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Backpacking Friends

Backpacking Friends

For my 50th birthday this year I decided to return to a favorite Washington backpacking destination of mine – the Wilderness Area of the Olympic National Parks Coast.  I invited any who would come with me for a week long excursion from Rialto Beach near LaPush, Washington, to the Ozette River or Ozette Lake.  I didn’t have many takers.

I have hiked the Washington Coast area between the Hoh River and the Point of the Arches several times over the years.  I was born in Port Angeles, Washington, while my parents were living among the Makah Indians of Neah Bay, Washington.  My mother has told me more than once that my umbilical cord was never completely severed from the Peninsula.  She may be on to something there.

I have found myself returning to the Washington coastal areas around Queets, Forks, LaPush, Neah Bay, Clallam Bay, Port Angeles, and Sequim during important turning points in my life.  For instance, before I got married, I took my two best friends on a hike out to the Point of the Arches and Cape Alava.  In the middle of celebrating my 50th birthday on this past hike, I remembered that it was on my 40th birthday that I traversed the same portion of the coast.  So, there you have it.

When I lived in North Dakota for five years, it was not the beautiful mountain ranges or the snow topped dormant volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest that I missed.  No.  It was the ocean.  I missed the surf and the smell of salt water.  While the North Coast of Lake Superior above Duluth may fool the eyes into thinking for a moment that one is traveling HWY 101 on the Oregon coast, it only takes one breath for a person to realize that the massive expanse of water before them is not salty.  It simply cannot replace the ocean even as beautiful as Lake Superior is in the fall season.

Standing Rocks

Standing Rocks

Call it a spiritual connection or a mystical one, I occasionally feel a very strong pull toward the beaches and its waves.  Even in the cold wet wind, I could spend hours walking a beach or, better yet, searching through tidal pools for their colorful life forms.  Perhaps some little old Makah grandma spoke some mystical chant over me as a babe, I don’t know.  I only know I love all things about the sea.  Even its food.

A key to hiking or backpacking the Washington coast, or any coastal area for that matter, is to coordinate the tide schedule.  Get that wrong and a fun trip down the beach and around a headland could become a nightmare.  Many an unwary beach comber or day hiker has been caught unawares at how fast a northern tide can come in and how high it can move up the beach.  A tidal difference between low and high tide of 6′ – 8′ is nothing.

Throw in a storm surge or an extra high tide and the trouble only exponentiates.  I know.  I’ve waited out a couple tides on little tiny pieces of a beach or hillside waiting for the tide to recede enough to continue down the beach to my planned camp site.  I have only been caught during the day.  I cannot imagine what would happen to anyone needing to wait over night or until the next morning.

So, not only is it important to get good low tides to hike up and down the beach, but it is also important to make sure the timing of the tide coincides with when you plan on traveling.  Get a tide too early, and get started too late or get up too late, and you will find yourself scrambling to make the tide before it comes all the way in and blocks your route.  Get a tide to late in the day and you limit the amount of time you actually have to walk or hike the beach.

Starfish Cluster

Starfish Cluster

The biggest challenges in the tide changes are the headlands.  These rocky, sometimes mountainous, stubs of land that stick out into the surf pose an interesting challenge.  Should the backpacker or hiker get there at low tide, they may be rounded at ocean level.  This often means scurrying over rocks and boulders, navigating seaweed slick rocks, and getting around tidal pools.  Take your time and go carefully, and it will be a fun adventure.  Hurry and you may slip and fall and injure your pride and tender body parts.

Fortunately, the Park Service has provided ropes and ladders for many of these headlands.  This makes getting over the headlands possible at high tide.  However, these can be a challenge themselves.  The hillsides are often slick with mud and clay.  The ropes, while sturdy, are often wet and muddy.  So, navigating these ropes and ladders takes some care and a little skill, especially with a backpack.

When many first-timers think “beach hike”, they immediately assume walking long, firm sandy beaches.  However, nothing could be farther from reality.  The seascape along the Washington coast is forever changing and is very rugged.  Prepare to have your feet and legs tested as you trounce through loose sand, bounce along from boulder to boulder, slip and slide on slimy rocks, shimmy along logs, fjord creeks and rivers, and shuffle along gravelly beaches.  This is besides the times you must use rope and rope ladders to get over headlands or spend time walking above the beach in the forest.  It is nature’s veritable obstacle course for the backpacker and hiker.

Rock Island in Mist

Rock Island in Mist

The weather itself can be its own challenge.  Despite what any weather person on the local cable or TV channels will tell you, it will most certainly be the opposite.  Late July, August and September are the only reliable months for some guarantee of drier weather.  However, one must always keep in mind that this is the Washington coast after all.  It is also the home of North America’s rain forest where precipitation is measured from 110″ – 200″ per year.

The advice that I give to all my fellow travelers is simply this:  “You will get wet at some point.”  Whether it is from crossing a stream, stepping in a tide pool, getting caught unexpectedly by a wave or rain, one should simply expect to experience some portion if not all of their body being wet.  For this reason, I pack everything I want to remain dry in gallon zip-lock bags.  Air mattresses, sleeping bags and larger items are wrapped in garbage bags.

A rain proof backpack cover is helpful.  Wearing wool is necessary because it is better to be wet and warm than wet and cold.  Finally, a large tarp or plastic sheeting is handy if one does not mind the extra weight to provide cover to get out of the rain or extra shielding for the tent.  Most places along the coast a fire can be used to dry out gear.  However, on the north part of the coast between Yellow Banks and Cape Alava no fires of any kind are allowed.  Just remember to bring fireproof fire starter to build fires with wet wood.

Small Crab

Small Crab

The Park Service requires all backpackers to have hard-sided bear proof containers.  This is not so much to keep bears out, though that is important, as it is too confound the raccoons that plague the camp sites near the major trail heads.  Personally, I have had more gear and food stolen and ruined by the small critters than the large ones.  Seagulls will destroy anything to get at food left where they can eye it.  Mice, chipmunks and squirrels have eaten holes through backpacks and knapsacks to get a a goody or power bar.  All of this I speak from personal experience.  So, put all your food in a hard sided, tight lidded container and hang it!

Proper preparation can make hiking and backpacking the Washington coast an enjoyable experience.  It is well worth the hard work and effort to get away from the heavily used trail heads.  Get a few miles up or down the beach during the off season and one won’t see a soul for days.  The beauty and solitude is refreshing to the soul.

I have often claimed that nature is God’s biggest Cathedral.  As much as humankind has spent countless hours and untold riches to build the Creator cathedrals and temples to honor him, none can compare to the natural wonders of the world.  I have often said that I feel more close to God in the out-of-doors wild places than I do in the sanctuaries built by human hands.  Is it any wonder that humankind had a much more reverent and awe outlook upon the divine when it more closely dwelt in and among nature?  Our sterilized and concrete world has only removed us from what inspires the human soul to look up and wonder in awe.

When wandering the wild places of creation, I am often reminded of the old hymn’s words that sang, “…were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  I think Isaac Watts wrote that in the out of doors.  He was not sitting in some darkened office and cloistered away in a cubicle.  He was looking upon and considering the expanse of nature in all its beauty and thinking, “There must be a God and he must be bigger than all of this!

Oceanside Stream

Oceanside Stream

I have found myself on several occasions caught breathless in the beauty of the ocean and seascapes.  After a stormy day before and night, when one wakes up to a crystal clear blue sky reflecting off the gently rolling waves along the shore, there is nothing that compares.  I remember waking up one night late to step out of my tent because “nature called” only to be captured by the site of nature before me.  Hung low on the horizon, like the setting sun before it, rested the moon that created a shining road of light across the hundreds of miles of oceans right up to the beach in front of me.  And sprayed in vast array in the sky above and around the moon were sparkling lights of planets and stars in the thousands, if not millions, with the Milky Way gathering them all into an eternal trail of heavenly light.

I stood there for a good 20 minutes in the chilly, cold night air.  I sensed something sacred in what I witnessed.  Moving too quickly would have seemed as sacrilegious as getting up in the middle of Sunday worship to loudly excuse oneself to leave.  I have often said that people move too quickly through nature.  Like irreligious folks who just want the songs and sermons to be done so they can go about the more important duties of their life, when it comes to observing and spending time in creation, many people simply scan, sniff and move on.  One might as well have a drive-through Eucharist.

One of the advantages of being an aging backpacker is that you are forced to take it slow.  When I was younger, I was guilty of just wanting to eat up the miles of trail to get to a destination, which usually had a lake with trout in it.  While I took time even then to stop and admire creation, I did not do it with the same intention that I do so today.  Perhaps it is the idea that “this backpack trip may be my last one”.  My knees are not holding up well.  Sleeping on the ground, even with a good backpack mattress, is harsher on my body than it used to be in years gone by.

Island at Sunset

Island at Sunset

I would like to think that it is because I simply realize I have the time.  I am not in such a hurry.  I have learned the great value of pacing myself in whatever I do in life.  I have become more observant of my surroundings.  I have learned to live in the moment with joy and less anxiety.  I have learned to breath.  This is more than just a “stop and smell the roses” philosophy of life.  It is the idea that revelation and life are all around me if I will only take the time to get out and see it.

I suppose one does not need to go into the wild places of nature to experience this.  Some may find it in the middle of the busy city.  Others may find it in music or writing.  Still others may find it in beautiful deep relationships.  Each one of us has a place where we discover “deep calling to deep”.  Mine just happens to be on the wild reaches of the wet Washington Coast.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

Lone Starfish

Lone Starfish

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The movie Forrest Gump is one of my favorites. Yes, I know one must suspend belief to hold on to the story line.  And, yes, I know that there is a certain sappy sentimentality in it.  Nonetheless, I like it for the interaction of its main characters and the certain philosophical message summarized at the end.

Now, I’m not an extremely emotional person. However, I can never get through the scene of Forrest‘s monologue at Jenny’s grave with a dry eye.  At the same time, I find the underlying existential question Forrest is wrestling with very engaging because I think we all struggle with it.  Forrest, standing over Jenny’s grave, tells Jenny…

I don’t know if mama was right or if it’s Lieutenant Dan.
I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.
But I think maybe it’s both.
Maybe both is happening at the same time.

The man with the IQ of 75 probably has it right. Life is most certainly like a box of chocolates, like his mother told him: “You never know what you’re going to get.”  Some of life is made up of an apparent series of accidents.  Thus, as is often said, “You have to play the hand your are dealt.”  Like a feather blowing in the wind, as the ending screen shot of Forrest Gump shows us, life can take us in unexpected and unplanned directions.  Forrest’s life seemed to be one accident after another.

This worldview is comforting to those who find themselves unable to control the direction into which the circumstances of life has thrown them. Tossed into a raging river, one does well just to keep afloat and the head above water.  In truth, we cannot always control life’s apparent unfeeling and meaningless events cascading our way, but we can only control how we respond and deal with them.  Thus, we retain some sense of autonomy and determinism and, thereby, meaning and purpose.  I have a feeling that the great majority of people in the world, intentionally or unintentionally, operate their lives with this in view.

Struggling to squeeze some sort of meaning out of life seems to be a part of the human condition. There is a longing to know, “Why am I here?” and “What does this all mean?”  At one point, Jenny asks Forrest, “Do you ever dream, Forrest, about who you’re gonna be?”  Forrest responds, “Who I’m gonna be?”  Jenny, “Yeah.” To which Forrest replies, “Aren’t – – aren’t I going to be me?”  Struggling to be someone other than himself completely escapes Forrest.

On another level, Forrest Gump’s life may seem to be divinely ordained. His destiny has taken him in a different direction than Jenny’s or Lieutenant Dan’s.  Jenny tells Forrest as she is about to leave him again, on a bus heading back to Berkley, California, this time, that they have two different lives meant to come out differently.  Lieutenant Dan tells Forrest essentially the same thing, believing that he missed his by not becoming a martyr for his country on the battlefield in Vietnam.  Does Forrest’s life tell the tale of a destiny fulfilled?  This is what Forrest is trying to figure out while talking to Jenny over her grave.

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009

Baby Seal On the Beach, Lincoln City, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

World religions attempt to answer the question of life’s meaning amidst apparent chaos. In fact, it seems that humankind has spent much of its existence from the beginning attempting to find meaning in the chaos of existence.  Religious answers run the gamut.  Some suggest meaning can only be found by escaping chaos through mindless detachment to the physical realm of chaos.  A dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realm results in a metaphysical battle between the two.  The physical in any form is bad.  The non-physical must be pursued to escape the physical.

Other world religions suggest that chaos is a result of humankind insulting gods or interfering with the unseen spiritual realm. The only correction is to make some type of appeasement, usually a sacrifice or penance of some sort.  Chaos results in life because humankind is constantly offending spiritual beings.  The work is to somehow keep them happy.  Other religious strains portray these spiritual beings as capricious and outside human influence or control.  Thus, one can only hope to offer some type of offering that will please the immaterial beings so that they will leave the material beings alone.  But there is no guarantee.

These two existential attitudes reflect the “flight or fight” approaches that humankind takes towards most threatening things. It should not surprise us, then, to find them evident in its worldviews or world religions.  We all seek to escape our troubles or wrestle some kind of meaning out of them.

Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. “Mark Twain”) remarked that existential meaning may also be determined by class. He noted that the Christians had one god for the rich and another god for the poor.  Taken another way, this may also mean that there was, and perhaps still is, one kind of theology for the rich and another kind of theology for the poor.

When one is born into privilege or arises to privilege, it is easy to assume that it must be because of some sort of “manifest destiny.” However, it is hard to come to that same conclusion when one is born underprivileged or descends into want and poverty.  It beggars the prosperity gospel message of American Evangelicalism to think that God would destine some to affluence and some to poverty even though it fits seemingly well with American Calvinism.

For example, Forrest Gump knew his mental condition effected his life. Was it a part of his destiny or just an accident of nature?  Visiting his mom just before her death, he asks, “What’s my destiny, Mama?”  Mrs. Gump responds lovingly, “You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself.”  In other words, it is not something that is handed to you.  One must figure it out as he or she moves through life.

When one is born into a low class, it is easier to accept that life is simply what you make it than it is to accept that it is your destiny. No one faces life’s tormenting trials and failures and says to their self, “I was born for this!”  No.  Rather, one accepts it as one of the capricious circumstances of life.

Even Job, in his unfailing faith in God, when struck with heart rending and life altering tragedies, declared to his embittered wife, “Should we accept only the good things that come to us as from the hand of God and not the bad things that come to us also?”  Or, to put it as Mrs. Gump did, “You have to do the best with what God gave you.”  This view lends itself towards a self-determinism that supports an Arminian approach to one’s destiny.  We may not be able to control what comes our way in life, but we can control our own choices and outcome.  At least, we hope so.

I have often argued that the tired and worn out Calvin versus Arminian debate is attempting to make too simple what is really very complicated. I do not think proper theology fits neatly into all of our categories and systems.  So narrowly defining whether our meaning and purpose in life is divinely determined or self-determined attempts to remove life’s questions and mysteries when, instead, we should probably leave them alone.  As Forrest answered, “I think maybe it’s both.  Maybe both is happening at the same time.”  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 3 and Conclusion

Part 3 and Conclusion –

Workable models and methods that transform lives and so transform communities are available all over the world. This is where the American church might be wise to humbly learn from her brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.  There are places in the world where the church is growing rapidly.  More important than just growth, however, is the transforming power the message of Jesus and the way of Jesus is having upon whole sub-culture groups.

This will require the American churches and their leadership to admit that:

  1. For the most part, what is presently being done is not working and is not sustainable;
  2. The American church no longer has all the answers to address the world’s problem;
  3. The American churched that birthed so much of the 19th and 20th century missions movements is now in need of missions help itself; and,
  4. Change must take place before the changes of our American culture make the American church wholly irrelevant.

There will be no one method or model that will work in every ministry context in America. The diversity of our cities and even our rural areas require flexibility and creativity.  Nevertheless, any method or model must answer a few simple questions:

  • Does this actually lead to obedience to the way of Jesus that will transform lives?
  • Is the reproducible from one believer to another, one church to another?
  • Does this encourage indigenous leadership, that is, does it raise up leadership from within the church instead of relying on leadership to come from outside of it?
  • Does this engage the larger ministry context of the community, town, or city and seek to bring transformation through Kingdom living and influence?  Or, in other words, what Kingdom benefit is brought to the surrounding culture?
  • Is it self-sustaining?  Or, will it burden the church with constantly “feeding the dragon” to keep it going?
  • Is it simple enough that children and young people will be able to communicate it and follow-through with it?

Much of the ministries in American churches today demand professional clergy leadership. On the other hand, in mission movements where the church is experience not simply growth but multiplication, there is not that luxury!  And yet, the church continues to thrive and grow.  Statistically, American church growth experts tell us that, overall, the higher the level of clergy education the less effective the church becomes (which will have to be a topic for another time).  I am not arguing for Scriptural ignorance, but simply pointing out that perhaps the way we educate and disciple is the wrong model and not working today.

Even in America, fast growing church that are effective in creating genuine followers of Jesus have learned to adapt and adopt many of the same methods used by missionaries and their agencies overseas.

First, they quickly embed new believers into the Body of Christ and a small group of believers to learn spiritual life through prayer, Scripture, worship and witness.

Second, they expect believers to disciple or mentor new believers and new believers to share their new story with unbelievers in their circle of influence.

Then, they look for radical obedience to the words and ways and Jesus and target those individuals to start new churches or lead small groups of believers.

Notice that all education and spiritual transformation occurs within the context of relationships, ministry and obedient devotion to Jesus.

Beach Pebbles, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Is this process messy?  It sure is!  But then, I’m not too certain that our current American models are any less messy.  We have just learned to cover it up, not deal with it, and sterilize the after-effects.  It is all about keeping up appearances for our professional image.

The New Testament church was very messy.  Amidst the rapidly growing young church, there were all kinds of problems.  (Read the New Testament letters to the churches!)  The apostle Paul did not seem to care if he made them public.  He asserted that dealing with disobedience publicly demanded proper reverence for the Lord, his church and those the Lord placed in authority over it.  At the same time, public affirmation and reconciliation, according to Paul’s methods, also testified to the restorative power of the message of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

By depending upon professional clergy for every aspect of church movement and growth, what we have we taught church people?

  • Church people have learned that they cannot teach others unless they are properly educated and trained.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot lead others in worship unless they have the right credentials.
  • Church people have learned that only professional clergy really know how to pray.
  • Church people have learned that there only purpose is to support the pastor and cheer him or her on in her Kingdom efforts.
  • Church people have learned that ministry is what happens on the church platform, not what happens in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods or other gathering places.
  • Church people have learned that they cannot really understand the Bible unless they have gone to Bible School or Seminary.

I do not know any pastor in America that would say that these are the things that he set out to teach his parishioners.  It seems to occur by default simply because of the model for ministry we utilize and the methods we use.  I know for certain, in fact, that many, if not most, American pastors beat their heads against the wall because they see the effects of ministry presently and are frustrated by it.  Almost every church leadership person that I have come across feels trapped by the structures presently at work.

Perhaps what are needed in order to teach and train church people differently are new churches.  For myself, as I talk to pastors, missionaries and other leaders, I perceive that a church renewal or reformation is on the horizon.  I pray that the leadership presently in place in our American churches and denominations embrace it.  I pray that we will be brave enough to welcome the change into a new wineskin.  Hopefully, the result will be that we will give church people something different to learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 2

Continued…

Another key to life transformation involves teaching for obedience not knowledge.  This last point may be the most important of all.  In our Western mindset and focus upon education, we have assumed: Education = Life Change.  In some cases this is true.  In many cases it is not.  This is probably no more clear than in the evidence we see in the quality of the followers of Jesus coming from our churches today.

Even though we have for the last 40 years stressed Christian Education in our local churches, our congregants have not grown more knowledgeable and obedient to God’s Word.  The evidence points to the fact that they have grown less so.  A number of recent surveys by the Barna Research Group point this out very clearly.  Our continued focus upon knowledge of doctrine and Scriptural truths apart from obedience nullifies our efforts to make followers of Jesus.

We must come to grip with the fact that teaching people what is commanded is not the same as teaching obedience to what is commanded.  We can confirm doctrinal knowledge, why can’t we confirm doctrinal obedience?  We should be as concerned with orthopraxy (correct practice of the faith) as we are with orthodoxy (correct beliefs about the faith).  This begins with our church leadership.

Somewhere between Bible School or Seminary and pastoral ministry and leadership the ball has been dropped in spiritual formation.  We have tended to advance people to leadership based upon their knowledge quotient, not their obedience quotient.  More time and effort is put into knowing the doctrines of the church denomination than whether the person’s spiritual and social life is obediently aligned with God’s Word.

In fact, it is not uncommon today to even make allowances for deviations in denominational beliefs and practices to gain church leaders!  As long as someone has taken the required courses to produce the sufficient theological education for ministry, it is assumed one is qualified.  How many times has that been proven wrong?

It is no wonder, then, that the measurement of spirituality in our churches is knowledge not obedience.  In today’s church model, the pulpit ministry is teaching oriented because right belief and thinking is considered most important.  Likewise, confirmation and doctrinal classes for church membership are important so that a person can knowingly agree with what the church believes and practices.  However, rarely do we measure and look at the level of a person’s obedience.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

We are too individualistic of a church and society to do that today.  Are we willing to be held to that kind of accountability?  Most American church parishioners as well as their leadership shudder as such a notion.  However, the apostle Paul threatened to make a personal visit to the Corinthian church and deal with a couple of immoral individuals if they did not practice church discipline themselves (1 Cor. 5).  In fact, he commands the Corinthian believers to expel the two and to disassociate with anyone who says they are a Christian but practices immorality.  According to the apostle Paul, judging those outside the church is not the business of the church, but judging those inside is its business.  Obedience was paramount!

Does that sound pretty harsh?  Unfortunately, in our individualistic church culture, the mantra has become, “You can’t judge me!”  This is usually followed up by a really bad misquoting of Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged!”  In fact, the church and its leadership are commanded to judge and deal with sin within the Body of Christ.  Unfortunately, church discipline is something rarely practiced today.  On the other hand, Jesus takes it so seriously that he warned the Christians at Thyatira that he would come and judge them personally if they did not deal with the immorality among them (Rev. 2:20 – 25).  Could it be that Jesus is coming to judge some churches today?

What we have managed to teach church people is that it does not matter what you do as long as you have right beliefs.  Church people have learned that personal comfort and convenience are more important in measuring their satisfaction with church than how much their lives are changed.

  • What church people learn is that it is OK to worship on Sunday at church but act like a jerk at home and work the rest of the week.
  • What they learn is that it does not matter what you do as long as you believe in Jesus and some of the stuff in the Bible.
  • What church people learn is that, as long as one has been baptized and confirmed into the church, sexual promiscuity, pornography, drunkenness and recreational drug use is permissible.
  • What church people learn is that as long as one is sorry for their sins, receive the Eucharist or communion and responds to an altar call, then returning to the same sin again has no real consequences.
  • What church people learn is that going it alone in their spiritual journey is the norm rather than going with others and being under spiritual authority.

What Jesus commanded from his followers, and so his church, is polar opposite.  The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18 – 20) does not require us to “go and teach them to know all I have said” but rather to “go and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.”  Knowledge does not seem to be the key ingredient to creating genuine followers of Jesus, obedience does.  Can knowledge lead to obedience?  Sure.  Does it?  No.  Yet, it seems that most churches rely on this one strategy to make disciples of the Lord.

True affection for the Lord is not measured by what we know or even by what we feel but our obedience:  “If you love me you will obey what I command…If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. [Then] My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:15, 23, 24).  It is pretty clear that in Jesus’ eyes obedience is the proof of love.

Jesus did not seem to mind drawing a line in the sand when it came to someone’s obedience.  He seemed pretty content to let individuals choose whether they were going to follow him or not.  He was not consumed with trying to be the rabbi with the most followers or the most popular spiritual teacher or the prophet with the biggest crowds.  He was willing to allow people to walk away because obedience to the Heavenly Father was more important than knowledge of the Heavenly Father.

Church people learn just the oppositewhat is important is knowledge of God not actual obedience to God.  However, the words of the apostle John challenge us and our way of “doing business as usual” when he wrote, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 1:3) and “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them” (1 John 3:20).  According to John, knowledge is not the test of whether an individual really knows God and has a relationship with him.  Obedience is the test.

It might be time to change our discipleship methods and models.  What worked in the past will not solve the problems we face today or will face in the future.  It is up to churches and their leadership to make the changes and transitions that will shape and form the lives of those that are in their spiritual care.  This might mean a radical shift in what and how we teach church people.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What Church People Learn – Part 1

There is a cute story about a little girls sitting with her mother in church.  The service had dragged on for what seemed like an interminable amount of time to the little one with a short attention span.  Once of twice she sighed heavily, enough for the people around her to hear.  Embarrassed, her mother leaned over and tried to quietly shush her.  Finally, anxious to go home so she could play, in the middle of the pastor’s sermon that little girl turned toward her mommy and none too quietly asked, “If we give him our money now, can we go home?”

I am sure that more than one parishioner has felt trapped by a Sunday worship service or a long sermon.  I have been on both sides of the pulpit.  I know the pressure on the preacher to develop and deliver the best sermon of his life every Sunday to gain the approval of his listeners – or at least keep most of them awake.  I have also sat in the pew or chair and wondered if the preacher would not have been better off to just have dismissed everyone before the sermon; everyone would probably have been better off.

In today’s technology driven culture, now the preacher is not just required to be a great story teller, professional theologian, expert exegete of the biblical languages but also good at computer technology and its use in communication.  Meanwhile, the average congregant becomes more and more of a spectator in a multi-media driven event.  After it is all over, the question most often asked is, “Did it entertain and keep my attention?”

The real question of life transformation is rarely asked.  The occasional altar call, for those churches that still practice that regularly, may offer some emotional response to a message.  Often such tactics merely offer emotional release without bringing true life change.  The crisis at the altar does not seem to equate to lasting change at home or at work.  The question for every church and its leadership is simply this: “How do we measure life change and transformation?”

Perhaps we need to change our approach and measure our “successes” differently.  Most church leaders get real excited when the church is full.  This is what I have come to call “Measuring Butts, Bucks and Buildings.”  A few may express joy over responses to an altar call.  However, rarely is the question asked, “What happened while they were here?”

As such, we in the American church have trained church people that only two things are really required of them. First is that the most important thing for them to do is simply show up on Sunday morning, hopefully give in the offering and listen to music and a sermon.  We want them so that we can count them.  The second thing is that it is important for them to learn how church is done (or our particular model of it anyway) and what it (or our particular stream of the Christian faith) teaches.  We want them to indoctrinate them.

The larger question that begs to be answered is, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for ya’ ?”  I think for the vast majority of churches and their congregants in America that the honest answer would be, “It ain’t.”  It is not working.  Even though we have more and more churches; more and more well-educated clergy; and, more and more people who call themselves Christians, our American culture is becoming more and more un-Christian.

As a church leader myself, one of the things that drove me to distraction was parishioners who could sit through years of sermons and live unchanged lives.  There were those that appeared at every altar call and were the most exuberant in their worship and yet had horribly dysfunctional relationships and addictions.  It did not seem to matter how much I as the “spiritual leader” prayed and prepared for each Sunday, the fact remained that a large part of the congregation remained unchanged from week to week.

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003

Pebbles on a Beach, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It has taken being out of ministry for the last year-and-a-half to gain a little more objectivity and a different perspective.  Talking with friends still in active pastoral ministry and reading and writing and processing has brought me to some different conclusions than I would have drawn two years ago.  And, while I attend a great church with a great pastoral staff and wonderful weekly worship, I look at how we are training followers of Jesus and have to ask a couple of questions.

First, does our method need to change?  Do we need a new model for making disciples?  I am more and more believing that the answer to that question is a resounding, “YES!”  While the gospel message and the truths and doctrines will not change, how we go about shaping the lives of those in the care of the average church needs to be rethought.  Ministry context will determine the answer and solution to this but there are two things that I believe will transform lives and better form genuine followers of Jesus.

  1. Whatever method or model we use must require participation not spectatorship in ministry and service.  This will mean things will get messy because everyone involved will be in “training on the job” and may not always get it right or do it to “professional” standards.  Imagine a church service where the laity is heavily involved.  Most of us cringe at that because we want the convenience and comfort of being served up a professional sound and image every Sunday.  There are many ways to be involved: organizing the service, testimonies, Scripture readings, prayers, as well as input and help on sermon preparation.  I am sure there are other ways besides just reading the announcements.
  2. Whatever method or model we use must involve whole group and small group interaction.  This will mean breaking generational barriers that have been created in our churches by specialized ministries. Cross-generational ministry and relationships must be freed-up and allowed to shape the church.   Striving to put people into groups that relate together and work together strengthens not weakens the church.  It requires living out the gospel in the context of relationships within the Body of Christ.  Presently, the model of coming, sitting, looking at the back of the head in front of you, smiling and leaving is not working.

Second, do our goals and what we measure need to change?  Do we need to strive for different outcomes when we gather together?  This is probably more important than what is above.  Instead of measuring butts, bucks and buildings, the goal is to measure the lives of those changed.  One key to life transformation is engagement in a Kingdom lifestyle that produces followers and leaders.  Start asking these questions after every service and event:

  1. What disengaged person(s) or spiritually uninterested person(s) came to our church event to check out what we are about?
  2. What person(s) not a part of our church fellowship last year, last month, last week committed to join it?
  3. What unchurched person(s) who were not engaged with following Jesus are now actively following Jesus?
  4. What person(s) intermittently involved and/or attending committed to being more actively engaged in ministry to others?
  5. What person(s) actively attending but unengaged in ministry committed to an active part in ministry?
  6. What person(s) regularly involved in ministry has stepped up to take a leadership role in it?
  7. What person(s) involved in a leadership role in ministry has trained and released another leader into that ministry?
  8. What person(s) actively involved in our church’s ministry and leadership has decided to launch into a ministry in the larger Kingdom as a missionary or other full-time service?

These questions push a congregation and its leadership to measure something other than attendance and offerings.  These questions get to the real question of what lives are being changed and shaped.  They measure how effective a church is reaching those unreached and unchurched around it.  They also measure how well a church is raising up other disciples and leaders for ministry.

These questions also dismiss the inordinate attention given today in the U.S. to church size.  A church of any size and in any context can be successful with what the Lord puts in its area of influence and responsibility.  Some rural small churches are much more effective at these measurements than most large suburban churches because their size necessitates the involvement of everyone!  This is also true of small urban churches.

Statistics tell us that small and medium sized churches are much more effective at raising up genuine disciples than large ones because of that singular fact.  It turns out that what church people learn in a small or medium sized church is more life-changing that what they will learn in a large church.  So, what do church people learn by what we are modeling and teaching them?  Not what we think or hope it turns out.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Small Beach Crab, June 2003

Small Beach Crab, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This is a long journey
Much longer than I planned
It is hard for me
Much harder to stand

And continue the trek
To higher peaks
But the trail beckons
And the unknown speaks

Let me rest here for a moment
Settle me down for a breath
Take in refreshment
Consult the map in depth

Let me lay back a few minutes
Rest my head upon my pack
Close my eyes to signs
That there is no way back

Lay me down upon the earth
The place I came from
The final measure of my worth
And domain where I am undone

I am tired so tired
Of ascending mountains
With winding paths choired
By saints at matins

But why complain to God?
Did he not craft the way?
Did he not define the path to trod?
Did not our sin bargain for the day?

Arising wearily to my feet
I set my face to what is required
And set out toward what I must meet
Up the trail, around the bend, past the next peak
But I am tired so tired

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Broken Sea Shells, Panama City, Florida, February 2008

Broken Sea Shells, Panama City, Florida, February 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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