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Posts Tagged ‘Northwest University’

On Training Shepherds

A short time ago I wrote a blog article entitled “Training Shepherds.” I attempted a modern-day parable of sorts.  It was a word picture in parable form of what I think has been the evolution of clergy or pastoral training for many churches and their denominations.  In this article, I would like to explain my understanding and thinking of this subject.

I make no claims to having all the answers. I also readily acknowledge that all forms of education and mentoring have their own problems inherent in them.  There is no perfect system.

That being said, I have the unique position of observing the changes of pastoral training over a number of decades. First through my parents’ eyes as they are products of an older system of training and mentoring.  Second through my own eyes as I followed years later in my own training, through the evolved institution, and now as I hear and observe close peers who children are attempting to go through the same institution with its still further changes.  These changes are what I attempted to portray in my parable “Training Shepherds.”

Also, I maintain close ties to individuals who work within the education institution that my parents and I graduated from years ago. So, I have had the opportunity to hear the challenges and concerns from inside it.  They are similar to the ones I have heard from friends in other higher religious education institutions which try to train people for ministry.  So, I feel that many of the issues are the same across the board.  The places and faces change but the stories remain the same.

Finally, a study of the history of various religious institutions and their development over time tells us that these developments seem to be normative. The consequences for affiliated churches and denominations who accept their graduates into clergy status seem to be universal.  It would seem that no institution’s original mission and calling has ever succeeded its own success.

To provide full disclosure, I was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination. My parents, right out of high school, attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, which was originally part of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in North Seattle, Washington.  Their final years (’59, ’60), the school moved to its own location near Kirkland, Washington, on an old military base near Lake Washington.

Like my parents, I attended what had become Northwest Bible College, later shortened to Northwest College as it took on more liberal arts studies for other careers. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Then, while my wife completed her B.A. in Elementary Education, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree.  After college, I went on to a couple ministry position and then attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  Afterward, I continued in ministry in Assembly of God churches.

I very much appreciate the education I received at both of the schools I attended. I have no “sour grapes” to harvest and serve up.  This serves as only my recollections and observations in hopes that a healthy dialogue will be generated concerning the education and training of people for ministry in whatever church, denomination or field of service in which they feel called to serve.  It is a distillation of many hours of conversations with friends in and out of ministry, other friends involved in Christian higher education, and personal experience and studies.

In part, we become the product of our own making. This is no less true of institutions than it is of individuals.  Each decision and subsequent action has a ripple effect that we cannot always predict but will nevertheless in the end make or remake us.  Sometimes, our assumptions based upon what others are doing around us can be a basis for those decisions and actions.  Otherwise, how is it that so many end up in the same place even though each one determined that it would not be so?  We assume that taking the same road traveled by others will bring us to a different conclusion because we will travel it better and more careful.

I surmise this is often what happens to denominations and their institutions of higher education. Consider the history of some of America’s greatest halls of learning.  They began as places for training clergy.  Their early stories include historical figures that played major roles in pastoral, missional and theological works.  Now, however, they are bastions of the most liberal type of education – far from “Christian” higher education and no where near their original intent to train people for ministry.  What happened?

I suspect that what happened is not all too different from what we see happening today in many Evangelical colleges and universities. There is a declension towards taking the road everyone else is taking to be “successful.”  Changes are made to increase enrollment to increase revenue so that the school can grow to increase enrollment to increase revenue, ad infinitum.

This is in no way to suggest that a Christian liberal arts education is undesirable. It is a wonderful thing.  Many evangelical colleges and universities are doing this very well.  However, the point I am attempting here is all about maintaining the original mission of training people for ministry work in churches and mission fields.  Can a school accomplish both?  Perhaps.  I do not know because I do not know of a good example of it.  Usually, one must gives way to the other and it usually comes down to “bucks and butts” – how much money students and their desired degrees bring in and how many students each area of study itself attracts.

When a school expands to accommodate other fields of study, it by necessity must give up something it is already doing. It is a general rule of life that one cannot say “Yes” to something without saying “No” to something else.  At the same time, saying “No” to some things allows one to say “Yes” to things that really matter.  We would like to believe that we can do everything at all times equally well.  However, it is hard to point to a successful example of it.

So, this is not to critique a Christian liberal arts education. If that is the stated goal and mission of the Christian school of higher education, then we can be satisfied with it and move on.  There are many great Evangelical school that are doing a great job of accomplish this mission.  However, this is a critique of the present state of educating and training clergy persons.  It is my observation that we seem to be “losing the battle” of training and equipping young people for ministry.  I say this as a pastor within the church and denomination.

I know that within the Assemblies of God denomination the median age of ministers keeps rising, there are not enough young ministers entering ministry as pastors or missionaries to replace those who are retiring, and there are not enough individuals willing and able to pastor the growing number of small churches who are presently left with no pastor. This does not even begin to address the needs of individuals who are needed to pioneer new ministries.  This dilemma is repeated in other denominations according to my circle of ministry friends.

When my parents attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, almost all of the students attending were exploring or pursuing the possibilities of active ministry of some kind. Did all of them end up in full-time ministry?  No.  However, it was the purpose and goal of the school to be a place where that could be explored under the guidance of experienced pastors, solid Bible teachers, and exposure to ministry in various forms.  Many, many individuals did leave the school to go on to become missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

Today, at what is now Northwest University, the number of students in the School of Ministry numbers hardly more than a dozen. This is out of a school population of around one thousand.  Slightly more than one-third of the students even come from an Assemblies of God church.  So, while the school has grown in popularity for a wide diverse audience interested in pursuing a Christian education for careers in medicine, business, education, etc., it has lost its connection to its core constituency and mission.  (Incidentally, I remember when I was at Northwest and there was concern when the number of ministry students in training fell under 100.)

This may be a natural consequence of decisions made to broaden the mission of the school. If that is what it is (and I am certain it is) and if everyone is alright with this (and it seems that most people are, in fact, aligned on this point), then church and denominational leaders must quit agonizing over their loss.  Move on.

The question that must be answered and one that needs to be acknowledge may lie outside what the present institution (Northwest University) can offer isWhere do we go from here to adequately train people for ministry?  How can we challenge more young people to consider full-time ministry of service rather than simply a career to make money?

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I suggest in my parable “Training Shepherds“, we may need to return to the original model and original mission – or some variation of it. Let me suggest why training up people for ministry under the tutelage of elder pastors and local churches may be a better way forward:

  • Financially – The cost of receiving an education from a private Christian school is prohibitive for people wanting to enter full-time ministry.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of our churches are small churches who can barely pay the living expenses of a pastor.  Forget health insurance, retirement contributions or saving because most pastors that I know in these congregations are just able to get by on the churches salary.  Most of them are bi-vocational, which means they have another job or career that supports them in ministry.  This is not to put down small churches (they make up most of our churches) or the communities they serve.  It is simply the reality that is too often forgotten by student and institution alike.  Many elder-shepherds have graduate degrees and many years of experience of exegeting and teaching the Bible, they will be able teachers.  Likewise, with the availability of online classes, correspondent courses, and seminar course work, a student would be able to receive a very fine education without the cost of paying full tuition for attending a school campus.  This would allow a local church to also invest in the education and training of the student, which is something that does not happen too often now because of the disconnect between the churches and their institutions of higher learning.
  • Educationally – I have often wondered if removing someone from ministry context, sequestering them on campus for four years and then sending them back into ministry contexts was the best way to train young people for ministry.  I chose ministry late in my education career.  It is one of the reasons why I went to seminary.  Even though I was heavily involved in my churches throughout my educational experiences, I really had very little real chance to experience ministry by shadowing someone in ministry, being mentored by an elder or being required to do something substantive in a ministry situation.  For my M.Div. practicum, I wrote an ushers and greeters manual for our church.  While it was a great exercise and I hope a help to my church, I never once was asked or challenged to be involved as an usher or greeter.  So, a writing project was to suffice fulfillment for my graduate “practicum”.  (Perhaps I need to look up “practicum” again.)  Classroom education cannot replace hands-on experience.  Knowledge of the Bible cannot substitute for knowledge of working with people in all sorts of life situations.  Learning under the tutelage of a professor what church books, constitution and bylaws and ministry meetings should be like can never fill the gaping hole left by the lack of handling them.  The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in ministry context is paramount to training and equipping.  It needs to be done before one is launched into ministry of any kind.
  • Relationally – While I look back with fondness on almost all of my professors in Bible college and seminary, the relationships that have stuck with me and continue to shape me are my peers in ministry.  Helping young people in ministry establish a mentoring relationship with an elder-pastor will carry them a long way into their ministry years.  In their turn, one day they will have the opportunity to give time to mentoring and training someone else.  This relationship can work both ways.  For the elder-shepherd will find his or her own ministry and life challenged by the fresh generational perspectives and energies of those placed under his or her care.  This will enable an opportunity to hold on to unchanging truths and practices while also embracing new ides and approaches to ministry.  The one in training will gain from the years of experience and the wisdom of someone who has been successful in ministry by learning unchanging truths and exploring opportunities.  The whole church would benefit from the synergy that results from such an association.

These are broad ideas and applications. However, the crisis of calling and training new shepherds for the Master’s fields and flocks is important.  Is it critical?  I do not know, but I hope we figure out some way to return to the important mission of calling and equipping people for ministry in an effective way before it becomes so.

What is evident is that what most churches and denominations are attempting to do is not working. When we look at developing churches in other places around the world, their model does not look anything like ours in the United States.  In many of these places, the number of followers of Christ and churches is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with training shepherds.  When one examines them, it appears that they took the pages right out of our original plans and approaches.  So, if it seems to work for them, maybe we need to go back to what we did at the beginning of our development, albeit with the advantages we have today with modern resources and tools.

A missional approach is perhaps exactly what we need to focus upon again. Returning to our original calling and mission when it comes to specifically training people for ministry may lead to different answers than what I have suggested here.  I am not in a position of influence to affect such a course for others.  However, until things do change, I know what I will be recommending to those who ask me about going into ministry and the best way to be trained, “Find a place that is focused on its mission and calling to train for pastoral ministry and that will give you experience in ministry.  Go there.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Training Shepherds

Shepherd in Făgăraş Mountains, Romania

Shepherd and Sheep/Image via Wikipedia

A king ruled a country whose main business was raising sheep and managing flocks. As the flocks throughout the land grew, the need for trained shepherds grew great.  The idea of having shepherdless flocks or sheep without a shepherd was intolerable.  So, the king called his wisest shepherds together to solve the problem of the shortage of shepherds.  After a great deal of deliberation, it was proposed that, to solve the problem of the shepherd shortage, they begin with the elder-shepherds who successfully watched over and grew their flocks.  These wise shepherds would be in charge of training young shepherds placed under their wise counsel and care.

So, the successful elder-shepherds took young people who aspired to shepherding under their leadership. They modeled good shepherding and allowed the young trainees to shadow them as they went about doing their shepherdly duties.  Regular study in “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks” took place every day.  As the young shepherds in training grew more confident and comfortable in shepherding duties, the elder-shepherds allowed them to take on responsibilities for the flock under their watchful eye.

Some trainees proved very adept and were considered to have a calling to shepherding by their mentor shepherds. They were encouraged to pursue raising a flock of their own to shepherd.  Some young shepherds took over part of an elder-shepherd’s flock to raise as their own.  Others were given a few sheep and encouraged to start growing a flock of their own in other pastures.

Meanwhile, other trainees discovered that shepherding and caring for sheep was not for them. With the blessing of the training-shepherds, they were steered to find other career paths and soon found careers more suited to them.  They went on to support and encourage those who continued in the work of shepherding the sheep of the land.

All of these efforts resulted in growing flocks all across the land. Sheep were well tended and shepherds trained to care for them were successful in their duties.  The result was that there were less and less sheep without a shepherd who could be scattered and devoured by wild animals.  The number of shepherdless sheep wandering the land was dramatically reduced.  The king was very pleased.

After some time, a committee of shepherd-leaders gathered together to discuss how the training of young shepherds was going. The number of trainees had grown very large while the number of training shepherds remained very limited.  After much discussion, it was decided to open a school for training more shepherds.  In this manner, young shepherds could be trained in large groups and sent into the pastures of the king.

Throughout the land, great excitement  accompanied the announcement of a school for shepherds. It was thought that educating and training of shepherds in a large group setting was a wonderful idea.  So, many people in the land supported the idea of the school.  There was so much enthusiasm that money was raised so that land could be bought, full-time training shepherds could be hired, and buildings built to accommodate them all.  The day of dedication for the school was a grand and historic day for everyone.

Soon, young people who desired training as a shepherd gathered at the school. The elder-shepherds working with their flocks went on shepherding without the responsibility of training young shepherds.  Now they could focus solely on shepherding.  At the same time, young potential shepherds were sent away to a special school for training.  Some had to move far away from the flocks and pastures they grew up around to attend the school for shepherds.

Specially educated elder-shepherds trained young shepherds without actually working with sheep. Many of the elder shepherds, while having never actually worked with flocks or, at least, having not done so for years, did their best to prepare the future sheep herders for the future.  They were trained in sheep-talk, methods of effective shepherding, how to identify good sheep from bad sheep, managing and leading sheep, how to sing to sheep and, most important of all, how to study and apply “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks.”

One day, someone suggested a small change to how the school for shepherd training was run. They thought that other young people not necessarily going into the shepherding business would benefit from the training and education of the scholarly elder-shepherds.    It was thought that allowing the education and training of young people from all walks of life would help advance and support the main business of raising sheep.  So, the school was expanded to include training for other careers.  This was a wonderful suggestion and  soon the school grew even larger with young people from all over the kingdom.

It was not too long before someone noticed that those at the shepherd training school who were not planning on actually becoming shepherds was greater than those who were planning on becoming shepherds. Wise business and community leaders suggested that, since this was the case, the school should be expanded to help train the other young people for their perspective careers too.  After all, why couldn’t this wonderful school for shepherds also train medical people, teachers, business people, and even other scholars in the discipline of shepherding and understanding “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks”?  It was decided that this should be so.  So, other schools and training rooms were added to the school for training shepherds.

The school grew and grew. It gained success and even competed with other schools in their own areas of study.  However, everyone took great pride in the fact that, while they did train young people for other professions and careers, this school started out as a training school for shepherds.  In fact, many of the old graduates and supporters still considered it a training school for shepherds even though the number of shepherds in training was not what it once had been when it trained only shepherds.

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

However, change has its consequences. Soon, the cost of educating everyone, not just those who had a desire and perhaps a calling to become shepherds, made it very difficult for those wanting to enter the career of shepherding, which paid very poorly but was, nevertheless, very greatly needed throughout the land.  For, you see, many flocks throughout the kingdom were small and barely supported a shepherd and his family.  So, future shepherds found it too difficult to attend the school because of the cost.  Slowly, some of them decided that perhaps shepherding was not for them and began to seek other things to do in life.  It was not too long until others noticed that the number of shepherds in training at the school was greatly diminished.  In fact, they hardly existed at all.

Some of the king’s people wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be better to close the shepherd training portion of the school since it did not pay for itself anymore. There simply were not enough future shepherds signed up to justify the cost.  Other departments of the school were much more successful by bringing many more students and their money to the school.  Those of bygone days did not want to see the school for shepherds closed.  Where would future shepherds be trained, they wondered.

Meanwhile, the number of shepherdless sheep grew. Because of lack of care, flocks began to decrease.  The number of untended, wild and scattered sheep grew at an alarming rate.  No one seemed to be as concerned that the king’s sheep and flocks were scattered and helpless as much as they were about the school for shepherd training being profitable.

The decrease of young people becoming shepherds captured the attention of some of wise old shepherds of the land. Seeing the great need of the land and noticing how there was a growing population of sheep without a shepherd, some of them decided to once again take young potential shepherds under their own personal care and training in hopes that one day some of them would grow to be fine shepherds.  They put a call out to young people possibly interested in becoming shepherds for the king of the land.

However, this angered those who had worked so hard to build the old school for training shepherds as well as the scholarly elder-shepherds there. This threatened to take away potential students who could help keep the school for training shepherds open.  It also frightened those who saw themselves in charge of the standards for training young shepherds.  They were concerned that this opened up the possibility of allowing insufficiently trained shepherds to watch over flocks even though the young people would be trained by successful, wise, old shepherds.

So, discouraged, the wise old shepherds stopped trying to train future shepherds. It was not long before there were not enough young shepherds in training to take the place of shepherds retiring from their fields.  Soon, good shepherds ceased throughout the land.  The king’s sheep became scattered and helpless.  Finally, the flocks of sheep decreased and those that remained became wild.  And the king wept over the state of his flocks.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Some lessons in life can only be learned by personal experience. Others can tell you about them, teach you them, help you study to be prepared for them and even explain them.  However, the only way for a person to learn to ride a bike is to one day get on it and try to ride it.  The only way a person is going to learn to drive a car is actually get behind the wheel of one and take it around town.  Nothing prepares one for these lessons but personal experience.

Sometimes it is that way with our spiritual journeys too. There are some things about our relationship with the Creator that can only be learned by personal engagement and interaction.  We will never learn them vicariously through someone else’s experiences.  No Bible study or theological lesson can fully prepare us or help us appreciate certain aspects of the journey unless we experience them for ourselves.

One of the benefits of certain renewal movements within the Church has been an emphasis upon personal experience. While it should never trump Scriptural revelation, there is something certainly powerful about personal revelation into the nature and character of God.  After all, someone can go on all they want about the power and beauty of standing on a mountain peak.  But personally standing there and experiencing the exhilaration is something quite different all together.

Some of us have to trust the pictures, stories, and experiences shared by others. On the other hand, some of us get to experience it for ourselves.  We become a part of sharing the story.

I grew up with a Christian religious background that cherished personal experiences with God. It was one thing to have personal knowledge of God.  Our sect took, and continues to take in most circles, great pride in personal experiences.  So, it has been no surprise to me when God in certain seasons of my life has “showed up” in ways that surprised and delighted me.

In my early spiritual formation, I attended a Bible College in Kirkland, Washington, now called Northwest University, after High School. There I shaped and honed spiritual disciplines that still guide me today.  Aside from the general education courses and Bible or theology courses, the opportunity to discover my own spiritual stride for my journey greatly informed my future.

The Winter quarter of my freshman year, I learned from the College’s financial aide office that I would not be allowed to return for the Spring quarter because of my outstanding bills. I owed more than $1,200.  I would need to pay that balance before I could continue to attend.

At the time, I was working at an Exxon gas station in Totem Lake, Washington. The owners were two brothers who were really nice.  They were not Christians but nevertheless hired guys from the Bible College because we all were honest and had a good work ethic.  I appreciated the job, but it just was not enough to keep ahead of my school bills.  I was going to have to inform them that I would have to quit my job as well as school and return home to where my parents lived near Sea-Tac.

The school had given me notice at mid-quarter, so I figured I had a couple of weeks ‘to see what would happen.’ I am not sure what I was expecting would happen, but I have always tried to keep an optimistic outlook.  So, I continued classes determined that I would at least finish that quarter.  If worse came to worse, then I would find work from home and possibly come back for the Fall quarter.

In the mean time, I had started the practice of scheduling one of my class-time slots on my schedule for a time of prayer and reflection in the Men’s Dorm Prayer Chapel. I found it helped me keep a regular schedule for prayer.  I also found the quiet time in the Chapel refreshing.  So, during this time, I added my dilemma about school, paying my school bill and what to do about my job to my list of prayer needs.

As the quarter wound down, my prayer times grew a little more desperate. I may have been the uncertainty of my future, but I found myself praying more intense and intentional prayers.  After all, I needed direction.  I needed answers.  I needed help!

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It finally came to the point where I needed to do the right thing by my employers and give them my “two weeks notice.” This is a kindness of employees to employers that allows them time to find another employee to replace them and so not disrupt the work place.  I planned on giving notice on a Friday.  At the beginning of the week, on a Monday morning in the Men’s Dormitory Prayer Chapel, I offered God another chance to throw out a rope and rescue me.  Otherwise, I was determined to see it as a closed door.  I was even strongly considering not coming back to college.  I was second guessing everything.

I was perhaps exhausted from struggling with the whole situation in my mind. The stress of the unknown and uncertain weighed heavily down upon me like a 110 lb. sack of sand.  It was in this state that I dumped everything upon the prayer bench in the prayer chapel.  I had no answers, no direction, and seemingly no help.

After expending all my words and thoughts, I fell silent. The room echoed my silence back to me.  My head rested on the prayer bench as I sat upon the floor with my eyes closed tight.

There was nothing. Nothing came to mind.  No brilliant idea.  No flash of inspiration.

Suddenly, I heard a voice speak audibly, “You’ll be here next quarter.”

I opened my eyes started and looked around because I thought that I was alone.  There was no one in the room with me.  Yet, the voice was clear and unmistakable.  I blinked in the dimly lit room.

The words bounced around in my head:You’ll be here next quarter.”  With those words, an unexplained settledness sent upon me.  A certainty about my future filled my heart.  Someway, somehow, I knew without a shadow of any doubt that I would most definitely be at school next quarter.  I took the words only I heard and the feeling only I felt as a gift from God.

I got up and went to get ready for my next class. I had to go to my room to gather a couple of books.  When I entered my room, my roommate was there.  Do I tell him what I just experienced?

As if on cue he asked, “Hey, have you figured out what you’re going to do for next quarter?”

Shaken, I replied, “I’m not sure yet.  Why?”

He looked a little anxious, “Well, I may have another roommate lined up.  That’s all.  If you’re not going to be here that is.”

With as determined a look as I could give him I said emphatically, “I will be here next quarter.  You can count on it.”

You are?” he looked surprised.  “How do you know?”

God told me,” I said and turned and left the room.  I didn’t want to chance seeing him laugh at me.  We were at a Bible College to learn about God, after all, not actually believe God.

As the week continued, I held on to that experience in the Men’s Dorm Chapel. It became an anchor.  However, the question of what to do with my job at the Exxon station came to a conclusion that Friday.  Friday came and I still had no way to pay for school.  The settled assurance that I was still going to be in school next quarter had not left me.  I came to my own conclusion that however God provided for me to be there it was not going to be through the brothers who owned the Exxon gas station.

As soon as I got to the station that Friday afternoon, I called one of the brothers aside and explained my problem. I told him that I really appreciated the job and really like working there.  However, since I was not going to be able to continue at school, I was going to have to move back home with my parents.  Therefore, I would have to quit my job.  He still had two weeks before finals and I would have to move out.

Working with college students, I am certain that both of those brothers had heard the same story over and over before. He thanked me for letting him know.  He said he liked my work and was going to miss me.

He shook my hand and said, “I’ll let my brother know.  If you know anyone who wants a job, let them know to come and talk to us.”  And with that, we went our separate ways doing our own jobs at the station.

Later that day, he and his brother announced that they were going to catch dinner and would be back. They had a back-log of cars to work on and wanted to use part of the evening to catch up.  I busied myself with pumping gas for customers and repairing tires.  Soon they returned.

As I was walking through one of the bays, the brother I approached earlier in the day came up to me and handed out an envelope.

My brother and I were talking over dinner and decided we wanted to help you pay for college.  We’ve never done this,” he explained.  “But he and I just felt we needed to do this for you.”

I was dumbfounded.  “You guys don’t have to do that.  If I can’t pay back college, how am I going to pay you guys back?”

You don’t worry about that,” he said.  “Whatever you are able to pay, you pay back.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

I was humbled by their generosity.  “Thank you so much,” I offered.

Well,” he muttered half to himself as much as to me, “we do expect you to stick around and work with us.  And don’t tell the other guys.  We don’t want anyone to start thinking that we are a charity or college loan fund.”  He smiled and winked at me.

I understand,” I said.  “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.  Thanks.

When I got back to my dormitory room late that night, I took the envelope out and opened it. The check that was written out to me was enough to settle my past school bill as well as get me well on the way paying for the next quarter’s tuition and books.  It dawned upon me that I never told them how much I owed on my bill.

I sat on the side of my bed amazed that God would not only personally give me reassurance about where my future lie, but that he would also use to non-Christian employers to help meet the need. It all defies explanation.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But most certainly divinely ordered ones.  I still think of those two brothers often and pray for them.

Now, I could have studied many Scriptures on God’s provision; even memorized many of them. I could also have read many personal experiences of others about how God provided for them.  None of that could or would have the impact upon my life in the same way as God surprising me by speaking to me in a chapel, reassuring me in my heart and then working out the details in the most surprising way.  It has helped to keep my eyes open to other ways God wants to surprise me.

©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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It is hard to believe that the eruption of Mount Saint Helens was thirty years ago on May 18th.  It hardly seems that long ago.  I have visited the mountain and looked out over the devastated landscape a few time and am always amazed at the force that must have been displayed that day.  At the same time, I also filled with wonder at how well nature has healed itself.  The new landscape is giving way to new life.

From an eastern observatory, one can look across to the mountain and see the new mountain dome being built by the forces of nature underneath the earth’s surface.  One has to wonder when this active volcano will act again – or whether any of its sister volcanoes will follow suit in the near future.  Measuring by the eye the distance between where Mt. St. Helens sits and where its blown top now visible sits in the landscape many miles away, one can only hope it will not be too soon.  It is enough excitement for one lifetime.  Well, if you were awake for it, I guess.

On that Sunday morning 30 years ago, I slept through the whole thing.  I was attending Northwest College in Kirkland, Washington – now Northwest University.  Whether from studying for tests or completing a term paper, I cannot recall today, I decided to sleep and not go to church that morning.  I slept until almost noon.  The rest of my day was continued in my room while I continued studying, completely oblivious to what the rest of the world was experiencing through television or living through with falling volcanic ash.  Sunday’s were pretty quite days on campus; no cafeteria service, library or extra curricular activities going on so there was no opportunity for me to even hear it from another student.  I do not remember where my room mate was in all of this but he must not have been around either.

It was not until my 7:30 am class Monday that I finally got into the news loop and became informed!  I was stunned.  Mount St. Helens finally blew its top?  I did not know about it until now?  It took me some time to get updated on what had happened that day; the people who died, the ash cloud’s devastation, friends and fellow students caught in the falling ash, the devastating flooding and mud flows as well as the ecological holocaust left behind.

Anyone who lived during that event, especially those who had dramatic experiences during it, recalls vividly where they were and what they were doing that day, May 18, 1980.  There are many interesting and dramatic stories about where people were, what they were doing and how they got back home through the blowing volcanic ash.  Me?  I just remember that I slept through the whole thing.

2010 Spring in Cascades from Indian John Hill

2010 Spring in Cascades from Indian John Hill ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Isn’t this a whole like life?  While we are sleeping there is always devastation taking place some place in the world and we are completely ignorant of it until and if it breaks the local news.  Today we have the internet, which was not a luxury we had back then.  Personal computers were just beginning to be taken seriously but were still a novelty item for the most part.  Now, we can get “up to the minute breaking news stories.”  Still, most of the world sleeps.

While we are sleeping people are starving (every 6-7 seconds a child dies from hunger, that’s 80 children in an 8-hour sleep cycle), suffer through battles of war, survive – or don’t – a sudden natural disaster, hear news of a loved one’s unexpected death, are told they have a disease that gives them only a short time longer to live or suffer a horrible accident.  Tragic human events do not stop.  Most of the time, we “sleep” through them in our busy schedules.

There is One who never sleeps, however.  The cries of suffering, injustice, death and tragedy are always ringing in His ears.  He is not just on notice when a mountain erupts.  He also knows when a sparrow falls from the sky (Matt. 10:29).  If the Creator can pay such close attention to every detail of His creation, then you and I can sleep soundly.  He only asks us from time to time to sit up and take notice of those situations brought to our attention so that we can do something about it by donating our time, resources or energies in order to help alleviate the suffering, injustice and sorrow.

So, there is still a lot that I seem to sleep through in life.  I often find out about things when it is too late.  However, when I am awake I hope I am alert enough to be watchful for how I can respond.  I may be a day late but I can jump in when I am ready.  While I was sleeping in on May 18, 1980, the world changed.  I am hoping that the in the next 30 years I will have more moments where I am awake than sleeping when world events take place.  If that does happen, however, maybe someone out there can knock on my door and check on me?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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