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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Twig in the Surf, Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Twig in the Surf, Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

6’2″ and eyes of blue
curious about you
wond’ring about life
and meaning in my strife.
does the crown go
to the strong so
the rest of the best
get left at the crest
or is the way level
for each one’s travel
and the help of heaven
sprinkled like leaven
upon humankind
sighted or blind.
can you reach across
the great divide’s abyss
to touch another’s soul
with what’s beautiful
from out of your heart
the innermost part
of you?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Out of Reach, Out of Touch

I have heard the argument too many times from well meaning American Christians.  It concerns the mission of the Church.  They believe that churches that focus on missions endeavors overseas are out of balance.  They argue, instead, that we “have enough to do in our own backyard here in America to keep us busy.”  The idea is that we should reach the least, last, and lost around us first before we concentrate on foreign lands and their peoples.  However, I believe they are not only wrong biblically and theologically, but also in practice.

I remember a powerful illustration that displayed what all too often takes place in our missions efforts when we focus primarily on the needs in America.  The speaker had several small bags of M&M candies.  There were several hundred of us in the crowd.  He asked the crowd, “How many would like to have some M&M’s?”  Of course, almost everyone raised their hands.  There were a few non-takers, but the majority wanted to accept the free treat.

So, the speaker opened a bag of M&M’s as he began talking about missions and gave the bag to the first person on the right side in the front row.  He said, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Each person that wanted some of the candy took a few and passed the bag along.  After a few minutes, the speaker asked if everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s.  “No!” came the cry from the majority of the crowd.  It turns out that the bad did not even make it passed the first row.

So, the speaker apologized.  “Here, let me get another bag going.” Once again, he started at the first person on the right side of the front row.  He gave the same instructions, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Once again, the small bag of goodies began its journey down the front row.  This time a few people did not take any and the bag got further, but it barely started down the second row when it ran out.  I was sitting tw-thirds towards the back of the room and thought to myself, “At this rate, I will never get any M&M’s.”

A few moments later, the speaker once again asked the crowd, “So, how is it going?  Everyone get some M&M’s?” No!’ went up the shout, a little more intense this time.  “I am so sorry.  I know I brought enough M&M’s.  Here, let me give out some more.”  However, once again, he started with the first person on the right side of the front row.  A few people in front row turned around and looked at us in the back and snickered.  They were clearly enjoying this – and the M&M’s!  And, so, the small bag of M&M’s began its journey.  It made it a little farther this time, but was nowhere even close to reaching me, let alone the people behind me and in the balcony.

The speaker, after awhile, checked once again with the crowd, “Now has everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s?” This time the response was much more energized with frustration, “NO!” replied well over 90% of the crowd.  This is when the missions speaker turned the table upon us.  “That,” he said, “is how the rest of the world feels about the opportunity of receiving the Good News about Jesus.”  He went on to share with us how those who are the nearest to the gospel receive the majority of our missionaries efforts while those who are farthest from the gospel receive little or now effort or help from us.

I was reminded of this experience while attending a missions class entitled, “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”  While more than 20 years removed from my earlier experience of not getting M&M’s, the statistics of our missionary efforts still remain daunting.  In other words, the people in the front, closest to the speaker, still get all the M&M’s!  There remain many people still unserved with the message of God’s Kingdom.

Non-Christians who live in an area of the world where there is a vibrant, growing, self-reproducing Church receive the vast majority of our efforts. This blows out of the water the argument that we are not doing enough for those nearest to us!  In other words, statistics tell us that 97% of them personally know a Christian.  This does not include the fact that they have access to television, bibles, bookstores, churches, and other sources to the Christian message.  At any time, they can pick up the phone, visit a local church, talk to a Christian friend, listen to Christian TV or radio and receive answers to many of their questions and be introduced to Christ and his message.

Despite this, we still send 91% of our missionary efforts to these lost people living within easy reach and access to the gospel message. They are the front row people who choose to, or choose not to, take a free gift offered to them over and over again.  Of the vast majority of non-Christians in the world, they only represent 7% of that population.  The other 93% of non-Christians in the world do not have it so fortunate.

For example, of all the non-Christians in the world, Buddhist make up 8% of the population.  At best, 16% of them personally know a Christian.  Thus, 84% do not have access to a personal witness.  The vast majority of those do not have any access at all – witnessing churches, radio, TV, printed materials.  Yet, less than 1% of our missionary efforts go to reach them with the Good News of God’s Kingdom, while 91% go to people who have easy access to the gospel already.  Does that sound fair?

Another example is unreached Muslims.  They make up 28% of the non-Christian population in the world; almost 1 out of three!  About 15% of them personally know a Christian; 85% then do not have access to a personal witness.  For most of the people in this population, if they woke up tomorrow with spiritual questions about the God of the bible or Jesus Christ, they would have nowhere to turn – no radio, TV, or printed materials, let alone a church or pastor to turn to for help.  And still, less than 1% of our estimated 455,000 missionaries we send out go to these people.  Over one-quarter of the non-Christian population in the world has no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To go back to my M&M demonstration, over one-third of the room will never get an M&M just between Buddhists and Muslims!

Of course, we need to consider, also, the Hindus.  They make up 25% of the 13,000 unreached people groups!  They are 22% of the world’s non-Christian population.  Perhaps 13% of them personally know a Christian.  Yet, only about 1% of our missionary efforts go to try and reach them with the gospel.  This means that, so far, less than 3% of our missionary efforts are going to reach 58% of the world’s non-Christian population while 91% of our missionary efforts continue to be doled out to 7% of the non-Christian population among the already-reached who have access to Gospel.  Anybody else feel like the “M&M’s” are not getting distributed fairly?  Who is missing out here?

I have not included the statistics of the people among the Chinese Folk Religions (8% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive less than 1% of our missionary efforts) or the Tribal Religions (5% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts) or the Secular/Non-religious Countries (19% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts).  Missiologists tell us that of the world’s 7 billion population approximately 4.4 billion are non-Christians.  This means the Church has a lot of work yet to do!  They also tell us that almost half – 1.9 billion – of those non-Christians have absolutely no access to the gospel by way of personal witness, church, pastor, or other means.  That is 1/3 of the world’s population.  Is that acceptable?

Yet, to the unreached one-third of the world’s population we send only about one-half of one percent (0.5%) of all of our Christian workers. Only about two-tenths of one percent (0.2%) of Christian evangelistic efforts are expended on their behalf.  Taking my M&M experience to heart, this means that one-third of the people in that room would have never even known about M&M’s or that there was an opportunity to receive some for free.  Not only that, they would not even be close to someone who could tell them about what was going on.  Not only that, they would remain in the dark about the existence of M&M’s and never know about them at all.  Thus, one-third of the people in that room would die without ever even knowing about M&M’s.

Those of us who love M&M’s and have easy access to them at just about any store we go to in our neighborhood cannot imagine never knowing about them or experiencing their wonderful taste.  This is a poor comparison to someone’s spiritually lost condition.  However, it makes the point.  This is the spiritual condition of one-third of the non-Christians in the world – approximately 1.9 billion people today.  They do not know about Jesus and, without someone going to them, will never know about him.  Meanwhile, we still pour over 90% of our efforts into those who are nearest to Christians and the gospel message.  When we will begin to lift our eyes and focus on those “in the back of room” – those farthest removed from the message and the hope given to us in Christ Jesus?  When will we bring light to those in the spiritually darkest places of our world?  How long must they wait?

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Targeting those farthest from the gospel also means targeting those farthest from us. It will take someone to leave the comforts of their own culture, family and friends, and language and live among people of a different culture, family, and language.  Not everyone, I realize, is called to make that journey.  Nevertheless, everyone can pick up the cause of the last, least, and lost farthest from the Kingdom of God:

  • Missionary Prayer Teams can travel the globe through intercession to pray for the 13,000 unreached people groups.  There are many places to get their ethnic names, learn about their cultures, and barriers to the gospel through the local library or internet.  I, personally, like the use www.joshuaproject.net for such data.
  • Adopting missionaries and Christian workers who are already working among some of the unreached people groups to pray for them, encourage them via mail and email, and support them and their efforts.  There are many missions organizations that do this, but one of my personal favorites to keep abreast of is the Wycliffe Bible Translation work.
  • Focusing church missions efforts upon unreached people groups without abandoning those missions and ministries you already support.
  • Adopt an unreached people group as an intercessory prayer group, church, small group, family, or individual.  Pray for them regularly that God would raise up laborers for to go to them.  Use the library and internet to learn how to better pray for them.
  • Go on a short-term missions trip that reaches an unreached people group.  Or, support someone else’s efforts to go on a short-term missions trip to an unreached people group.

When I traveled to Andhra Pradesh province of India two years ago, I learned that there were over 1,000 villages in the area we were going into that have never had the gospel preached in them.  There is no church in these villages or even close to some of them.  Some of these villages have never seen a Caucasian person, let alone heard the Good News that Jesus came to set them free from the fear they have of their gods and the uncertainty of being caught in an endless cycle of reincarnation.

As I looked across the landscape, I could not even imagine such a place in America.  And, yet, there before us was a vast region of India that was untouched by the Kingdom of God.  Soon, I returned to an America that is rich in Christian heritage and spiritual opportunity; preaching in a community that has four pages of churches in the telephone book’s Yellow Pages.  Our local bible book store was busy.  The Christian television and radio stations hum with music, teaching, and preaching.  Churches and their leaders struggle with keeping up with other churches down the street.  And, yet, half a world away, there would be people who wake up tomorrow and not even know such a thing as a bible or a church existed.  They would not be aware that someone named Jesus came to set them free.  This got me to thinking: Are they so much as out of reach or unreachable as we, the Church, is out of touch with the need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Gareth & Colin on Beach Triciycle, Seaside, Oregon, 2002

Gareth & Colin on Beach Tricycle, Seaside, Oregon, 2002

My son
the oldest son
is almost done
with growing up.

What’s up
with this guy
growing up
so soon before my eyes?

His eyes
now straight lines
into my eyes –
eyes that once looked up.

Sometimes,
my eyes still
see a boy
in rubber boots with toys.

Sometimes,
my eyes miss
seeing a man
mixed in with other men.

First it’s,
“Hurry up and
grow up!”
to the boy with his toys.

Then it’s
“Hold up!” and
“Wait up!”
from the fan of this young man.

What’s sad
for this dad
wanting bad
not to see before
my eyes

My son
the oldest son
almost done
with growing up.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Poor Job. The biblical person who suffered ever increasing tragedy until nothing was left to him but a bitter wife has come down to us as an example of human suffering and the questions that go along with it.  He lost his wealth, his children and their families, all he owned, and was plagued with disease.  As he sat in an heap of ashes allowing dogs to lick his wounds, his wife’s only counsel was to “curse God and die“.  Obviously, according to her, Job must have done something to bring down the wrath of the Almighty.

When Job’s friends hear about his plight, they mount a support group to be with Job and offer him comfort. Unfortunately, they, too, offer words that are more damning than helpful.  Their miserable efforts at help and comfort end up bringing more suffering to Job instead of relief.  In the end, Job wishes they had never come to “help”.  He would like all of them to just go back home.

We still use Job’s friends as an example for us today. Whenever people offer comfort that ends up being no real comfort at all we call these individuals “Job’s comforters”.  Instead of bringing relief, they bring only more emotional turmoil and suffering along with a sense of guilt that whatever happened was somehow the sufferers’ fault.

Broken Sand Dollar on the Beach, Gleneden Beach, Oregon

Broken Sand Dollar on the Beach, Gleneden Beach, Oregon ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I have been to too many funerals and memorial services where well-meaning individuals have turned out to be a “Job’s comforter”. Their badly derived words of wisdom and attempts at comfort only bring greater sorrow and despair.  I cannot number the times that I have wished someone would just shut their mouth.  In fact, I have come to believe that the best thing that can be said by family and friends and well-wishers at a funeral, memorial, or graveside service is nothing!  Simply being present is a gift enough.

I have shuddered as I have heard people say:

  • “God must have needed him/her in heaven more than we did.” – to parents after the death of a child
  • “Good thing you are still young and can have more kids.” – to a young couple whose baby died of SIDS
  • “Now you have even more reason to cherish the children you still have at home.” – to a grieving mom
  • “It just wasn’t meant to be.” – to a mom whose baby died shortly after child birth!
  • “Remember, God will never give you more than you can handle.”
  • “You just keep a stiff upper lip.  You’ll be okay.” – to a grieving widow
  • “God must have a lesson for you and your family in all of this.” – after a tragic accidental death
  • “God must have known that he/she wouldn’t have been healthy.”
  • “God must have known that he/she would have trouble later and needed to go to heaven now.”
  • “Try and be strong for the other children.” – to a young teen grieving over the death of his father.
  • “He/She is in a better place.” – to a young husband whose wife died of cancer.
  • “It will get better/easier with time.” – to a grieving widow.
  • “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” – to grieving parents over the death of a young daughter
  • “You are so strong.  I know you can handle this.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “Be grateful for the time you had with him/her.”
  • “At least he/she is not suffering any more.”
  • “You know that he/she would not have wanted you to feel so sad this way.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.  You will be over this someday.”
  • “Things will be back to normal before you know it.”
  • “Maybe we should have prayed more, then God would have healed him/her.”
  • “Remember, ‘all things work together for good’.”
  • “Try not to cry so much.  It upsets the kids.”

This is about the time I would like to throw out all of Job’s comforters! It seems to be a human propensity to feel the need to say something unfitting in times of mourning.  Unfortunately, the best that most can come up with is some cheesy spiritual platitude, misplaced Scriptural reference, or miserable attempt to instruct the one grieving.  This is not the time to compare tragedies, instruct in the stages of grieving, or offer spiritual counsel.  It is a time to share in the grieving – to “mourn with those who mourn“.

Mourning with those who mourn is best done by simply being present with the one grieving. This does not require words!  It can involve a loving touch on the arm or shoulder.  It may even involve a tender hug.  For the grieving person, just knowing that there are friends and family present and that they are not alone in their grieving is relief enough.

If words must be used, short statements that identify with the grief of the one mourning is the most appropriate:

  • “I am so sorry for your loss.”
  • “I do not know what to say right now except that I love you and hurt for you.”
  • “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
  • “I sure am going to miss him/her.  I remember when he/she…” – it is okay to share short memories or impressions of the deceased if it is appropriate.
  • “I just want to be here for you right now.”
  • “My heart aches for your loss.”
  • “I cannot imagine what you are going through right now, but I want you to know I am here for you.”
  • “It is okay to cry and grieve.  He/she was loved so much and will be missed.”
  • “You do not need to say anything right now if you do not want to.  I just want to be with you.”

This does not just apply to the time immediate following a death or tragic loss. It also applies months, even years, later when the fresh wound of grief is opened by a memory.  Such a person’s loss is never fully healed.  The pain of it will always be present.  To avoid becoming a Job’s comforter, one must help the one mourning identify the pain and grieve the loss.  Rather than prolonging grieving, as some may suspect, it actually helps the person heal.  Rather than attempting to suppress the emotions associated with the pain, they are embraced as a part of living.

Rather than become a Job’s comforter, the challenge is to become a true friend who “mourns with those who mourn”. If everyone became better at that perhaps all of Job’s comforters would be thrown out or at least drowned out by the love and kind words of those who are present to comfort those who mourn.

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