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Juan Williams

Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

It has become politically incorrect to voice one’s fears and anxieties publicly. Any insecurities one might have around a group of people are a social weakness and must be left unvoiced.  At least this is my take on recent events in the news.  The most glaring example is the firing of Juan Williams from NPR over expressing momentary personal anxieties he experiences when he gets on a plane with others overtly dressed as Muslims.

Keeping our fears and insecurities silent is precisely part of our problem. Where is the public forum to express openly and talk honestly about the experiences that frighten us?  When is there an opportunity to have a civil discussion about what are or are not rational fears public fears?  Dismissing and glossing over them only causes greater paranoia, I believe.

As a parent, when my children express a fear – rational or not – I want to talk with them about it. A healthy discussion with them helps me to address the difference between reality and perception.  Some fears are healthy and some are not, but telling my child they are “phobic” or dismissing them as immature will not help them.  Yet, it seems to me this is precisely the way those in government and media are attempting to treat the American people.

Anyone who expresses an anxiety or fear is labeled “phobic” – islamaphobe, homophobe, xenophobe, etc. This is intended to silence us and make us bury those fears deep within our psyche.  There is no public place to express them.  So, we do not talk about them.  We do not acknowledge our insecurities over those differences.  Instead, like the good stoic Northern Europeans we are, we are expected to get over them, move on and embrace everyone in every place regardless of how we really feel.  Don’t talk about “it.”  Don’t deal with “it.”  Hide “it.”

I do not think this is a long-term workable solution for peace and unity among humankind. Sooner or later, these unspoken fears will come out.  Precisely because they were not dealt with in a suitable manner today, their dormancy will give way to hatred towards those we fear in some tomorrow; especially in times of greater turmoil.  Consider past human actions against one another: Rwanda, European-Jewish history, American treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Sunnis and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan-India, South African Apartheid, and the Jim Crow laws of 20th century America.  The list is as endless as human history.

Our silent fears will not lie unspoken for very long. Human history has taught us that when it comes to conflict of any kind, we will bunch into “tribes” that will attack one another.  These “tribes” might not necessarily have their identity around ethnic or social affinities.  Today they are just as likely to form around ideological affinities: conservatives, liberals, socialists, capitalists, religionist, non-religionists and on the list goes into “pro-this” and “pro-that” or “anti-this” and “anti-that.”

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The greatest idea of founding American democracy was, I believe, the creation of a society where an open market place of ideas can be shared by everyone. This means that we must give voice to our differences and fears as well as our commonalities and passions.  Sure, we may even have to listen to people we disagree with on the most visceral level.  However, allowing their voices to be heard is much better for society overall than demanding it be silenced and relegated to the underground.

Giving air time in a public place for all ideas allows the larger public to determine the cogency and vitality of ideas and arguments. We need not censure the American public from them.  They will do so by themselves with thought and action.  If our ideas and ideals – political or religious – cannot stand on their own two feet in a public debate then perhaps it is time to reconsider our own position.

Vivian Schilling, the CEO of National Public Radio, and the other leaders of PRI (Public Radio International) should be ashamed of the way they handled the firing of Juan Williams. However, even more so, they need to reconsider how they treat sincere expressions of fear, anxieties and social concerns.  It is not enough to dismiss them as Vivian Schilling did with a suggestion that Juan Williams take his issues up with his psychiatrist.  There is a whole nation of people who know that twinge of fear, even if it is only momentary, when they get on a plane with people dressed as Muslims.  It is simply our current reality.

Would Juan Williams, who is himself of African-American descent, have received the similar discipline if he expressed the same fear about going into a poor African-American neighborhood with a history of drug and gang violence? Would he have been expected to not voice any fear if he had gone into a Ku Klux Klan meeting to do a reporting job?  The fact is that reporters, even NPR reporters, have a history of relaying personal impressions and expressions.  So, what makes this any different?  Oh, yeah.  It was on Fox News.  Well, that is another story.

Even in our current negative financial climate, the American people are chided for their fears. We are daily reminded that the problem is “the consumer confidence index.”  It indicates that we are fearful for the future and its uncertainty.  The expectation seems to be to overlook our fears and keep on buying and going into debt.  Until our own fears are conquered and we gain a positive consumer financial index, the economy is our fault.  Right.

Let us take the mute off of our fears and openly express them. We must not give in to our silent fears.  Instead, we are more apt to find solutions, overcome our fears and move confidently into our future side-by-side if we work together to address them.  Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed to the American people after the dark days of the beginning of The Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  By going on to acknowledging America’s fears he dis-empowered those fears.  Maybe he was only partially correct.  Maybe what we have to fear is our silent fears.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Let’s All Grow Up

As an observer and listener of world events across a spectrum of news channels, I am wondering what it is going to take for the more moderate voices in our world to be heard.  It seems that only the radical voices, extremists if you want, get all the air time.  And now, a small time pastor, Reverend Terry Jones, of a congregation of barely 50 persons and shrinking in Florida has captured the world stage with a threat to burn the Quran.

Almost a year ago (October 1, 2009 to be precise), I posted a blog article entitled, “Let’s All Calm Down.”  In it I called for people to settle down and realize that the issues we face today, when placed in historical context, should not be all that alarming to us.  Running around scream in a high-pitched Chicken Little-like voice that our world is ending is non-productive.  In historical context, politically and religiously, this is hardly the worst of times for the United States of America.

Whether it is debating health care, taxes or government programs, it seems that the discussion always devolves into a tit-for-tat battle.  In juvenile-like behavior patters, instead of taking responsibility for our own actions and outcomes, we seem to be concerned with who started it and placing the blame.  It is time we all grew up and got over “it” – whatever the particular “it” of the blame game we are playing.

This should go with Americans attitudes towards radical and extremists of the Muslim religion and vice-versa. Instead of trying to figure out who “drew first blood” so that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can be extracted, the mature adult thing to do would be to stand above the offense.  I often teach my kids when they are being picked on by their siblings or kids at school that one of the most potent weapons to disarm a potential enemy is to first not respond to their behaviors and actions.  If that does not work, then proceed to draw attention to their actions by drawing in the attention of others – authority figures and peers.  If your behavior is above reproach, they will support you and fight for you.  In the end, you will have to do very little.

Granted, this is a difficult approach to take when our emotions running high and our pride and feelings have been hurt. However, acting like a bunch of juvenile gang members or kids on a play ground seeking revenge for every slight will not get us anywhere either.  Someone needs to become the adult in a very volatile situation.  Reverting to our childhood antics and behaviors will not solve our world problems or bring peace.

So, the Reverend – with such a title used very loosely – Terry Jones seems to have forgotten the most basic teachings of Jesus when it comes to how we are to treat our enemies: pray for them, serve them and love them.  Of course, this requires a very mature approach toward our perceived enemies; many of whom turn out not to be our enemies at all but people only acting out of their own hurt and woundedness, albeit in an immature way.  Unfortunately, Terry Jones is not alone in America.  I have heard many people through our media respond in justifying the action of burning the Quran or vandalizing Islamic worship and community centers with:

  • “Well, they burn our flag in their land!”
  • “If they burn our Bibles, we should be able to burn their Holy Book.”
  • “Islam promotes hatred and persecution of Christians all over the world.”
  • “They were shouting Quranic verses when they flew those jets into the Twin Towers.”
  • “They preach against America as “the great Satan” and want to attack us again, so we have the right to practice our right to freedom of speech by letting them know how we feel about it.”
  • “We have the right to protest and practice our freedom of speech.  Who cares what they think about it.”

Notice that in some way all of these statements hold a kernel of truth.  The real question, however, is whether they are the mature, adult way to respond.  It may be true that my son was hit first by another kid at school.  That does not give him a right to retaliate in like manner and expect to not bear the consequences of those actions: trouble at school with possible expulsion and trouble at home.  It may be correct that another kid called my girl a nasty name, but that does not permit her to respond in a similar way.

We should expect no less of a response for our adult situations in a troubled world.  When will we start to grow up and act like the adults in this cosmic play ground?  When will we stop responding to force with force?  Or, reverting to name calling with name calling and demeaning labels?  Who will be the first to take the moral high road of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One would hope that Christians, in keeping with their message and mission, would be among those.  Where are the adult voices among all religions that call for tolerance, forgiveness, longsuffering, patience, kindness, grace, mercy and justice?  Who in the Christian community is calling for larger Christian community to reflect the teachings of Jesus on the world stage?  I believe they are out there.  They are just not being heard.  Bad news seems to sell better than any good news.  So, a crazy, fundamentalist pastor of an insignificant congregation in Florida gets world-wide air time while the deeds of countless Christians around the world to, for and among Muslims goes unrecorded.  Go figure.

I cannot speak for other world religions, but having been a Christian leader in congregations for 25 years and having studied the Bible with three degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, I do believe that I have some understanding of where Jesus would steer us:

  • “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.”  But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.  Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong.  If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends.  If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?  But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5:43 – 48)
  • “Whenever you stand up to pray, you must forgive what others have done to you. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins.”  (Matt. 11:25, 26)
  • “Even if one of them mistreats you seven times in one day and says, “I am sorry,” you should still forgive that person.”  (Luke 17:4)
  • “But love your enemies and be good to them…Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you.  Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.”  (Luke 6:35 – 37)

Or, where the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the churches would take us:

  • “Dear friends, don’t try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, “I am the one to take revenge and pay them back.  The Scriptures also say, “If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat.  And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads.  Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:19 – 21)
  • “Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude.  Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:31, 32)
  • “…forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  (Col. 3:13)

The easy road to take?  No!  But being the mature adult in a room full of children is never an easy task.  It is tiring and trying.  Ask any middle school teacher.  However, it is the road that a majority must willingly and intentionally take to make our world a better place.

Will it come with a price?  Yes!  It will mean being willing to take the brunt of abuses given by those who choose to act out.  The role of the parent in the home is not to reflect the behaviors of the children in the home.  This may mean not taking the ravings of their teenager to seriously.  It may mean overlooking the slight of an angry child who screams, “I hate you!”  Shouting, “I hate you too!” back will only escalate the problem not solve it.  So, assuming the posture of the adult on the world stage may mean absorbing abuses and even the shedding of our own blood.

I do not know a parent of any child who at some time has not wished that the responsibility for being the adult in the home was not theirs.  That is only natural because it can be an exhausting and frustrating endeavor to constantly provide for and police those given into our charge.  However, surrendering our position is not an option.  Neither is reverting back to our own child-like behaviors of our past.  Fortunately, there are many all across the spectrum of religions and politics who act responsibly.  They take care of the poor, stand against injustice, suffer with the disenfranchised, come alongside the marginalized and actively contribute to making our world a better place.  We just need more of them and need to hear their voices.

So, it is time we all grew up.  Stop acting and responding like children.  Begin to behave out of our higher ideals and values – political and religious.  Be willing to bear the cost of improving our world for our children.  Become the voices of reason against the squall or school-yard language and rhetoric.  Refuse to play the “who done it to who first game.”  Then, perhaps in time, the whole world will grow up to become what we all hope it will become.  A place where we can all get along.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Outward Posture, Inward Rebellion

There is something innate in human nature that makes most people want to conform to the social mores of a group to be accepted. It is the way we identify “those who are like us” and “those who are not like us.”  Even those who consider themselves mavericks, loners and social outcasts often conform to way of behaving and dressing that identifies them with all the other mavericks, loners and social outcasts.  As such, paradoxically, they become a part of their own self-identified group even though they want to exhibit their individualism and anti-group attitude.

No where is the propensity to want to identify with a particular coterie more evident than in or among religious and political groups. Even then, political assemblies do not hold a candle stick to the divisive nature of religious groups.  This is not just an issue with any one particular religion, but all religions.  Christians used to murder one another over doctrinal distinctives as quickly as Muslim Sunnis, Shias and other Islamic sects do today in the Middle and Far East.  Hindu castes war with one another and tribalism is known to rule many parts of the warring factions of Buddhists.

I am not able to speak to the other religions state of division, but I am not the only one among Christians who are dismayed at the lack of charity and love many Christians show one another from different doctrinal streams. This is especially ironic given the particular emphasis its founder, Jesus the Messiah, place upon “loving one another” in the Christian community.  It was these loving, grace-filled communities that were supposed to be a sign and witness to the rest of the world that God’s Kingdom had truly come to earth.

Without denying what is clearly described as the central tenets of the faith that all Christians can agree upon, nor marginalizing what all can agree Scripture clearly identifies as sin, it seems to me that there is a lot of room for allowing others to follow Jesus according to the dictates of one’s own heart and conscience without imposing those upon others.  Alas, this does not seem to be the case.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, Christians are determined to cluster in groups for the only particular purpose of identifying “who is in” and “who is out;” like they have some decision in the matter of who actually gets into heaven and who doesn’t.

So, we like to bunch ourselves around labels: conservatives versus liberals, fundamentalists versus evangelicals, pentecostals versus charismatics, dunking baptizers versus sprinkling baptizers, social gospel versus proclamation gospel, baby baptizers versus baby dedicators, congregationalists versus presbyteries, hi-church versus lo-church, liturgical versus non-liturgical, King James version only versus modern translations, traditional church music versus contemporary church music, denominational versus independent non-denominational.  And the grouping goes on and on and on.

It would be one thing if this was simply an attempt to gather like minds and hearts to worship and learn together. This could be done while at the same time recognizing and embracing other Christian fellowships that have different expressions and doctrinal emphases.  Sadly, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches and their followers.  The pride of triumphalism creeps into the gang gathered that emits an attitude that communicates, if not expressed overtly and outwardly at least inwardly, that they are the “only true” believers on God’s planet.  God must laugh, or weep.

All that we seemed to have accomplished with such behaviors is to confound nonbelievers and tarnish our testimony to the One we are striving to follow. Then, to make matters worse, our efforts to ensure group conformity in beliefs and behaviors only produce among us disingenuous and hypocritical believers.  The disciples we produce are able to spout our dearest doctrinal truths and exhibit, at least while within and among the group, the expected pious behavior.  Thus, they have an outward posture that says they genuinely belong to the Christian sect, but inwardly struggle with rebellion that will express itself sooner or later.

Once again, human efforts at religion create a human-focused and human-energized faith system. A faith system that holds in bondage its followers to a scripted religious expression and holds at a distance anyone who is at variant with that particular expression.  Is doctrine important?  Yes.  Is righteousness or right-living important?  Yes.  However, outward conformity to either of these without a change in heart only breeds a deadly religious syncretism where faith and belief do not really change attitude and heart.

Extending love and grace to everyone on their spiritual journeys, no matter where they may be in them, is the only way to live in the communal unity Jesus called his disciple to attain. Instead of attempting to identify “who’s in” and “who’s out,” what if every Christian fellowships goal was to identify where people are on their spiritual pilgrimage?  What if Christians permitted one anther to cluster around like interests and similar spiritual journeys without rejecting or disparaging other Christians of different interests and dissimilar spiritual journeys?

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

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

In my household, all four of my children are different from one another. They have different abilities and talents; dissimilar likes and dislikes; as well as a various mix of personality traits from their paternal and maternal side of the family.  In my household, I do not attempt to make them all like the same thing.  They do not all have to play the same sport or same games.  Even the formation of their behaviors and beliefs has taken on unique and interesting paths.

I do not love any one of them more than any other. I love each of my kids dearly.  I cannot imagine my household without them.  Each of their character, sense of humor, way of doing things, seeing things, approaching things and processing things adds variety to our family life.  Yes.  Sometimes it is frustrating and even maddening.  At the same time, all of our differences can bring hilarity and light moments.

The point is this: we do not sit around the dining room table trying to identify who is really part of the family and who is not.  As amazingly different as we are all from one another, there is enough family resemblance to assure us that there is no mistaking our family tree.  Instead of picking one another a part with differences, we attempt to celebrate them.  And, as we mature, those very traits that once drove us to distraction when we were younger now become the most endearing qualities we love about each other.

We are not a perfect family. We have our dysfunctions for sure; just like God’s family here on earth.  What if God sees his family like this?  What if he loves each of our clusters, fellowships and groups as much as the next one?  What if he looked upon us with loving eyes and just wished we would honor and love each other the way he esteems and loves us?  What if he recognizes our spiritual quirks, illogical dogmas and inconsistent righteousness and loves us anyway and wishes we would do the same for each other?  Imagine that for a moment.

In truth, humanity is broken. Along with the rest of humanity, Christians are broken people seeking healing and wholeness in their Creator.  In the long run, it may suit our efforts toward personal healing and wholeness and seeing God’s Kingdom truly come to earth if we simply stopped and rejected our own religious posturing.  Rather than expending so much energy identifying “who’s in” and “who’s out,” if we took time to recognize our own tendencies toward inward rebellion, we may be more apt to extend grace to others.  This, in turn, may allow us to broaden our acceptance, care and love to all our spiritual siblings in the heavenly Father’s household.  It is, after all, his house and not ours.

©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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Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The State of Fear and Ignorance

Most of us do more out of fear and ignorance than we do out of courage and wisdom.  I know that my personal track record in that arena is not that good anyway.  Why is it that fear is such a greater motivator than courage or bravery?  Why are we so susceptible to acting in our ignorance before seeking wisdom and understanding concerning our circumstances?  Even the best of us can be taken down by these two imps of degenerate humanity.

I am constantly reminded of this in our current world affairs in the Middle East.  The West’s attempt to conquer the enemy of freedom and democracy as it appears in Al Qaeda and Taliban groups underscores this problem.  Instead of addressing the human equation, Western nations think that they are simply dealing with something that requires a military solution.  As history has showed us in all of our wars, it is never that simple.  There are many reasons why people go to war to protect their land or to force out a perceived invader.  Sometimes it is as raw and simple as “It pays the bills.”  Thus, it is another career choice and creates and military economy.

I just recently finished a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin entitled, “Three Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time” (Penguin Books, 2006).  It is so good that I purchases the follow-up book, “Stones into Schools:  Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Greg Mortenson.  It is a remarkable book about how one man is changing the world through building schools for children, especially girls.  His personal story is so remarkable and well known among the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he is accepted in some of the most hostile places to any other American.  It only begs the question: “How come more people are not doing this?  How come our American government is not taking more of this approach to defeating the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in this part of the world?

Greg Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea is not a tale of unbroken successes.  It includes many failures as well as starts-and-stops.  Nevertheless, Mortenson’s persistence and willingness to be humble and learn the ways of others wins the day.  The key is relationships; by willing to take the time to build relationships, which takes time and patience, Greg Mortenson gained permission to have influence to help tribal groups better the lives of their children.  Thus, the work of Central Asia Institute was born and given life.  This is the idea of the three cups of tea Greg Mortenson had to experience in every village with every leader:  “The first cup of tea, you are a stranger.  The second cup of tea, you are a guest.  The third cup of tea, you are family and we will die for our family.”

California Poppies, Spring 2009

California Poppies, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

What is discovered vicariously through Mortenson’s experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that the Muslim people there want the same thing that everyone in the world wants for themselves and their families: jobs, peace, and a secure future.  Poverty, warfare and instability drive even the most peace loving people to desperate actions for a different life.  We have witnessed that as Americans in our own history during and immediately following the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Mortenson’s conviction is that education is a key to freedom from poverty, constant war and government instability.  The early results from his successes at building schools in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to confirm this proposal.  The local people are willing to fight for themselves against the Al Qaeda and Taliban if they are given the right tools, starting with an education, then with clean water and finally economic development.  Groups like Pennies for Peace help advance this very simple premise.

The saddest part of the book, “Three Cups of Tea,” was the reaction of some Americans to Greg Mortenson’s efforts.  It would appear that fear and ignorance on the American side of the equation is just as dangerous as it is on the Muslim side.  There is still a state of fear and ignorance that many Americans hold to all Muslims; just witness the recent reaction of so many Americans to the idea of a mosque being built near the ground zero of the World Trade Center.  The assumption is that most or all Muslims are terrorists who want to kill, maim, and destroy anyone from the west.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The largest single effort to defeat radical, extremist Islamic Fundamentalists can only be through building relationships that bring about mutual understanding and respect.  By taking time to build relationships that binds the hearts and minds of people together, the world can change.  We must face the fact that there will always be haters and destroyers in the world.  We may not be able to change them.  However, we can change the state of fear and ignorance in which they hold everyone.  Let’s pray more Greg Mortenson’s arrive to help us get there.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Untamable God – Part 2

Continued…

One of the most powerful kings to ever rule the earth learned the lesson of God’s sovereignty the hard way.  Nebuchadnezzar thought that he was in control and that he had accomplished everything without any input from a god.  In fact, he thought he was a god.  In a dream (Daniel 4), he learns that his kingdom will be taken away unless he acknowledges God’s sovereignty and majesty.  Four times (4:17; 4:25; 4:32 and 5:21) the reader of Daniel’s book is reminded “the most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.”  This echoes Psalm 47, which says, “God reigns over the nations…for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted” (vv. 8, 9).  This is a lesson that king Nebuchadnezzar was about to learn the hard way.

It took a long time before Nebuchadnezzar learned his lesson, but in the end he finally acknowledged that “the Most High…does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.  No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ ” (4:35).  As the Sovereign Creator, God does what He wants without questions.  He does not have to answer to anyone for His actions or non-actions.

This was the lesson that Isaiah learned and tried to teach Israel:  “You turn things upside down as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!  Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’?  Can the pot say to the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” (Isaiah 29:16, see also 45:9, 10).  Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Yet, is that not precisely what we often say or how we act when God seems to not work in the way we think He should.  We fall into completely denying Him (“He is not God…at least not my god.”) or accusing Him of not knowing what He’s doing (as if He should or would do what we would do).

After going through an interminable period of one trial after another, Job and his friends argued over what was the “cause-and-effect” of Job’s seeming down-turn in fortune.  Job didn’t want to accuse God, but did want to make his point to God that he should receive the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for all his troubles since he had been so good (i.e. “righteous”).  Job’s friends – rightly still called today “Job’s comforters” – argued that Job must have done something wrong and needed to repent.  Both Job and his friends seemed to think that they had some kind of “Club Membership” that allow them to skip life’s difficulties and traumas.  It is no wonder, then, that the Sovereign God finally shows up to put both in their places:  Job’s friends for falsely accusing Job, and Job for questioning God’s sovereignty.  (Turns out that we get into trouble spiritually when we take the judgment seat to pronouncement judgments against our friends and God.  It seems that seat is reserved for only One Being.)

God puts Job in on the spot, just as He does all humans who think they know better than God how to run the world, by asking him, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (38:1).  After that, Job gets an earful from God as God goes through a series of questions that ask, in one form or another, “Where were you when I….?” and, essentially, “When I was creating this…what were you doing?”

Finally, God the righteous judges sits down to listens to Job’s reply after asking him, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?  Let him who accuses God answer him!” (40:2).  Smartly, Job simply answers, “How can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth” (40:3).  God is not through, however, and launches into another series of questions that ultimately sound like, “Since you think you can do a better job, Job, you come up here and sit on this throne for a while!”  Again, Job, getting God’s message loud and clear finally admits, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwartedI spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:2, 3).

Grand Coulee Dam at Night, Summer 2009

Grand Coulee Dam at Night, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Three of Daniel’s friends seemed to understand this about God.  They were placed in the ‘hot seat’ for their faith – literally.  They refused to bow to a golden image of king Nebuchadnezzar; even with the king and his royal entourage right in front of them.  (Talk about being “put on the spot” and peer pressure at the same time!)  They were threatened to be thrown into a fire furnace heated seven times hotter than normal; so hot it instantly killed the soldiers charged with throwing them into the furnace.  One would think – according to our modern American pop-theology – that then would have been a great time for God to show up.  He did not.

Divine interference would have been the preferred action before the fire in our thinking.  However, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego recognized God’s sovereignty in their situation.  Their response to Nebuchadnezzar’s angry threat was “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (3:17, 18).  That, my friends, is faith in a big God who is Sovereign to do as He wills.  God did rescue them but in the midst of the fire, not before.  I cannot imagine these three Hebrew young men arguing with God, “Seriously?  Couldn’t you have showed up a little sooner!?

Perhaps some Muslims have an understanding of a sovereign deity better than American Christians do.  Granted, it has led many of them into a fatalism of their faith.  That has been a danger for Christians too.  However, when they do not readily recognize God’s plans or will, then they have learned to say, Inshallah” – “As Allah wills.”  Jesus, who as the Son of God knew the heavenly Father’s heart, will and plans better than anyone, also prayed “not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39; Luke 2:42).  No wonder He taught His disciples and us to include in our prayers, “Your will be done one earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9 – 13; Luke 11:2 – 4).

It seems that God refuses to be tamed and be made nice for us to play with in our leisure. On the other hand, do we really want a God that we can put in our pocket like a rabbit’s foot lucky-charm?  Is a God who is always disposed to our whims really big enough to serve or worthy of worship?  I don’t think so.  The One who sits over all His creation and all the nations of the earth is too big, too untamable.  He does as He pleases.  We serve Him, not He us.  If this is true, and I believe it is, then we better get used to being more like Job when it comes to things we cannot explain.  Admit that God is too big to explain and shut up.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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