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Posts Tagged ‘New Testament’

One of the great strengths of the American church culture is the diversity.  Traveling around the country, especially in the large cities, one captures the multiple expressions of the Christian life just by reading the names of some of the churches.

  • Undenominational Holiness Church
  • The Cowboy Church
  • Run For Your Life International Chapel
  • End Time Evangelistic Pentecostal Church
  • Church Meat of the Word Sanctuary and Fellowship
  • Ram in the Bush Christian Center
  • The House of Prayer and Refuge
  • Cross  of Christ Deliverance Temple

These reflect a certain generation and identity.  Now the new church names are simpler but much more mysterious, such as,

  • Resonate
  • Revolution
  • Radiance
  • Elevation
  • Restoration
  • Renovation
  • enCompass
  • Epiphany Station
  • Soma
  • Journey
  • The River
  • The Flood
  • The Bridge
  • Imago Dei
  • Corem Deo
  • Passion City
  • Paradox
  • Renaissance Church
  • Origins
  • Legacy
  • Tapestry
  • Out Post
  • Generation
  • Encounter
  • Warehouse
  • Relevant
  • Radiant
  • Elevate
  • Illuminate
  • Anthem
  • TerraNova
  • Crux
  • Awakening
  • Expedition
  • Flipside
  • True North
  • Substance
  • Crossings
  • FrontLine
  • Depth
  • Sandals
  • Paradox
  • Vintage
  • The Cause
  • The Intersection
  • Element 3
  • The Exchange
  • Tribe
  • Enclave
  • Praxis
  • Immersion
  • Liquid

More than denominational identity, there is now competition to set oneself off from denominational labels.  In some instances, this is so much so that one can hardly discern what denominational distinctive separates a church from the rest.  They all just about look, sound and feel the same.  Denominational ties are hidden until one becomes a member or a leader of the church.

Purple Starfish in the Sun, May 2012

Purple Starfish in the Sun  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

So, one good thing that can be said about the American church is this: It’s not afraid, for the most part, to experiment. In fact, it could be argued that whole denominations or church movements have been built upon the charismatic entrepreneurship of a certain individual or group.  This has made the American church flexible and changeable.  However, is it changing fast enough today to keep up with the changes coming upon American culture?

In this series of blog articles, I have argued for a need to re-think how we plant churches today (Church Re-Formatted 1); that our focus should be on the fringes of our culture.  This is the fastest growing demographic and the least reached.  I have also attempted to give examples of how others in our past (Wesley, Booth, and Taylor in Church Re-Formatted 2) give us great examples of how this can be done.  More importantly, I hope to inspire others that it can be done and must be done again.

For instance, my community has witnessed a number of church plants in the past several years.  I have had a chance to interact with some of the church planters and pastors.  Almost in every case, the church plant was just like every other church already in town, reaching the same demographic and hoping to grow large enough to be self-sustaining (which usually translates into being able to pay the church planter or pastor, at least).  Only a couple of these plants have made intentional efforts to reach a non-churched or unreached sub-group of our community.  (My community is the Tri-Cities of Washington State – Kennewick, Richland, Pasco – whose population is 250,000+ including surrounding communities.)

To think missionaly about church planting in the U.S., especially in large cities and urban settings, the question must now begin with, “Who has God called us to reach?”  It may be that there is an unreached demographic or multiple demographics that are ready for a church plant.  Answering this question will help answer the next questions:  “Where will we plant a church?” and “How will we plant it and what will it look like?”

As suggested before, this may take a church planter or urban missionary into some unfamiliar territory.  However, it is precisely that ground that must be affected in our American culture.  These places remain the least reached and least affected by church efforts and witness.  They are also the fastest growing areas of our American society.

Some church leaders have begun to identify these places in our American society and call the church to action.  The scholars and authors I particularly have gleaned from are Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.  They have borrowed the sociological term “third places” (coined in 1989 by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg) to help the church think about the gathering places in their communities where people already gather.  The point is that this is where God’s people need to be present.  Instead of inviting the community to join us, we are invited to join our community.  It is in these places where God is “seeking and saving the lost”.  This is called the “attractional model” of evangelism versus the “missional model”.  To get a sample of this, take time to watch Michael Frost’s presentation below…

The missionary model requires church planters and leaders to ask the “Who?” question.  This sets their compass for everything that follows.  The model that Jesus gave us and used when he sent out the twelve apostles and later the seventy is pictured for us in Luke 10:1-8.  Rather than call a community to come hear them, the disciples were to go be in the community and among its members.

The way they did this was to identify a “person of peace.”  This person of peace was someone who was receptive to the message of the kingdom and who was also a person of influence in the community.  The key to the relationship to the community began with this person of peace.  It would be this person who would open or close the door to the rest of the community.  It would be through them that the gospel message would be most effectively communicated to everyone else.

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants

Sundog Over Graveyard of the Giants  ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, 2012

What would happen if a small group of Christians decided to plant themselves (church) among a group of unreached people?  Suppose they began by looking for the most receptive community leader or influencer?  What would happen if that community leader/influencer was won to Christ and then discipled to reach and tell the others in his/her community?  Suddenly, it is not outsiders bringing a message, but an insider who is bringing the message; an insider who knows the group’s language, values, ideals, and challenges.

Granted, if you are hoping to plant and soon develop then next mega-church, this may not be for you.  That will require you to compete with the other pop-culture churches in the community.  However, if you are looking to start something new that will reach new people and change lives, well, then, this may be how you will need church to be re-formatted for you.  It will no longer exist to only meet your needs.  Instead, it will exist to be a mission outpost in the center of a group of people who are far from God and far from what is familiar to you.  Someone needs to go.  Will you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, May 2012

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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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Small Church Big Impact

After leading churches for twenty-five years, I still find the landscape of evangelicalism in America disorienting and disconcerting. Our schizophrenic identity causes us all manner of agony as we attempt to come to grips with the reality that lies somewhere between what we want to be and what we really are.  Voices pull us in a myriad of directions.  “You should be doing this.”  “This is what successful churches do.”  “Growth is healthy.  How is it that this church is not bigger?

As a result, church leaders consume themselves with reading the next “cutting edge” ministry book, running to conferences sponsored by growing churches, and constantly searching for the missing ingredient their church lacks so that it can be like all the other apparently successful churches. I know.  I’ve been there, done that, and have the books, conference notes and congregational studies to prove it.

It was not until my last few years of ministry that the “light” came on and I came to realize that God has wired his church for diversity. Not every church must become the next Lakewood, Saddleback, Willow Creek, LifeChurch.tv, North Point, North Coast, Fellowship Church, Mars Hill, Seacoast, Mosaic, Potter’s House, Granger Community, Hillsong, Phoenix First Assembly, Crystal Cathedral, Brooklyn Tabernacle, Perimeter, or National Community.  The list could go on and on.  Every possible church model and denomination flavor could be added to the list.

This is not to suggest that these churches and their leaders think that every other church should be like them or do what they are doing to be “successful”. It is perhaps their unwitting followers and seekers of easy answers who push that impossible weight upon them.  Get close enough to them and one realizes that they, too, have their own problems and obstacles to continued health and growth.  No.  Looking to them is not the answer.

This is particular true for 80+ percent of the congregations in America. The vast majority of churches in America are still small.  They are most likely in rural or small town and small city settings.  The measure of church growth and congregational health must be much different than their counter parts in larger urban, suburban or metropolitan settings.  What would that measurement be?  What would successful ministry in that setting look like?

Unfortunately, there are no conferences to ask and answer such questions. At least, there are none that I am aware of at present.  Most of the pastors of these small congregations are bi-vocational and have neither the time nor the finances to traipse off to a conference at an upscale motel somewhere far away.  At least, when I was leading small Assembly of God congregations, I didn’t.

Nevertheless, small churches can have a huge impact upon the communities in which they are set. Even ones within large city and metropolitan areas can play a world-changing part in God’s mission to glorify his name.  It will mean, however, abandoning many (but not necessarily all) of the unrealistic ideas learned in the above mentioned books and seminars.  The good news is that it will mean a simpler and more missional approach to doing ministry.

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

Mother Goose, Winnipeg, Spring 2008

First, instead of wrestling with what the small church does not have, it is good to begin with taking an inventory of what the church does have by way of spiritual gifts, talents and resources. Since we are taught that it is God himself who has put together the body of Christ in all its various forms and settings (1 Corinthians 12:7,11,18,24b,27), stewardship of ministry must begin with clearly seeing what God has given and put together in the local body.  This goes far beyond only what the pastor does or can do.  Each person is a minister with grace-gifts to share with others.

Second, instead of focusing upon what the small church cannot do, it is good to celebrate the things it can do. Employing the small church’s resources through its people to serve real needs is the greatest way to honor what God has given to his church by his grace.  To do otherwise is to despise what God has given.  It is useless for the clay pot to say to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”  (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; Romans 9:20).

Third, instead of attempting to do everything, it is good to concentrate on the few things that can be done well. Someone wisely said, “You can’t boil the ocean, but you can boil a pot of water.”  Attempting to do too much is often the problem many small churches face.  They want to think that they can do all of the programs and ministries that larger churches are doing.  Therefore, they go through great pains to maintain services on Sunday mornings, evenings and mid-week as well as all of the accompany children’s programs.  This simply is not a reality nor a good stewardship of the talents, energies and resources the Lord has given to the congregation (Ephesian 4:7, 16).  It is also all very exhausting.  Instead of rejoicing in what is done well to glorify God’s name, a congregation becomes disillusioned and disheartened by poorly executed programs.

Finding its own identity and discovering its unique calling in the world is the task of every congregation and its leadership regardless of its size. However, I believe this is especially true of the small church.  Size does not limit kingdom impact.  Faithfulness and stewardship to God’s gifting and calling does.  A small church is positioned in many communities to be much more adept at serving the individual, family and homogeneous community.  It can do many things that a larger church is not able to do if it recognizes its gifting, calling and context.  Thus, it serves in a unique place in God’s mission to the world and can leave a big spiritual impact in its community and upon the lives it touches.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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Off Task

I had another one of those disappointing conversations with someone who used to go to church. I have had many of them over 25 years of leading churches.  However, in the last few years, my conversations like this have become more frequent.  I have also found that I have run out of answers or excuses for these very personal, heart-wrenching stories.

The experiences are as widely varied as the reasons for giving up on church as organized religion. Sometimes there was true spiritual abuse that scarred the individual.  Other times there was gross mismanagement of funds or responsibilities from the leadership.  Of course, the stories of petty in-fighting and ugly behavior come up too.  All of these things have not led the individuals to give up on God or their belief in the salvific work of Christ.  No.  They just cannot bring themselves to try church again.

Granted, there are those individuals who have caused their own problems. They brought trouble to the house of worship and left in a cloud of trouble.  They reaped what they sowed and left an unfortunate mess of weeds behind for others to clean up in God’s vineyard.  I am not addressing those individuals.  I am with the Apostle Paul when it comes to these individuals: “Let them go.”  I like the Apostle John‘s attitude, “They were from among us but were really not one of us so they went out from us.”  That is as it should be, I think.

No.  I am addressing those poor souls who really gave “church” a try; even multiple times. Perhaps they had just a run of bad luck in picking churches or they had anomalous experiences in otherwise great churches.  Not every church can bat 1.000 or even .333 for that matter.  No organization of people can.  We are all prone to make mistakes and miss opportunities.

Still, my conversation with this young man left me wondering.  Are most churches just “off task”? You know what I mean.  It is the same term a teacher uses for the student who is present but not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are “off task” and therefore are not getting their work done and turned in on time.  This usually results in a lot of extra homework and heartache for the parent.

In one blog article I wrote last year, I addressed the issue of the church needing to be “On Mission” – or “on task.” If we are not “on task” – fulfilling our mission as the body of Christ on earth – then we must be “off task” – present but not doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Like a poor performing student, this not only invites potential failure but a lot of heartache as well.  Thus the stories I run into time and again.

A young family in our apartment complex had been struggling financially with this economic downturn. The husband had lost his job and could not find another.  The wife had a part-time job with very few hours that barely kept food on the table.  Soon, the bills started piling up.  Then their car was repossessed, making it that much harder to get and keep a job.  Finally, they were getting eviction notices from the apartment managers.

This young family attended the largest church in our community; a church of a couple thousand. This growing congregation had recently finished building a new multi-million dollar facility and had just launched another campaign to build a 1.5 million dollar gymnasium.  It has all the marks of outward success.

Humbly, the young man approached the church for some kind of help. He figured they had been attending a number of years, had given financially to the church to support its ministries and had been actively involved in a few of them.  When he finally was able to talk to someone about his family’s needs, he was informed that the church had no resources to help them.  He was informed that one of the reasons was because the financial rough times had also hit the church and they were doing all they could just to keep the gymnasium construction going.

He went home desperate and broken. The one place he expected to be able to receive some kind of help and encouragement was gone.  There was no follow-up visit or phone call to offer helping the family connect with community resources.  They were on their own.  Well, not exactly.

The people of the apartment complex heard about this family’s needs. Some of them, complete strangers who did not know even their apartment number, chipped in to help catch up on rent.  One of the apartment complex repairmen, the young man I alluded to at the beginning of the blog, donated one of his cars to the family.  The family at this time is not interested in going to any church.  And it may be some time before they do.  I cannot blame them.

There is also an apartment with two women living in it. It has an elderly daughter taking care of her elderly mother.  Her mother has numerous health issues and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s.  They both looked forward to visiting church on Sundays because it was the one place they thought they could go, get out of their apartment and the about the only place the mother felt safe in a growing unfamiliar environment.  However, one Sunday they were pulled aside by the pastor who asked the daughter not to bring her mother to church anymore because her hearing-aides kept squeaking and disturbing the other parishioners around them.  Now they sit at home.  The daughter tending wounds from a church she and her mother had attended most of her life.

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As a former church leader, I understand that church experiences can be a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. I get that it is full of faulty humans who do not always behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.  I know all too well my own missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes that hurt others.  I also recognize those as times when I – when we – have lost sight of why we exist at all as the body of Christ: do his work and speak his words to reconcile the world to the Heavenly Father.

When the church gets off task, it becomes the worst of civil organizations. It would be better to become an Elks Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club or some other club members.  We are the worst because we so violate the high ideals to which we profess and call one another.  In the world of business, companies that get off task and away from the main product that made them successful in the first place go bankrupt.

When church becomes more about our buildings, positions of leadership, preferences and comfort, then we have gotten off task. When so much is expended to keep so few at ease and comfortable, then we are off task.  When our message is made irrelevant because of the life we model, we are off task.  When the life we model for others no longer reflects the mission of our founder, we are off task.

How do we know when we are “on task”? When our life and words express sacrificial love for God and for neighbor.  This is, after all, “the first and greatest commandment.”  It is the mark by which we will be identified by the rest of the world (“they will know you by your love for one another“).  It is the test everyone must pass to show they truly love (“greater love has no one than this, that s/he lay down his life for a friend“).

The exercises and lessons of this life’s classroom all have to do with teaching us how to love God and others sacrificially. It is the example and standard that Jesus set for us.  It is the command that we are given.  It is the test we must all pass, especially as the body of Christ.

Too many things can take us off task. They are too numerous to count.  It is perhaps one of the main weapons the enemy of our souls uses to distract us from our original task as a follower of Jesus.  However, at the end of the day, whether we were “on task” or “off task” will not be determined by sizable budgets, comfortable buildings or the number of butts in the seat on a Sunday morning.  No.  I think we will be asked only one question on our final test:  “How well did you love me and others?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 5

If we fail to acknowledge God at work in the ‘big events’ of our life, what is the likelihood that we will ever recognize him at work in the small, ordinary, everyday events of our life? Yes, it is a ‘step of faith’ – perhaps even a leap – for an individual to look at their life this way.  We are more prone to give Lady Luck, good fortune, or coincidence the credit than God.

It is perhaps the height of human hubris to refuse to give our Creator credit for anything good that happens in our life; let alone what good happens on earth in general. However, let something fall apart, a tragedy strike, catastrophe fall upon us or another part of our world and suddenly we want to point our finger heavenward and blame the Divine.  We want an explanation from God for our hurt and sorrow, even if we do it in doubt, “If there was a god, he/she would have prevented this!  That’s what I would have done if all the power of the universe were in my hands.

The Bible teaches us that, out of his sovereign will to run his creation or allow it to run according to the laws of creation he established, God permits his blessings to come to both the just and unjust of the world. It confounds those who think that they belong to a special religious club, which gives them privileges to God’s blessings and protections against bad things happening to them, that Jesus would teach us, “He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, MKJV).  It does not fit our theology, so we avoid it.

However, Job was a man in the Old Testament who knew both the blessings and the trials that come in this life. He was a man who looked like he had everything in life.  He was the model of success.  A day came, however, when everything he had and more was ripped from his life: financial security, family, peace, and good health.  Standing on the brink of his trust in God staring into the abyss of doubt and despair, his wife encouraged him to abandon all hope and leap by offering him the advice, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

At that moment, Job decided to take a step back from that abyss and offers this answer to his wife’s solution,Stop talking like a person who does not know God!  We accept the good things that God allows to come to us.  Shouldn’t we also accept the bad things that he allows to come to us?” (Job 2:10, my own paraphrase).  This seems to be the reverse side of the faith equation Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of Matthew (see above).  Instead of the sun and the rain, Job is thinking in terms of killing frosts and monsoons.  Everything that comes to us comes to us through what God allows.

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

This whole idea messes with our desire to have a god who is a benevolent benefactor handing out goodies to all his good children and handing out punishment to all his bad ones. However, this approach makes the Creator sound more like Santa Claus than a Divine Sovereign of the universe.  It also makes him petty and capricious.  In the end, we are left always trying to figure out how to keep God happy – be on his “nice list” – and on our side, lest we offend him somehow and get put on his “naughty list.”  After all, there are worse things than ‘lumps of coal’ in store for us if we do not stay on his good side, right?

The problem with this is that it makes the God of the universe as small as we are in our thinking and behavior.  Job seemed to understand this in the midst of his troubles. Jesus pointed us to a larger more complicated picture of God.  In his own day, many people who assumed they should have been on God’s ‘nice list’ were not and those who thought they were on God’s ‘naughty list’ were actually favored and shown mercy.  This really messed with the heads of the religious people of Jesus’ day and still messes with them today.  It is so unlike us and how we would do things.  And maybe that is just the point.

The key may not be what we focus on and weigh: whether events are good or bad for us.  It may be how we view them in light of our trust in God to work out all things for his purposes and his glory, not ours. This makes God bigger than us and our personal agendas or happiness.  God has a bigger picture and bigger story to tell.  We can allow our lives to be woven into that story or refuse.  Either way, it is all about the story of God’s glory revealed in all of creation.  Our redemption is a part of that story.  If we refuse, so will be our fall.

So, one of the keys to finding purpose in this life is to see how God is at work in all of our situations and the events that come to us – good or bad.

  • What is the story of faith and trust he wants to write through us?
  • How do the small acts of love, kindness and obedience add up to tell a larger story of God’s activity in our life?
  • When has he visited us or interrupted our lives in small or large ways to reveal his ways to us?
  • Who are the individuals in our lives with whom he wants us to weave our stories together?

And the questions and searching goes on.

A pinnacle for me in the realization of this was an experience that my wife and I had early on in our lives together. We were a young married couple just out of college.  I had just finished almost two-and-a-half years of being a youth pastor at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington.  Sensing a change coming, I quit the position fully expecting the Lord to open up something right away.  At least, that what I sincerely believe was going to happen.

Kelly had just finished teaching at Bremerton Christian School. However, she had become pregnant with our first child and they had a policy of not allowing young mothers to teach.  This left us both unemployed.  However, we were still hopeful and expecting the good Lord to bless us and show us the way.

Soon, however, as the months clicked away, it became apparent that nothing was going to materialize as quickly as we thought. Our savings became depleted.  The last pay check from the youth pastor position and teaching position came and went.  It was August of 1987, our son was due to be born at the beginning of October, and we were out of money.

I started taking the Seattle-Bremerton ferry to look for a job in Seattle. Out of desperation, I signed on with an employment agency in hopes that they could find something for me.  Finally, I was signed on with a job with the Pay-n-Pac Corporation – a large chain of home improvement stores.  I was assigned to the Rainier Valley store in Seattle.  This meant a long commute.  While it offered hope down the road, it only added to our immediate financial burden since I would need money for commuting and couldn’t expect a paycheck for two weeks.

We had no idea what to do. We limped financially through the beginning of August.  But unpaid bills were piling up.  September’s rent was soon to be due.  We were desperate.  We prayed and asked God to help.  But our situation only seemed to grow worse and more desperate.  We were reticent about reaching out to family and friends for help.  For Kelly, the days at home alone and pregnant with our first child were depressing and unbearable.  For me, the long commutes to Seattle were depressing.  Instead of listening to the radio like usual, I spent most of the hour-plus commute complaining to God about our predicament.

Where are you God?  Why aren’t you answering us?  Why don’t you provide?  What about the promises you made to us in the Bible?  Do you care about us?  How are we supposed to make it?  Are you really there?  Are you even listening to us?  What have we done to make you angry?  I left me job because I thought you had a plan, did I not hear you right?  Was my ‘step of faith’ a ‘step of stupid’?  Why are you putting us through all of this?  Do you want us to homeless and broke?  After serving in ministry for these last few years, are you just going to leave us hanging in the wind?”  You get the picture.  It was pretty much an hour each way each day of writing my own imprecatory psalms to the Lord.  Only mine didn’t sing as sell as King David’s.

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010

Fall Berries and Raindrops, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, while I was in the middle of my morning commute to Seattle’s Rainier Valley, a knock came to our door. It was early enough that Kelly was still in her pajamas.  Not knowing who it was that would be at our door in the morning, she looked through the peep-hole.  It turned out to be an elderly couple from the church we had just resigned from a couple months prior.  Bruce and Lois Wilkinson had become dear friends and a joy to be around.  He was retired from the Bremerton Shipyard.

Kelly wrapped herself in her bathrobe and opened the door to them.  “Good morning!” she greeted them.

Good morning,” Bruce answered.  “We have some things for you.”

And with that they began to bring in to our apartment bags and boxes of groceries.  Kelly was overwhelmed with the amount of food being brought in.  She continued to thank them profusely as the brought the items in from their car.

Finally, with the last bag of groceries brought in, Bruce and Lois turned to Kelly and said, “Our granddaughter and her husband got a hold of us the other day.  Apparently, they have been praying for you and felt led by the Lord to do something for you to help you guys out.”  He then handed Kelly an envelope.  “And we decided to add something to it ourselves,” Lois added.

We had come to know their granddaughter and her husband only briefly as he had been transferred to Guam by the Navy shortly after we had arrived at the church. Someone in Guam had been praying for us, felt led to “do something” for us, and acted upon it.  Pretty extraordinary when you take into consideration that we had shared with no one our situation.

Kelly looked surprised at first. Then, looking into Bruce and Lois’ smiling faces, began to cry.  She explained to them that they were truly an answer to prayer.  Little did either of us expect that an answer to our prayers would come via friends in Guam!  Bruce and Lois prayed for Kelly and I and our unborn son before they left.

After they left, Kelly put away the groceries. She was amazed at their generosity.  Then she sat down and opened the envelope.  It contained a check and cash.  Stunned, she added up the amount between the two.  Of course, the amount came to what we needed to pay August’s rent as well as September’s and catch up with all of our bills.

About that time, I arrived at work to one of my co-workers calling my name.

Hey, Ron!  You have a phone call.  Sounds like your wife,” they called out to me.

She never called me at work, so I worried, “What could it be?

Hi,” I tentatively greeted her.

Good morning,” she said cheerfully.  “I know you’re at work.  But, I just had to call and tell you.  You’ll never guess just what happened…

She was right.  I couldn’t.

Would I ever want to go through that experience again? No.  Have I gone through tough life situations since then?  Oh, yeah.  But what happened in August 1987 has helped me to learn and remember that even in the midst of our trials and troubles; God is weaving a story line bigger than just our parts.  In the midst of our troubles, someone else’s faith was being stretched into an act of obedience.  To minister to our discomfort and worry, someone else was being prodded to reach out in kindness, care and love.  So, on the good side and on the bad side of life’s experiences, God seems to be at work.

This perhaps is a key to discovering God at work in the big and small events of our life, whether they are good or bad. Solomon seemed to understand this spiritual axiom when he penned the proverb, “In whatever direction life’s road takes you look and listen for Him, and He will make your direction clear as you go” (Proverbs 3:6, my own paraphrase).  Life’s road can have some great stretches that bring us much joy.  But it can also have some rough patches and steep climbs that cause us grief.  Wherever you are, he is there.  Just look for him.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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