answer God’s call to bless others?  How much of this world’s stuff are we dependent upon for our personal happiness?  How much “earth” does one need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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William Paul Young initially wrote the story of “The Shack” for his children. It was just going to be his gift to them.  That is why he only made 15 copies the first time he printed it.  However, somehow other friends got a hold of it, read it, and passed it on to others.  By their encouragement, he self-published 10,000 copies.  The story of “The Shack” gained moment and now has over 4 million copies in publication.  His story of redemption has turned out to be a gift to millions.

I will admit up front that the genre of “The Shack” is not my particular style. There has not been a lot of “Christian Fiction” that has captured my attention outside of C.S. Lewis (or J.R.R. Tolkien, if you include him in that category).  I never got caught up into Frank E. Peretti’s series surrounding “This Present Darkness”.  However, I was amused by how many people, Christians and non-Christians, took Peretti’s fictional writing and attempted to build a theology of demons and angels out of it.  I kept wanting to scream, “It’s just a story, folks!  Hello?!  Fiction!”

That being said, I did find the story of “The Shack” interesting. For a self-published work, I thought it was done very well.  There were a few places in the story line that could have been edited a bit more tightly to make for better flow or believability.  However, over all, I found it to be well written.  I enjoyed Young’s personal style that draws the reader into the story and characters.  I found the occasional humor well placed and made the book more captivating and readable.

A search on the internet will reveal a number of people – particularly Christians – who have problems with the story theologically. They have taken the time to pull apart the story and reveal its “heretical” tendencies.  Once again, I would like to inform these people that it was not written as a theological treatise, but as a fictional story.  As such, nothing in the story should be taken as prescriptive but descriptive.  In other words, it was written to describe things that are difficult for the human heart and mind to understand.  It was not written to prescribe for us what we are to believe.  It is not a systematic theology or biblical theology for seminarians.  Nor was it written to become a new theology of some sort for New Agers.

Such fruitless endeavors by well-meaning individuals does nothing to build up faith in others let alone “protect” them from error. I think that such individuals would probably find something wrong in C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” or John Bunyan‘s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”.  These, too, were written as fiction.  They were meant to be parables or portrayals of the human spiritual struggle.  Every sermon illustration, story attempt, or parable breaks down at some point.  It does not give us the whole truth, only a fuzzy picture at best of part of it.  This is the case for “The Shack”.  Taken as such, I believe there are some great illustrations or pictures for us of what God wants in a relationship with his creation, particularly humankind.

One of the major complaints against “The Shack” is its portrayal of the trinity or triune godhead. This belief is a cornerstone of orthodox Christian theology.  However, one must remember that even the best theologians have had trouble for the past 2000 years to come up with a credible and simple definition or illustration of the trinity.  All efforts at illustrating it – the egg, the apple, the three states of water, etc – all break down and fail at some point.

Wm. Paul Young’s attempt at portraying this relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is just as difficult. Some critics have trouble with the picture given to us by the author of “Papa” being a large African-American woman at the beginning of the story.  (“Papa” does later in the story, however, reveals himself as a man to Mack.)  I for one was really disappointed that God the Father did not turn out to be Morgan Freeman again…okay, I’m kidding.

Rather than getting caught up in what gender or ethno-cultural identity God would really have if he really appeared to us in human form, one should enjoy the story for what it is…God attempting to relate to a man with a broken heart and past.  In a fictional story, I suppose God can reveal himself in about any way he likes…such as Aslan the Lion…a talking lion none the less.  The real point of what the author is trying to get to is lost in such a myopic attempt to critique the story.  Why not just enjoy the story for what it is?

Personally, I really appreciated how Young attempts to portray the close relationship between the trinity. I thought he did an admirable job attempting to portray the unique characteristics of “three persons in one being”.  This would be difficult at any level!  The church has suffered some nasty self-inflicted bloody noses trying to answer this question – how do you describe the triune nature of God?  A casual reading of church history will reveal some colorful and bloody fights in the early church councils trying to answer this very question.  Therefore, I think we should cut the author some slack in attempting to portray this to the 21st century person.

American Falls 2, July 2003

American Falls 2, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I really like the author’s picture of Jesus. Personally, I have always appreciated a picture of Jesus that was more joyful than one that was ascetic and morose.  The picture I get of Jesus in the gospels is of an individual who really enjoyed being around people, liked celebrations and parties, and had a great sense of humor at the expense of the religious stiff-shirts.  Paul Young, to me anyway, portrays a believable Jesus in the story.

There were a couple of places in the story that I found to be a little unbelievable – a little too science fiction for me. However, it is the prerogative of the author in fiction to take his readers on a journey.  And if one will just enjoy the journey then the story can be enjoyed for what it is rather than critiqued for what it is not.  Nevertheless, the interaction of Mack with Sophia was a little “out there” for me as was the vision Mack was given of God’s view of the world and his meeting his father.  But, that is just me.  You may like those parts of the story.  Remember, it is just a story.

Some critiqued the book for attempting to tell us that sin does not need to be punished. However, I looked carefully for any place the author seemed to say such a thing.  I did not find it.  Instead, he points out that sin has its own consequences.  He reasserts what Jesus said, the world is already condemned and he, Jesus, did not come to condemn the world but through his sacrifice save the world.  Sin, in fact, was judged and the punishment for it paid on the cross.  This the author makes very clear.  The story of the cross and the redemption of humankind through Jesus’ sacrifice is clearly communicated.

The story does not include a portrayal of hell or eternal judgment for those who reject the offer of relationship with God through Jesus. However, as a story, that does not seem to be the direction the author wanted to go or dwell upon.  As the author, that is his prerogative!  He is not writing a theology but a story.  In telling the story, a certain amount of theology or thoughts about God, humankind’s relationship to God and vice versa, and ultimate meaning in human tragedy and suffering is offered for us to think upon.  We are free to draw our own opinions.

If you are looking for deeper and more complete theology, I suggest reading the Bible. The help of a few good theologians may come in handy.  But do not attempt to make too much of out of another person’s fictional story.  Instead, enjoy the story for what it is and embrace those parts that give joy and meaning to you.  I think Jesus would read “The Shack” and say, “Well done!  Good story!  Got another one?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Yellow Moss

Yellow Moss ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I said goodbye.
Tho’ memory keeps you close
for now.
Smiles formed
as memories spilled out
with tears.
Then
tears dry
memories fade
and soon the dark shade of death
blends into the grey of forgetfulness.
Then
I paid a visit.
Memories rose
laughter formed
tears ran free like dew
upon the cold granite stone
and you were alive again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Mt. Adams over Deep Lake in Indian Heaven Wilderness, WA

Mt. Adams over Deep Lake in Indian Heaven Wilderness, WA ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

The steep climb
of the mountain
before me
exhausts me.

The peak viewed
of the mountain
before me
excites me.

The steppes taken
toward the mountain
before me
surprise me.

The trails followed
up the mountain
before me
confuse me.

Exhausted,
excited,
surprised,
confused,
I ascend
step by step
I conquer
fear by fear
I crest
level by level
until I summit.

On the top
of the mountain
astride its peak
the view backward speaks
and attempts to teach
what I could not know
from the view below.

The mountain before me,
the twisted trails,
the steep steppes,
the slippery slopes,
all created in me
a conqueror of mountains.

© Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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