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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew’s Gospel’

What is it within the human psyche that pulls at us to compare ourselves to others? When did the human race develop the idea that any one of us is capable of summarily judging another person’s existential journey by examining their state of being at any one given moment along life’s time line?  After all, does any one of us know our own beginning from the end, let alone any other’s?

Yet, almost every day there is not one individual of the human race who does not at some point put their self in the judge’s seat to declare judgment for or against someone else or a whole class of someones. I know I am guilty of this ridiculous attempt at playing celestial critic.  I have often admitted to others over the past several years that “I can’t pick’ em.”  I have, in the past, attempted to evaluate the potential of individuals and thereby also prognosticate their outcome.  I have failed more often times than not.

Individuals whom I considered the most brilliant, talented, gifted and spiritual, and so warranted my own time and energies, have turned out to be some of my biggest disappointments to date. They are far from where I thought they would be in terms of accomplishment and far from God.  On the other hand, individuals whom I considered to be questionable, or even not worth too much effort on my part because I foresaw only failure in their future, have turned out to be some of the biggest surprises.  To this date, some of them are successful and give great glory to God.

And the jury of time is still out. Who knows but that the roles may be reversed again in the future before the end comes to each of their stories.  One thing I do know: I don’t know.  I do not know how their stories will turn out.  All I have is this snap-shot moment in time of where they are on their journey and how they are doing.  The same holds true for my own journey.

This is possibly the spiritual angst the Apostle Paul had in mind when he warned himself, “I give blows to my body, and keep it under control, for fear that, after having given the good news to others, I myself might not have God’s approval” (1 Cor. (9:27, BBE).  Even as spiritual leader the Apostle Paul knew the challenges of life’s journey.  He told the believers in Philippi, “It’s not that I’ve already reached the goal or have already completed the course. But I run to win that which Jesus Christ has already won for me” (Phil. 3:12, GW).

When I was a teenager, I worked for a time in the apple orchards around Oroville, Washington and Tonasket, Washington. The orchard job was an early summer one.  I was hired along with others to go through the apple trees and thin the crops.  The goal was to evenly distribute the fruit along the branches.  At the same time, diseased or badly misshapen fruit was weeded out.  This resulted in bigger and more beautiful fruit for the market in the fall harvest.

To be really good, one had to make quick decision and act quickly. The job did not allow for one to take the time to sit back and study a tree and its individual branches or individual apples.  Each apple or group of apples could not be meticulously weighed, examined and judged.  Decisions were made in the moment and on-the-fly.  Sometimes a bad apple or two was missed.  At other times, too many good ones were cast aside to rot on the ground.

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010

Glacial Water Falls, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Inspecting the fruit from a human life is not as easy. It cannot be done as cavalier and casually.  There are far greater consequences.  As much as we like to spout the modern proverb, “You can’t judge a book by the cover,” we still regularly attempt it.  I know that I missed some really good stories because I did so.  I should have more closely followed the wisdom given to the prophet Isaiah: “Do away with the pointing finger and malicious talk!”  (58:9).

The problem in today’s religious environment is that many of Jesus’ followers like to think of themselves as spiritual fruit inspectors. Some, I presume, think they may have been given the spiritual gift or authority of fruit inspection.  However, this seems to be a position that Jesus has reserved solely for himself.  Dare we attempt to take his seat or position in the heavenly courtroom?

After telling the crowd gathered around him The Parable of the Sower and the Soils, Jesus launched into another story: The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24 – 30).  It seems that a farmer took the time to sow good wheat seed in his fields looking forward to a good harvest.  However, his enemy, who obviously hated the farmer’s success, took a night to sow weeds into the farmer’s field.  It soon became apparent to the farmer and his workers that weeds were growing in his wheat fields.  What do you propose they do?

The farmhands reacted like so many of us today – myself included:Pull them out by their roots!  Get rid of them! Burn them!”  However, the wise farmer saw the danger in this approach.  The good wheat would be uprooted too.  Then the whole crop would be damaged.  Rather than risking the good wheat, in the farmer’s wisdom, he told his farmhands to “Leave the weeds alone until harvest time.  Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them.  But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn” (v. 30).

Apparently, while many of us at any one moment might be able to identify good or bad fruit (“A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17), the Master reserves only for himself the duty of proclaiming judgment – good or bad. And this he leaves to accomplish at the end of all things.  So much for instant gratification in our justice system.

So, I have given up fruit inspection in the lives of others. I figure I am doing well if I can examine the products of my own life.  Like the Apostle Paul, I will be doing well if I can keep my own life trimmed and pruned so that what it produces will be good.  I know I am carrying a few bad apples.  I just may need someone’s help to reach them to improve my potential harvest.  If I can do that, it will be enough fruit inspection for me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

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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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Alligator Teeth and Pearls

The terms for the coming of God’s Kingdom are not for the faint-hearted or weak-willed.  Those who have experienced, or presently are experiencing, the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth through revival and renewal already know the price that was paid for it to come.  Even Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people have been seizing it” (Matt. 11:12).

It has often been observed throughout church history that the Kingdom of God has advanced and grown upon the blood of martyrs.  There always seems to be a terrible price to be paid in the natural realm for the spiritual realm to breakthrough and upon it.  Even a brief study of the lives of those used by the Spirit of God throughout the Church’s history to bring reformation, revival, and renewal will discover lives broken and poured out – Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Wyclif, William Tyndale, John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, William Seymore, Katherine Kuhlman, and others of greater or lesser importance.  Who will be the ones to usher in God’s Kingdom in our generation?

The apostle Paul said, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).  Someone else rightly remarked that the problem is getting that “treasure” out!  I might add that sometimes it appears we are more “earthen vessel” than “treasure”.  Nevertheless, God promises to pour out His Spirit upon those who humble themselves, forsake their sinful and selfish ways, and spend their energies seeking His face and favor (2 Chron. 7:14).  The question for our generation is, “Who are the brave soldiers of the cross who are going to seize that promise and opportunity?”

Unfortunately, our American religious culture has led us into a “lazy-boy” style of faith that is not does require anything from us.  We enjoy being spectators to the “sport” of religion and “change channels” when we become quickly disinterested.  The average American’s spiritual life looks less like a disciplined journey and more like channel surfing.  Our attention span is short and the next spiritual high is sought out for its brief escape from reality.  From the comfort of our homes, we have become voyeurs to the spiritual journeys and experiences of others.  However, for all that we have witnessed and watched, we remain unfit for our Kingdom duties.

Washington State Capitol, July 2003

Washington State Capitol, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When one travels overseas and witnesses the Church at large accomplishing so much with so little for the Kingdom of God, it challenges preconceived ideas about what is really important in God’s Kingdom.  God does not seem to delight in the “sacrifices” we enjoy offering – music, fellowship, pot-luck dinners, listening to good Bible teaching, along with an occasionally generous gift of cash in the offering plate.

No, God makes it hard for us so that only those who are really passionate and hungry get what they desire.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).  David had it right when he said that what God wants is not more religious platitudes and practices.  What God desires is “a broken and contrite spirit” (Ps. 51:17).  How hungry and thirsty are you for God and His Kingdom to come to earth?

We know and understand even by human economy that those things that are truly of worth are costly.  How much more so of heavenly things?  There’s a great story of a lady tourist in India who noticed the necklace worn by a local Indian man.  “What is it made of?” she asked.  “Alligator’s teeth,” the man replied.  “I suppose,” she said patronizingly, “that they mean as much to you as pearls do to us.”  “Oh no,” he objected, “anybody can open an oyster.”  I have a feeling that acquiring the priceless treasures of heaven are more like getting alligator teeth than pearls.  It’s a costly journey that requires courage.

Our world is in desperate need of a people of God who “forcefully” take His Kingdom to their part of the world through their sacrifices of a dedicated prayer life, radical obedience, and brokenness over the world’s spiritual state.  What will it take to get the “treasure” God has put in you poured out for the benefit of others and His Kingdom?  How hungry are you for God to have His way in your life?  How thirsty are you for His righteousness to be at work in the world around you?  How much do you really want God kingdom to “come, on earth, just as it is in heaven”?  Be careful how you answer that!  It could begin a journey that you never imagined.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is part of the American ideal to think that “all men and women are created equal.” In terms of human value this is true.  In terms of human capacity it is not.  Every human person is unique in his or her talents and capacities.  Not everyone can be a LeBron James on the basketball court.  Not everyone can be a Warren Buffet in finances.  There was only one J.S. Bach.  There will only ever be one Albert Einstein.  There will only be one you or me.

Into human talent and capacity the good Lord put a lot of the right genetics into the right person at the right time. The famous runner Steve Prefontaine was made to run.  He had all the right biological equipment – heart, lungs, feet, legs.  A tragic death took him too soon from this world.  I ran cross-country in High School and did OK.  However, I never did as well as others even though I trained just as hard.  I played hours upon hours of basketball.  I never got as good as many of my peers.  I certainly was never going to be another Michael Jordan.  There is only one of him out of all the millions of kids of his generation who played basketball and the hundreds who even made it to the professional leagues.

We probably all have had an argument with our Creator at some point in our life where we wanted to know, “How come you didn’t make me like so-and-so?”  In our limited understanding, the world, or at least us, would be better off if we were like the one we idolize.  Almost all of us want to be Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” – superman or superwoman.  However, this mythical humanoid never existed and never will.  After all, human capacity is limited.  This is what reminds us that God is God and we are not.  There is no limit to God’s capacity.

So, in our minds and hearts we play to our fantasies instead of the realities with which we are dealt; at least for awhile. I have discovered that this is where maturity comes to bear in our lives.  It is the recognition and acceptance of our own limited human capacities.  This is no stoic acceptance of the death of dreams.  It is, instead, the embracing of our full potential and willingness to explore it to its very edges.

Granted, our cultural heroes can inspire us to greatness. But living vicariously through their achievements and accomplishments is not enough.  The “joie de vivre” is to attain to one’s own measure of greatness to whatever capacity that may be as an individual.  This is why so many of us are amazed at how some of the ordinary people in our lives become our “ubermensch” at the end of their life.  It is not until the sum of their life is put before us at the end of their life that we realize how truly great they were as a person.

Seagull Reflections, Long Beach Peninsula, Fall 2009

Seagull Reflections, Long Beach Peninsula, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus alluded to the human capacity in his parable of the talents. In the parable (Matt. 25:14 – 30), the master did not give everyone the same amount of talents.  Each was given what he or she could steward according to the wisdom of the master.  The only stipulation was that they take what they were given and use it to its full capacity so that when the master asked for an accounting of what he gave them they could show how it had been invested.  This is still applicable to us today.

The accounting of our human life is not going to be summed up in comparison with anyone else when we stand before our Creator. We will not be able to turn to anyone else and say to the Creator, “But I didn’t get as much capacity as her!”  We will not be able to complain, “Why didn’t you give me a chance with the capacity that he had?”  Instead, the Creator will look at us and ask, “I created you for this purpose in this place at this hour.  What have you done with what I gave to you to live and enjoy life to its fullest?”

The existential choice each one of us has is to determine to live life to the fullest within the measurements of the unique capacities we have or to spend our life decrying who we are not and what we do not have. This is why envy and jealousy is such a sin.  They not only attempt to second guess the Creator’s work and purpose, but it ruins the very one who harbors it.  Envy and jealousy paralyzes one’s ability to enjoy to the full extent what they have been given in life.  They destroy the full potential of the one who harbors them.  No wonder Paul warned Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).  Perhaps the apostle Paul in his old age knew by experience the damage envy and jealousy can do in one’s life.

I know that for my own spiritual journey, it has been liberating to come to the acceptance and contentment of what I have a capacity to do and what I do not have the capacity to do. This gives me permission to say “Yes” to the things that the wise Creator has created me for in this life.  It also gives me permission to say “No” without guilt to the things that the wise Creator has not given me the capacity to handle.

This is not to say that there are not times where He challenges me and stretches my capacity in order to enlarge my life.  However, these have been painful times and thankfully infrequent.  At other times, the Creator has placed me in challenging positions where I must depend upon the capacity of others – or completely alone upon Him – to see me through.  This makes me aware of my need for others in my life and my necessity to depend upon Him.  He did not create any of us with the capacity to travel the journey of life alone.

Joyfully living within the limits he has created me with allows me to enjoy life.  This kind of contentment with “life as it is handed to me” allows me the freedom to fully explore all that the Creator has created me with and for in this life.  Free from envy, jealousy, anxiety and perhaps even anger, I can discover what it means to be Ron Almberg “created in Christ Jesus to [do] good works” (Eph. 2:10).  In other words, it is accepting that “God planned for [Ron Almberg] to do good things and to live as he has always wanted [him] to live” (CEV, with my personalization).

So, you and I may not be the next sports all-star or the next American Idol. Neither of us may attain to international recognition for some scientific breakthrough, gaining the Nobel Peace Prize or appearing on the cover of Time magazine.  However, we are in the most important place in the universe – the heart and mind of God when He created us and set us in this world in our generation among the people we influence.  And He’s watching us.  Cheering us on.  Helping us when we ask.  Because more than anything, He wants us to reach our fullest potential/capacity.  Not only will it bring us the greatest joy – “joie de vivre” – but also bring Him the greatest glory.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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