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Posts Tagged ‘Oregon State’

I meet regularly with a number of friends involved in some sort of ministry. Some of them are in full-time ministry and some in volunteer places. Everyone of them have a passion to winsomely bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their spiritual journey.

One of the challenges is that what reached people a few years ago does not touch them today. Our culture has quickly changed and continues rapidly changing, much of it fueled and fed by technology. Technology has shaped how we receive and process information. While much of the church still depends upon a “talking head” at the front of the auditorium, much of the world has moved on to multi-media entertainment centers.

Mount Adams, Washington State, Fall 2012Influence and information does not just come through technological sources, however. Now, it is taken in through personal encounters in one’s “tribal” or affinity group. The breakdown of the family structures and the displacement of family members across distances has caused people to seek out social groups with  which they identify. These play a huge part in filtering information and what is accepted as “truth” among its members. It begins as young as teenagers when they divide into Goths, Emos, Nerds, Jocks, Barbies, Preppies, Punkers, Rockers, Stoners, and Gamers. The list goes on to reflect neighborhoods, ethnic groups and social statuses.

The technolization and tribalization of our culture has created a fractured environment to share the Bible’s message of hope and redemption. This is the “new reality” that American churches face. The question is whether they will be able to quickly adapt to the changing environment or continue to perform old practices that reached bygone eras.

There is a danger in not fighting against the nostalgia of the “good old days.” It is that we miss what opportunities are given to us right now. We can celebrate the past, even grieve its passing, but we cannot be stuck in it if we hope to maintain any missional edge that keeps us relevant and able to relate to the culture we live in today. So, what does this mean – this “new reality” – for American churches?

First, it means we need to rethink our priorities. What is our “kingdom priority”? Is it to preserve our furniture? Is it to maintain our liturgical practices? Is it to shore up programs and ministries? Or, is it to carry a message to spiritually lost people and develop within them hearts and minds that seek after Christ and his kingdom?

As I have talked this dilemma over with ministry friends, one thing has become clear to all of us. The mission is the message of Christ and his lordship or rule. Church history shows us that methods have constantly changed over the centuries. The only difference now is that these  are needing to take place at a faster pace than ever before.

Mount Hood, Oregon, Fall 2012For instance, take the structure of church buildings. The church began with no properties – meeting in the homes of believers and seekers. Finally, when buildings were able to be constructed, they were gathering places for many “home churches.” Finally, these buildings became larger Cathedrals and the focus of the faith community.

Initially, the focus of the building’s interior was “The Lord’s Table“. Any pulpit or podium was to the side, not center stage. Sometimes it was intentionally placed high so that the preacher seemed to be ascending Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s Word to the people once more. Everything centered around the Eucharist.

When the Reformation arrived, it invited new models for church buildings. Some had art, some didn’t and some boasted fancy architecture and some simple. The Word of God became central and slowly the pulpit moved to center stage. The Communion Table remained either in front or behind the pulpit depending upon the prominence a church might give to it (Was there real substance in the food or only symbolism?). As scholasticism played a larger role in Christian education, teaching in preaching became more pronounced. The speaker/preacher/teacher became more important.

With the arrival of Evangelicalism and the Revival movements of the 19th century, churches took on the role of being auditoriums – places to hear a speaker. With the ever increasing role of music in the church, choir lofts, organ machines and pipes all played a role in shaping church buildings and affected how the Gospel message was communicated.

Now, today, in most Evangelical churches, the pulpit has given way to a lectern, music stand, or no prop at all. The worship band instruments are as prominently displayed as the pulpit or Lord’s Table once was a few decades ago. Clergy wigs, clerical collars, robes and suits and ties have given way to button-up shirts and slacks or T-shirts and jeans.

Change. The church has faced it for centuries. How the church today faces the changing reality of its culture will determine how effective it will remain. Sadly, like many church movements in the past, there may be a few today that will need to pass from the scene and become a memory of church history. Many individual churches and denominations will not be able to make the transition toward effectiveness in reaching today’s and tomorrow’s culture.

So, the question every minister, ministry and church organization must carefully assess is what is the main priority? What is “mission critical”? Something that is “mission critical” is absolutely necessary for the success of the mission. Without it the mission would fail. (This is assuming, of course, the centrality of Christ and a deep dependence upon the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.)

I don’t think there is one easy answer to that question. I strongly believe it will depend upon each congregation and each church leader to answer it depending upon their sense of God-given purpose and ministry context.

  • Where are they placed in their community?
  • Who has God given them to reach?
  • What resources has the Lord supplied them to accomplish it?
  • What “gifts and talents” are in its core leadership?

Finally, it means we will also need to re-examine our message delivery system. The message cannot change. Across every culture and every human age, the Gospel remains relevant and unchangeable. However, how it is communicated can change and must.

The new reality in our American churches is that we are facing an ever-increasing biblically illiterate audience despite the preponderance of biblical, theological and spiritual devotional resources available in our society. Many identify this as one of the signs that America has entered a “post-Christian” cultural phase. That may be true. However, that does not give us permission to throw-up our hands in defeat.

I believe that our culture is reverting to a story telling culture. Listeners are less linear in their thinking and how they relate to information. So, handing out and delivering an outline will not effectively reach them. However, story telling will communicate to them. This is a great advantage to the church since our source material, the Bible, is full of stories. Our lead-teacher, Jesus, used story to communicate important kingdom truths.

The danger becomes when our story telling only concludes with moralisms and pop-psychology. Too many of our White Mountain Flowers Flowing Down Rockspulpits and churches have already reverted to this diluted version of the Gospel. The Bible’s stories were given to us for more than to just teach us moral tales or to help us become better humans through positive living and thinking. They are pictures of the cosmic clash between divine righteous wisdom and human moral depravity.

The question remains, how do we most effectively tell this story of human failure and loving divine redemption? I believe that long educational sermons full to pretentious vocabulary is not going to cut it. We are going to need to simplify it – shoot for a 5th or 6th grade vocabulary. When it is necessary to use “big theological words”, then carefully define them. Scholasticism is out. Tribal narratives are the way in. Engage the individuals in the group as well as the whole group in telling the story of God’s glory.

I also believe that we have to begin our message delivery system with the assumption that people do not know anything about the Bible, its stories or is truths for living in God’s world God’s way. At least, whatever they have heard  up to this time is false and misleading. From that starting point, we can begin to shape our message to shape the hearts and minds of our audience.

The delivery system will need to have much more variety. A lone “talking head” delivering information will not capture the attention or the heart of today’s seekers. Contemporary audiences are used to sound bites, short episodic delivery,  and a chance to interact. This changes completely how we view our audience and our message.

Without changing our message, it will require harder work to include a variety of methods to deliver it. This could be everything from video clips, to personal stories, personal response times, discussion time, Q & A’s, as well as team speaker/teachers/preachers. What may seem like a chaotic and disjointed delivery system will make much more sense and have much more meaning to today’s audience.

The new reality in American churches offers an opportunity for the church to stretch out of its old wineskins and see what God is doing in his world and how he is at work. None of this has caught him by surprise. He is not overcome with questions and doubts about the future. He already saw this moment in time and had a “new wineskin” strategy for it. It is our job to discover it, embrace it and go with it.

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone   March, 12 2012

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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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White Wild Flower, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

White Wild Flower, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is an old church hymn that begins its chorus with the words, “I love to tell the story.” Sharing the good news of God’s work through his son, Jesus the Messiah, is precisely just that – telling the story.  It is his story and he is still writing it in and through the lives of people delivered from spiritual bondage and lostness.  It is a simple story.  And, when an individual’s life becomes changed by that story, it becomes a very personal story.

Unfortunately, like so many other things we do surrounding God, we have made this story really complicated. We cannot simply tell it as it is given to us.  Now we must qualify it and explain it to suit our own understanding of God.  The simple story of God’s message of rescuing humankind through the work of his son, Jesus, gets really complicated with layers of theology and prescriptions for spirituality.  I’m certain that if Jesus were to sit in many of our churches today he would be dumbfounded and caused to ask, “Are you talking about me?”  It is so hard to tell sometimes.

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently, a gentleman approached me about doing the “preaching” portion of a service in a retirement center. He wanted to assure me that everything would be taken care – music, songs, prayer and even communion.  All I had to do was show up and deliver a sermon.  “After all,” he qualified, “I’m not a pastor or clergy personI don’t mind doing the song service or communion, but I can’t preach.  I’m not qualified since I’m not a reverend.”

I was speechless. Standing before me was an elderly gentleman who had a passion for serving the retirement community around us.  His manner and speech told me he was well educated and very articulate.  He was a seasoned person of the church, probably had been going for 30 or 40 years.  I thought it odd that he had no problem serving the Lord’s Supper as a non-clergy person since in many denominations that is a service only a clergy person can perform.  So, obviously his spiritual background did not come from such a heritage.  However, not able to “preach;” that is, share the gospel, tell the good news that is in Christ Jesus, teach the way of the Lord?

Since when did telling the story of God require theological credentials? I am often reminded of the apostles who were unlearned men – uneducated.  Yet, the people of their time could tell that they had been with Jesus.  They became faithful witnesses of Jesus and his ways.  Telling the story was a very simple endeavor.  It focused upon the life, ministry, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus the Messiah.  It was supported with Old Testament examples of prophetic fulfillment.

Have we made our Gospel too complicated when the average person in our church does not feel qualified to share it with others? I am not addressing shyness or an ability for public speaking here.  I am only talking about telling the story of Jesus.  What have we done with the story of God’s message in his son when those who sit in our chairs and pews for years cannot tell others – or do not feel qualified to tell others?  What have we subtly communicated to them about telling this story when we have only professional clergy share it week after week?

I gently prodded the man standing before me.Why do you think it takes a pastor to preach?” I asked.  “You sound like an intelligent and articulate person.  You seem to know your Bible and it sounds to me like you have quite a number of years of experience in your spiritual journey.  Why don’t you share the gospel with them?”

The elderly gentleman blinked at me like I was speaking Old Testament Hebrew.  “Well, because I don’t have the credentials.  I would hate to say something wrong and teach something in error.”

I attempted to counter his sense of insecurity with a suggestion.  “Well, it is true that there are some parts of the Bible that are harder to understand than others.  And it is true that there are some theological issues that can boggle the sharpest minds.  However, the story of Jesus about the things he did as an example for us and the things he taught us are pretty straight forward.  What if you just concentrated on those things?  That’s what the Gospel is really all about any way, isn’t it?”

True,” he answered.  “I just feel inadequate…like someone more qualified should be preaching.”

I’ve preached for 25 years and still always feel inadequate, even with a Bible School and Seminary education,” I offered as an encouragement, which is very true about me.  I’ve never had a sermon or Bible lesson where I felt completely adequate for the job or occasion.  “Anyway, it is not the vessel that gets the glory.  It is what is poured out of the vessel that everyone remembers.  So, just focus on telling the story of Jesus and see what God will do by his Holy Spirit in the lives of the listeners.

At that, my elderly friend seemed relieved.  “I think I can do that,” he offered.

I can offer you some ideas and moral support, but I think you are up to the task.  You probably have for a long time.  You just need someone to push you on to the stage.”  I smiled and offered a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  I could see that he was mulling this new idea over.  There was no doubt in my mind that he would do just fine or actually quite well.

So, now I am waiting to hear how he did his first few times. I am sure that in telling the story his life was changed in the telling of it and his listeners lives were changed in hearing it.  That is, after all, the most basic reason why believers and seekers all gather week after week.  We love to tell and hear the story of God’s great love in a Savior who died for us and rose again.  From this recent experience of mine, it seems that each of us needs more work on simply telling the story.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Our Divine Therapist Who Art In Heaven

It turns out that the secularization of America may unwittingly be the work of the Church itself.  Its abandonment of doctrine that comes with strong exegetical Biblical teaching and preaching has developed a religious population in American churches that know little if anything about the most basic tenets of the orthodox Christian faith.  This is the sad report given to us by the Barna Research Group in April 10, 2009, entitled “Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist.”

For several years now, the dominant religious “Christian” belief system in America has been identified as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.*  The fact of the matter is that it only on a very limited level can it be identified with orthodox Christian beliefs.  Nevertheless, it remains the predominant belief system of most American Christians, especially among its youth.  They cannot be faulted for this as one only needs to examine what has been taught in many American churches for the past 30 years.  The fault must lie at the feet of those responsible for the discipleship and education of their congregations.

The simplest way to break down what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes is that it asserts “God as Creator and Law Giver but largely uninvolved in daily life and presumes that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of religious beliefs.”  The authors identify a five-part “de-facto creed” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The authors of the book go on to say, “Moralistic Therapeutic Design is about inculcating a moralistic approach to lifeIt teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.  That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health and doing one’s best to be successful.”

As such, then, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera…It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems and getting along amiably with other people.”

In this system of belief God is present in life like a life-coach or therapist.  He is there to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others.  According to Bill White in his article, “Descent Into Darkness,” the belief statement that sums up this religion is: God helps those who help themselves.  “In fact, 75% of Americans are convinced that quote comes from the Bible.  It was actually Ben Franklin who said that, and he publicly acknowledged that he was a Deist.”

Why call it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Well, when one considers its central tenets as expressed above, it is very evident that it is moralistic because the primary teaching is to “be nice.”  And, it is therapeutic because, by focusing on pop psychology and self-help, the goal is to bring us comfort.  Finally, it is deism because the core belief is that there is a God who made the world, but he does n0t require much of us; he is generally nice but not too involved.

Some of the trouble lies in our attempts to make the Gospel “user friendly.” Most attempts only emasculate the Gospel so that it makes no demands.  Following Jesus is not supposed to be hard.  “The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding,” say Smith and Denton. “Actually, he can’t be because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.  In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”  (Chanon Ross addresses this issue in youth ministry in his article “Jesus Isn’t Cool: Challenging youth ministry.”)

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This insipid form of Christian belief has been adequately addressed by more brilliant people than me.  For instance, Lane Chaplin handles it very well in his blog.  He identifies this system of belief of classical Pelagianism, which teaches that man is basically good apart from God’s grace.  That is an oversimplification of Pelagianism but makes its point.  Gene Edward Veith of World Magazine has an excellent critique of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as well.  It is a part of the “Christless christianity” that Michael Horton fears is preached in most American pulpits today.  As Brian Kiley points out in his blog, Live Generously, no where do we hear the theology of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than at funerals, especially funerals of famous individuals like Michael Jackson.*

The remedy for this creeping spiritually destructive teaching, of course, is strong, exegetical teaching and preaching from the Bible.  A return to focusing upon the central doctrines of the Church in the education of our children and young people will help them develop a robust faith in God.  This does not demand dry, irrelevant teaching and preaching.  Application of beliefs to daily living is always important.

On the other hand, it may be just as easy to rework the Lord’s Pray a bit to accommodate our view of God:

Our Divine Therapist
Who art in heaven
Hallowed are our plans and convenience.
Thy goodness come,
Thy morality be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our peace and happiness.
Forgive us our mess-ups
And help us to overlook the mess-ups of others.
And lead us to become better people
By delivering us from our inner demons
For your distant watchfulness means our peace and contentment and joy forever.  Amen.

Now that God has been reduced to serving my need for comfort and convenience, I have a few things I need to let him know about that is really bugging me.  Where do I find his therapy couch?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

*CAUTION:  Here is one example where the Wikipedia information is mis-information.  First, it only identifies one of the authors in the study, Christian Smith.  The other author was Melinda Lundquist Denton.  Second, it has the wrong school!  It was not University of Notre Dame but instead University of North Carolina.  The study was a report to the National Study of Youth and Religion.  It was the basis for their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
*CAUTION:  Apparently Brian Kiley followed the Wikipedia article and provides the same misinformation.  Be careful of using Wikipedia!

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Indulging Religious Relics

The history of the Church prior to and following the Reformation is fascinating. One discovers a world not unlike today.  Change was in the air.  Technology, most notably the printing press, was quickly changing society.  Nationalism was shaping new governments and their alliances.  The big concern politically and religiously was the growing strength of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are a lot of great books to read about this time period. A book I just finished that is particularly excellent is Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (MJF Books, 2002).  John Man is an historian who is well-known for his work on Chinese history, particularly his biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  His book Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World is an excellent study too.  His histories are easy to read and takes the reader along in story-form rather than the academic dry-detailed textbook type of histories so many of us are used to from our school days.

Among other things that have not changed are the uses of indulgences and relics. A Blog I posted on January 29th of this year entitled “Charismatic Indulgences” addressed some of the issues and enamorations with indulgences in the religious world today, particularly among Charismatics and Pentecostals.  The doctrinal heresies and spiritual abuses that wrecked havoc upon the Church 600 years ago are still at work.

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I never considered any corollaries between the use of relics with their accompanying abuses in the Church and what takes place among many evangelicals today until I read John Man’s account of instances of the use of relics in Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words.  It seems that even the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformation have forgotten the lessons learned!  Though they do not appear in the same forms, and not nearly as ancient, there is the same attempt to manipulate the grace-work of God to our own means.  This reduces the God of the Bible to no more than any other pagan deity and the magic that accompanies it.

Gutenberg, for a time, entered into an enterprise that accompanied the use of indulgences by the church which would make him a lot of money.  The need for money was to finance his printing press enterprise, which was still in the experimental stage.  It is the same motivation that we see so much at work in the Church still today.  Religious items are sold to make money.  To increase their value, the promise of God’s grace for health and wealth accompanies them.  For a few dollars, one can receive all their heart desires.

Gutenberg’s scheme was to join many other craftsman and their guilds in building mirrors to capture the radiant power that was said to stream from the relics.  Sounds far fetched?  Not any more than some of the convoluted ways some Christians still go through today to gain God’s favor for an answer to prayer.  In medieval Christendom, holy relics were thought to be essentially powerful charms.  They were thought to have power to heal hearts, souls and bodies.  It was believed that healing streams issued from them like sun rays.

The Church held the relics and, thus, held the power.  It dictated when and where relics would be made available.  There was a time when people on pilgrimages to sites with holy relics could see and/or touch the holy relics for adoration and prayer.  Doing so guaranteed them access to the relic’s power.  Unfortunately, as the pilgrimages grew more popular, the chance to see or touch them became impossible.  When the relics were shown, often for a price, the thought was that much of their power simply escaped into space uncaptured.

This is where new technology came into play.  At about the same time that people began to use spectacles for reading, glass mirrors also became popular though little glass was used but instead clear crystals (beryl).  Soon, someone put forward the idea that a convex mirror, which seemed like a magical technology for its time, could capture and absorb the healing power radiating from holy relics.  Since beryl was expensive, cheaper polished metal ones were made and sold.  Thus, a whole new religious industry developed over night.

With the newly acquired mirror, one no longer had to be near the holy relics.  If a place that offered an uninterrupted view could be acquired, then all one had to do was hold it up to capture rays of holiness – the longer the better, like some kind of ‘third-eye.’  This supposedly turned the tourist trinket into a thing full of radiant energy and power.  The owner of this mirror could then take it wherever he or she wanted and apply it like magic to heal broken limbs and even cure individuals affected by the black plague, which was ravishing much of Europe at the time.

What kind of market was there for these devices? Well, in Aachen, Germany, alone in 1432 there was 10,000 people a day for two weeks.  A later pilgrimage in 1446 noted that 130,000 mirrored “badges” were sold to pilgrims.  Gutenberg was hoping to cash in on the 1439 pilgrimage by making 32,000 mirrors.  He hoped to sell them for half a gulden each, which was very expensive in those days.  So, it all boils down to money and how to make it.  The religious market was a wealth producer then much as it is today with Christian apparel, music, movies and books.

However, it is not the fact that anyone then or today was attempting to make money that has captured my attention.  It is what was then and is now being sold on the religious market.  Listen to any television, radio or internet enterprise that targets Christians and it will not be long before you will hear someone hawking their goods with the promise of the blessing that it will bring; particularly for health and wealth.  We are still hoping to sell or buy God’s grace!  I am sure that Luther, Calvin and other Reformers must be rolling in their graves by what they see developing from the churches that are descendants of the Reformation.

At the same time, while we do not hold up the bones of saints or artifacts from the life of Christ, we in the Evangelical church can still be accused of thinking in terms of relics – holy objects or places that contain God’s power, blessing and grace.  We sometimes worship the furniture in our churches as more worthy of consideration than God.  The latest popular Christian speaker becomes a relic to us when we think that we must attend their meetings and hear them personally in order to really be blessed and have prayer answered.  Whether it is a Christian conference or revival meeting, we have come to think that God’s presence and power is only contained and displayed in only that one place and time.  So, we rush on our own spiritual pilgrimages to get there to be a part of it.

So, it does not surprise me now to hear about Evangelical Christians who are going on pilgrimages to holy sites of the Evangelical stream of Christianity.  The places of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and pioneer missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Judson Taylor, Robert Moffat, and William Carey among others are now spiritual pilgrimage places for Evangelicals.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No, not at all.  However, it should be a flag of caution.  When any movement begins to idolize its past and memorialize it, it is the beginning of the loss of vision for the future.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that God is not contained to a place and time now that the age of the Kingdom of God has arrived.  His blessings flow to everyone.  His Spirit is available to everyone.  The Reformation rejected the idea of relics, indulgences and that a special class of priests held all the power of God in reserve to hand out to the people.  Instead, they embraced the Biblical idea of the priesthood of all believers, the work of God’s grace for everyone and the authority of God’s Word over everything.  Before we go back to selling indulgences and using religious relics, perhaps it would be good to study our Church history.  We seem to have lost something along our way into the 21st century.  Otherwise, an enterprise in making and selling little mirrors may just become my next career.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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I just had the joy of spending two days recently roaming downtown Portland, Oregon, with my good friend, Oran Denton. We are both bibliophiles, so much of that time was spent at Powell’s Books on 10th Ave. NW.  The monstrous new and used book store is a must-see place for any lover of books.  We spent too much time there and both fell off the “don’t-buy-any-books” wagon.

Downtown Portland has beautiful parks, artwork on just about every block and great architecture from the turn of the 20th century. It really is remarkable.  There are art galleries galore and coffee shops to numerous to enjoy.  China Town and the old train station still in use is worth roaming through to see.

We took a long walk through the Alphabet Street District. The historic homes there are impressive.  A drive up Vista drive to the top of the hill is worth the sight of the homes as well as the view overlooking the city.  More fun for me was all the little shops along the historic main strip – various ethnic food restaurants, boutiques, antique shops, coffee shops, art exhibits, bagel and pastry shops as well as the old store fronts make for an amazing stroll.

The weather was a mix of rain and cloudy sunshine. However, most everyone seemed to be taken it in Pacific Northwest stride.  Some had umbrellas, but most were just walking along as the rain came and went.  For the Northwest native, getting rained on is a no bigger deal than getting sunshined upon.

One of my favorite things to do is watch and observe people. I am always an observer of the world around me.  So, for me this was also an eye-candy experience as I saw people of all different nationalities and character types.  Simply walking around Powell’s Books is an experience in international relations.  I heard spoken around me Russian, Spanish, Hindi, Farsi, French, Japanese and either Norwegian or Swedish.

In the store and shops, one can see a variety of types of people. There are those with their dread-locks and piercings and those with colorful tattoos and edgy piercings on various places of their face.  There are those dressed in gear for bicycling around downtown and points beyond and those dressed in leathers to ride their Harley-Davidsons.  There are also those dressed typical  Northwest casual fashion and those in Goth style or skinny-jeans and an odd array of add-ons hanging on them.

Then there are the street people. Only two days wandering around the same parts of town will help you identify the regulars who occupy the same corner, same door way, same park bench or same sidewalk space day-after-day. They make up a part of the fabric of the color of the city.  A few ask for money, most simply sit with a cup or other type of vessel to receive donations to help them – or hurt them as they continue in their addiction.  All are pleasant enough.

Many of the people who live on the streets and wander them are people with mental disabilities. Oran and I sat in Whole Foods enjoy our bottled water and waiting for our fire-baked pizza to get down when a young man sat down next to us.  It was evident from the first moment that he was troubled in his mind.  He held conversations with several different individuals who did not exist in the real world but did in the world of his mind.  His state was sad.  His behavior and conversations were humorous.  A store manager kindly came over to see if Oran and I were being disturbed by him.  No.  It was a bit distracting but he was not bothering us.

Purple Lupine and Sage and Sky, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

Purple Lupine and Sage and Sky, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Shortly after picking up our pizza to eat back at the house (we were staying at my parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington), we ran into another young man troubled in his mind.  As we passed I caught the edges of a conversation he was having to or about “Romulus.”  At one point, he turned aggressively to some people behind a window in the coffee shop in Powell’s Books and angrily yelled at them.  In his imagination, someone had offended him.  We continued on – Oran guarding the pizza more closely now.

It strikes me how diverse our world is in today’s inner-city and urban settings. Personally, I like diversity.  I love hearing different languages, enjoying different ethnic foods and seeing all the expressions of creation expressed in all its various human forms.  Granted some are destructive and others are not healthy.  Nevertheless, one cannot escape the fact that all of God’s creation celebrates diversity.  Personally, I think God relishes in it.

I believe it is the poor soul who never gets out of his or her comfort zone to experience a different people or different culture. It only impoverishes the human spirit to remain in one homogeneous setting and never venture beyond its boarders out of fear.  Such fear breeds prejudice and hatred for differences.  From there it is not a long way to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Human history is replete with human-on-human hate crimes over ethnic and cultural differences. One does not need to look only to skin color differences for examples.  There are plenty of examples of genocide among groups of similar cultures and ethnicities; consider European history, native American history, African history, Asian history and they all testify to humanity’s capacity to pick out our differences and make war over it.

Some point to the Tower of Babel in the Bible and claim that our differences and the resulting consequences are the result of human sin and The Fall. They lay claim that God’s true intention was for everyone to be the same, speak the same language and have the same culture.  I beg to disagree.  I think that from the beginning the Creator placed with humanity the ability to creatively develop culture.  I do not believe God’s intention for Creation was uniformity.  It was and always has been diversity and creativity.

Redeeming cultural expressions does not mean eliminating it. It does not necessitate conforming it to another culture.  It means highlighting and even restoring those things within culture that celebrate human creativity and expression.  They honor the Creator.  Those things that are self-destructive and destructive of others can be let go.

So, you and I can honor the way God colored the world by entering into and enjoying the different cultures of our neighbors and friends. Honoring the human creativity and expression in the person does not necessarily mean we must agree with destructive ways.  However, our understanding first can lead secondly to a dialogue that will bring us to a place of reconciliation between our differences.

Attempting to color our world the grey color of a rainy Pacific Northwest sky is not the answer. It would be better to color it the hilarious varieties of colors seen in a rhododendron garden.  After all, it is much more enjoyable to see.  The next time you and I come across someone obviously different, it might help to remember that it’s all just another way that a creative Creator has colored the world.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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