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Posts Tagged ‘Mercy’

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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The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

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

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Relationship Scarring

It is impossible to go through life without ending up with scars from relationships. The fact that we wound at all is a testament to our humanity.  The fact that we are often as much the deliverers of scars as the receivers of scars speaks loudly to our own brokenness.  Children are scarred by parents.  Siblings grow up leaving scars upon one another.  Co-workers and bosses leave wounds that can range from minor paper-cut like ones to major open, seeping wounds.

Not all scarring from relational squabbles is the same. Minor ones leave their mark as do major ones.   All of them leave a lasting memory and reminder of a battle won or lost.  It seems that the closer the relationships, the deeper and longer lasting the wound and subsequent scar left behind.  Likewise, everyone deals with their relationship wounds in different ways.  Some people are more resilient and successful than others; while the others languish under memories and unforgiveness.

It may come across as naive, but it seems that people expect fellow Christians to never leave a wound or scar upon others, particularly other believers. So, when this does occur, the surprise and hurt go deep.  There is an expectation that “christians” will somehow exhibit a perfected humanity that is devoid of any ability to wound or scar with words, actions or attitudes.  This is far from the case.

The other day I was listening to a fellow believer share the story of their spiritual journey. Raised in a religiously strict, legalistic home, this person was not able to do anything “worldly;” which included among other things going to movies, playing billiards, bowling, attending dances or associating with anyone who did such things.  When this individual finally left home, they discovered a whole different world of Christian beliefs and practices.  It caused them quite a personal identification crisis.

The biggest problem for this individual, however, was not with the particular Christian expression with which they grew up. Instead, it was the readily apparent hypocrisy that was witnessed among parents, established church members and church leadership.  They could spout the doctrines of the faith, display a modicum of religious behavior and then turn right around and speak evil of one another, attack leadership and hold others in disdain.  Spiritual knowledge was greater than the spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Once liberated from their past, the person who shared their story with me expressed the joy of being able to work with other Christians. Seeing how others worshipped and practiced their faith gave a new perspective.  Unfortunately, the story shared with me included many places in the journey where terrible wounds were left by those in church leadership positions.  I felt the pain expressed.  I sensed the hurt and frustration over those that anyone would expect better behavior from in spiritual leadership.  I also knew that any such expectations were wholly unrealistic.

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

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

We are a people of clay feet who follow the leadership of individuals with clay feet. We are a community of broken and wounded sheep who follow broken and wounded leaders.  This is all the more reason that love, acceptance and forgiveness should be the hallmarks of such communities.  Too often these qualities are absent in order to protect the appearance of spiritual perfection.  In the presence of such spiritual “perfection,” one is deemed an authority and a leader, regardless of true inward character.

Too often, what happens behind the closed doors of church offices between staff or at the board meetings or membership meetings of the congregation becomes the place where wounds are given and received. Instead of being the sanctuaries they are touted to be, they become torture chambers of spiritual abuse.  I have personal experiences with those meetings.  Unfortunately, I also have too many friends who have either left ministry or left church altogether because of the stinging scars they still nurse.

The ironic answer to all this lies within the very thing that causes us to hand out scars to others like Boy Scout or Girl Scout badges. It lies in our brokenness.  It is our brokenness within ourselves, towards others and towards God that fails us and causes us to fail others.  Like broken pottery, the shards of our life lie hidden until someone steps upon them or touches them.  Then we leave a wound.

At the same time, our brokenness holds the answer for all of us. Instead of attempting to hold up perfected lives before others to see and applaud, we would be better off acknowledging our broken places.  Instead of playing to our strengths to lord it over others, we would do better to lead and influence from our own woundedness.  Instead of attempting to portray a community of victors and overcomers who have no problems, we would serve ourselves and others better by admitting that we are a community of confessors and repenters.

I am not advocating for a fellowship of moaners and complainers who go around with sullen faces.  I am not suggesting that defeatism and spiritual poverty become the Christian model for spirituality. We have already been down that road before with the Puritans, Quakers and Pietists.  What I am suggesting is a spiritual formation and communal journey that includes a spiritual “sunshine policy.”  A “sunshine policy” is one that allows light upon a situation so that everyone knows what is going on.  It demands honesty, integrity, truthfulness, accountability, and openness.

This approach, of course, offers no guarantee against relationship scarring even among Christians. However, it does offer a more transparent way of healing our self-inflicted wounds upon the body of Christ.  This is much better than just moving from church to church or getting rid of staff for unexplainable reasons.  In this I readily acknowledge that because I am in community with and being led by broken individuals, I cannot expect to never be wounded.  Nor can I expect that I will never deliver a wound because I, too, am broken.  As such, I do understand that continuing in this community will require me to extend love, grace and mercy to others, just as they extend it towards me.

We are not called to lives of perfection on this side of eternity. We do not have the right to expect to come through this life unscarred and unwounded.  God in Christ Jesus gave us the model for dealing with sin and forgiveness.  Only through love, grace and mercy can the relationship scars we receive and deliver become the marks of true spiritual community.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Many years ago, I heard the story of a lady in an airport who bought a book to read and a package of cookies to eat while she waited for her plane.  After she had taken her seat in the terminal and gotten engrossed in the book, she noticed that the man one seat away from her was fumbling to open the package of cookies on the seat between them.

She was so shocked that a stranger would eat her cookies that she did not really know what to do, so she just reached over and took one of the cookies and ate it.  The man did not say anything but soon reached over and took another.  Well, the woman was not going to let him eat them all, so she took another, too.

When they were down to one cookie in the package, the man reached over, broke the cookie in half, and got up and left.  The lady could not believe the man’s nerve.  How could anyone be so rude.  The incident upset her but soon the announcement came to board the plane.

Turkey Vulture on the Beach, Pacific City Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Turkey Vulture on the Beach, Pacific City Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Once the woman was aboard, still angry at the man’s audacity and puzzling over the incident, she reached into her purse for a tissue.  It suddenly dawned on her that she really should not judge people too quickly or too harshly – for there in her purse lay her still-unopened package of cookies!

Someone rightly said, “Most of us are umpires at heart; we all like to call balls and strikes on somebody else.”  Jesus challenged us.  He said, “Do not judge others.  In the same way you judge others you will be judged, with even greater severity!”  In God’s kingdom, grace and mercy has been extended to everyone.  Let’s keep passing it on.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the challenges of the Christian faith is steadfastly and securely standing upon “Christ, the solid rock.”  These words harken back to a familiar 19th century Church hymn.  The hymn, “My Hope is Built” or “Solid Rock,” is as familiar a hymn about God’s grace as John Newton‘s “Amazing Grace.”  It carries in its tune the hope of every Christian as well as the recognition of the trials every Christian faces.

The author of the hymn’s words is not a readily recognizable name.  Reverend Edward Mote (1797 – 1874) was a Baptist minister in Horsham, Sussex, England from 1852 – 1873.  He was not raised in a Christian home.  He spent he early life running the streets and largely neglected as his parents ran a pub in London.  In fact, his upbringing was so devoid of religious education or spiritual instruction that he claims no knowledge of God until he heard the Word of God for the first time and was baptized at age 18.  After that, he was apprenticed as a cabinet maker and did well at that for 37 years, until he was called into ministry.

It was during his years as a cabinet maker that the words of this song came to him in 1834.  He was on his way to way to work when he describes it this way in a letter to the Christian publication “The Gospel Herald”:

One morn­ing it came into my mind as I went to la­bour, to write an hymn on the ‘Gra­cious Ex­per­i­ence of a Christ­ian.’ As I went up Hol­born I had the chor­us,

‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.’

In the day I had four first vers­es com­plete, and wrote them off. On the Sab­bath fol­low­ing I met bro­ther King as I came out of Lisle Street Meet­ing…who in­formed me that his wife was ve­ry ill, and asked me to call and see her. I had an ear­ly tea, and called af­ter­wards. He said that it was his usu­al custom to sing a hymn, read a por­tion, and en­gage in pray­er, be­fore he went to meet­ing. He looked for his hymn-book but could find it no­where. I said, ‘I have some vers­es in my pock­et; if he liked, we would sing them.’ We did, and his wife en­joyed them so much, that af­ter ser­vice he asked me, as a fa­vour, to leave a co­py of them for his wife.

I went home, and by the fire­side com­posed the last two vers­es, wrote the whole off, and took them to sis­ter King…As these vers­es so met the dy­ing wo­man’s case, my at­ten­tion to them was the more ar­rest­ed, and I had a thou­sand print­ed for dis­tr­ibu­tion. I sent one to the Spir­it­u­al Mag­a­zine, with­out my ini­tials, which ap­peared some time af­ter this. Bro­ther Rees, of Crown Street, So­ho, brought out an edi­tion of hymns [1836], and this hymn was in it. Da­vid Den­ham in­tro­duced it [1837] with Rees’ name, and others af­ter…Your in­sert­ing this brief out­line may in fu­ture shield me from the charge of stealth, and be a vin­di­ca­tion of truth­ful­ness in my con­nect­ion with the Church of God.” (http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/m/y/myhopeis.htm)

Thankfully, the original title he gave it – “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope” – did not last as long as the enduring words did for our benefit.  The tune that most of us are familiar with was given to it by William B. Bradbury in 1863.  So, it would be interesting to know to what tune it was sang before that time.  In addition to the four stanzas we already sing, there are two more attributed to him:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
’Midst all the hell I feel within,
On His completed work I lean.

I trust His righteous character
His council, promise, and His power;
His honor and His name’s at stake,
To save me from the burning lake.

I have often wondered who gets to edit or redact the hymns that are handed down to us.  Many of the ancient hymns of the church have many more stanzas than what we know or acknowledge.  It is a curious piece of ecclesial musicology that eludes me.  I am sure one day I will research and sort it out to see if the decision were based upon practical musical qualities or theology.

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

That aside, my spiritual journey embraces the personal and private struggles of this great hymn.  I am too acquainted and familiar with times when “darkness veils His lovely face.”  I have faced “the whelming flood.”  And I can too well relate to the words not included in our hymnals: “’Midst all the hell I feel within.

In other words, in all honesty I have more often than not stood on the “other ground” – “the sinking sand.” I have been to the edge of doubt and peered into unbelief or disbelief.  Whether due to circumstances resulting from my control or because of my lack of control, these painful experiences have led me too often to the place of spiritually shaky ground.  Like a violent earthquake, when the ground, which appeared so solid beneath you, begins to move, you question the reality and solidity of everything in your life.  It is a time, truly, when “when all around my soul gives way.”  These terrible undulations of the soul shake everything that is not secure.

Suddenly, my faith in my faith – or faith in my ability to believe – is no longer enough.  I need something more.  I need someone outside of my shaken reality to help me up off the floor.  I need something more secure than confidence in my own ability to maintain a faith system.  Otherwise, I remain on “the other ground” – a quick sand that sinks me deeper in my own shaken and insecure knowledge and experiences of reality.

This “someone outside my shaken reality” and this “something more secure” is what captured the heart of Edward Mote.  It is a faith I aspire to in my spiritual journey.  Mote points me to “His righteous character” and “His completed work.”  My spiritual journey is no longer about me and my ability to make it through this life with all its struggles and disappointments and failures.

There are no trophies that I will present to him that will make me worthy of his salvation or his heaven.  I will not stand before his throne with any confidence.  It is all about, and in the end will be all about, “His oath, His covenant, His blood.”  It is what the Heavenly Father did for me through Christ’s cross and resurrection.  It is his work, not mine.  This, finally, is the anchor for my soul and my faith.  Now, I just need the Lord’s help to stay off the “other ground.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a highly significant relationship between the ability of a Christian or church body to demonstrate love and overall spiritual health.   Ask yourself how you are doing in demonstrating love to others.  I am not talking about how you are doing at “feeling” loving toward others.  I am addressing how we are at “doing” loving things for others.  Biblical love is always other focused.

I challenge you to look at all the ‘one another’ passages of the New Testament.  You will find that the church is called to love, serve, encourage, forgive, restore, help, build up, and be at peace with ‘one another.’  This is a huge challenge.  It is our sinful human nature to meet our own needs first.  Even in loving, often the focus on whether we “feel” love or loving toward others.  This is just another deceptively simple form of self-gratification.  The focus is upon me and my feelings instead of another’s needs.

The Biblical definition of love is fruit, action, and deed.  The secular concept of love as a feeling which overwhelms you (if you’re lucky) and may disappear is unbiblical and counterfeit.  Held up for us to measure ourselves against is the love of God expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus, his son, upon the cross for our sins.  We are reminded in the New Testament that we have done nothing to deserve God’s love.  In fact, before we were lovable or could even return our love to him, he loved us first.  He initiated this relationship and invitation by serving us – washing our feet, healing our wounds, and paying all the costs to buy us our freedom from slavery to Satan and sin.

As loved-ones, he now asks us to love others in the same manner and way in which he loved us.  This goes far beyond mere sentimentality or sympathy.  It digs deep into costly actions that display a patient and gracious love.  The world is dying to see this kind of love displayed.  Where it is displayed, it transforms lives and cultures.  The truth of the matter is – unfeigned, practical love has a divinely generated magnetic power far more effective than any formal evangelistic program, which depends almost entirely upon verbal communication.  People do not want to hear us talk about love; they want to experience how Christian love really works!

This will require us to step out of our comfort zones at times.  It will mean looking past our close circle of relationships and work to include others who are unknown or new to us.  It will mean making time for one another.  It will mean doing loving actions far beyond my capacity to evoke loving feelings.

This means for most of us that we must confess the sin of being too busy.  We have pushed the margin on the limits of our time and energies so that we cannot do what Jesus would do in our world, our church, and our home.  Biblical love is a commitment to be a person with a high love quotient that includes and serves others.

Orchid, Cancun, Mexico, Summer 2003

Orchid, Cancun, Mexico, Summer 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the Christian community we call the Church, it will mean extending forgiveness, grace, and mercy toward others in the body of Christ to the same extent and measure that I have received it from my Heavenly Father.  This will challenge us toward long-suffering and gentleness to keep the bonds of peace and unity even when we have been wronged, hurt, or taken offense at someone else’s thoughtless actions or words.

Through such a community that actively displays such forbearance in its love; the world will be attracted to the message of Jesus.  It is only then that his life, ministry, and message take on a real quality that cannot be refuted.  After all, Jesus said, “They will know you by your love for one another.”  He was not just talking about people witnessing the good feelings that Christians have for one another, but the self-sacrificing serving love that cares for the least, last, and lost among us.  Then they will know that we really are followers of Christ.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the surprising recurring themes in the Bible regards how often God’s people miss the point of God’s purposes while those far from God grasp it.  For instance, for all their study of Old Testament scriptures and religious disciplines, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day completely missed the arrival of the Messiah and his Kingdom.  Meanwhile, those they considered “sinners” – tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the demon possessed, the leprous, Samaritans, Canaanites, and Romans – welcomed the Messiah.

When Jesus went to a well-to-do religious man’s house for dinner, the man did not receive Jesus with the usual custom and courtesy expected at the time and in that culture – he did not have Jesus’ feet washed.  It was like saying to Jesus, “Come again when you can’t stay so long.”  The only point for inviting Jesus was to test him to see if he really qualified to be a teacher or rabbi.  This was despite the fact that Jesus openly taught and performed miracles for everyone to witness.

A sinner surprised the man and his dinner guests by showing up and washing Jesus’ feet.  Never mind that she inserted herself where she was not invited.  She was qualified on no spiritual terms to be in this host’s home, let alone touching a man who is supposed to be righteous and a teacher.  She does not qualify because she works in the sex industry; she is a prostitute – a modern day equivalent of a street walker, pole dancer and stripper.

The self-righteous host is put off not only by this sinful woman’s intrusion (What would the neighbor’s say!?) but also by the fact that Jesus appears to be unfazed.  He doubts Jesus’ credentials on the spot.  If Jesus was really a prophet or true teacher of the Law, he would know “what kind of woman” was touching him and defiling him.  This supposed saint, for all his prayers, religious education, and spiritual devotion missed a personal visit from the One that he and all of Israel had been longing for since time unmemorable – the long-awaited Messiah.  However, the sinner did not.

The sinful woman wept over her sin as she sat at Jesus’ feet and used her tears and her hair to wash Jesus’ feet; the same beautiful hair that she had used time and again to allure her clients into her web of manipulation and sin.  The same hair men lusted to touch and that invited them to so much more.

Her hair, the object of her worldly beauty and pride, became a dirty towel stained and streaked from the filthy feet and smelly toes of the promised Messiah.  The heaving and sobbing woman was an unwelcome spectacle and distraction to the dinner host and his guests as much as the unwanted Messiah.  Her pitiful condition grew as her hair matted in dirty clumps and her face streaked with tears and makeup.  To such well-off and proper folks, the woman and Jesus made a despicable scene that only repulsed them further.

It is then, I imagine, at the height of social discomfort, that Jesus used the occasion to point out how often sinners surpass “saints.”  He looked to the prideful host and religious leader and said, “You never welcomed me.  This woman [whom you consider full of sin and unworthy] has not stopped welcoming me. The one forgiven little, loves little.  But the one forgiven of so much, loves greatly.”

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jonah is another case in point.  The prophet is called of God to be used by God to go preach the message of judgment, forgiveness, and salvation.  The only problem?  It is to people he considers enemies and “heathen.”  God wanted him to go to the Assyrians’ capitol, Nineveh.  They had brutalized the nation of Israel.  Jonah did not just see them as beyond God’s love but also undeserving of God’s love.

Instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah decides to run from God and his mission.  In the middle of a storm, the heathen sailors are scared out of their wits.  They discern amongst themselves that it must be some kind of divine retribution and began to pray to their gods.  It was of no avail.  The storm continued to rage.  Meanwhile, Jonah slept uncaring and unaware of the danger they were all in.

When the sailors finally awaken Jonah to the imminent threat, Jonah understands what may be going on.  He coughs up the real reason for his story and tells the sailors that, for them to be saved from divine judgment, they must throw him overboard.  Unwillingly, the sailors obey the word of Jonah and are saved!  Barely able to contain themselves, they give God praise for their salvation.  Interestingly, their obedience and resulting worship of God surpassed Jonah’s – an Israelite and prophet of God.  It seems that they are more open to God and his message than God’s own messenger.

However, the irony does not stop there.  Tired of the stench and torture of riding in the belly of a great fish, Jonah repents and asks for God’s help – after three days.  (He is either a very stubborn man or a slow learner in God’s school of discipline.)  After being delivered upon a Mediterranean beach somewhere, Jonah obediently, but still reluctantly, goes to Nineveh.  He preaches God’s message of soon coming judgment, repentance, and forgiveness.  The people hear the message and turn to God and repent.

One would think that this would be Jonah’s opportunity to rejoice.  An enemy of Israel had accepted the God of Israel and received salvation.  However, just the opposite is true.  Instead of praising and worshipping God for such a miracle, Jonah goes to a nearby hilltop overlooking Nineveh to pout.  Jonah is mad at God.

When God sends a large plant to give Jonah shade, Jonah is glad for it.  When the shade plant dies, Jonah gets angry with God again.  He is more angry over the demise of a plant than the possible demise of lost souls.  He has more compassion for a plant he neither planted nor cared for than he has for a people that God placed upon the earth.

The one who pleaded for God’s mercy in the belly of a great fish and received it becomes angry at this same God who showed mercy to another people.  He could not stand the thought of God extending the same salvation he received to people he deemed to be unworthy of mercy and salvation.  God was treating those outside his covenant with Abraham the same as those within the covenant of Abraham.  And there is the rub for both Jonah and Jesus’ religious host.  The One who included them in a covenant of blessing and salvation also wants to include those who appear hostile or even unredeemable.  God’s inclusion and invitation is greater than theirs.

I must admit my own tendency to be like Jonah or that rich religious host.  Smugly, I assume and presume that God’s grace and blessings are for me.  After all, I like to “claim them” as my own and walk in them.  I have been taught that throughout my Christian journey.  However, I forget that God’s work of grace and salvation is for all people – inside and outside the covenant.  God’s desire is to show the world that he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending [judgment]” (Jonah 4:2).

Unwittingly, my assumption and presumption lend itself to a blind arrogance on my part.  I think that I have the inside track and have my “spiritual act” together, when in reality I may be farther away from God than the nearest sinner who is broken hearted over his or her sin.  Too often, I have pridefully approached God’s throne of grace and mercy and, when asked to confess my sin, have replied, “Let me think…ah…nope…got nothing.”  And then rejoice that my life is not the mess of “those sinners” around me.

I might as well be in Jonah’s place, asleep in the bow of a boat in the middle of a storm of judgment.  I can really be that spiritually unplugged and numb.  Broken and weeping sinners in repentance surpass me in spiritual awareness.  A visitation from the One I am looking for goes right past me and I miss the opportunity.  Worse yet, the One I say I live for and proudly proclaim to spiritually lost people visits them and I doubt their salvation and whether they really “got saved.”  I remain wary of whether God is really working to change their lives.  I suspect their claims to being blessed by the Lord.

Thankfully, God has not given up on working in people like me.  He is still interested in transforming doubtful, depressive, peevish, prideful, irritable, and obstinate Jonahs and religious people.  It may be time to take some lessons from newly redeemed sinners around me on humility and thankfulness.  Perhaps I can learn again the “joy of salvation” from “a gracious and compassionate God.”  At any rate, this “saint” has some catching up to do with the “sinners” around me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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