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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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I have been a lot of discussion and debates recently over everything from religion to politics, from environmentalism to capitalism and beyond. It is very stimulating.  I always enjoy it when I meet people with opposing views who are articulate and cogent in their arguments.  The debate can help sharpen my own thinking or argumentation.  Sometimes, I even change my mind or at least give a little ground!

Not everyone is suited for these types of engagements, however. I find people from all across the spectrum of ideas, beliefs and philosophies who hold to ideas without solid reason.  In other words, they know what they believe.  They simply do not know why they believe other than someone else told them or they learned it somewhere.  For some, this causes them to dig deeper and search out answers.  For others, they simply blockade behind what they already believe and pursue it no further.

The intolerable ones in the public dialogue are always the ones, from whatever side of the issues, who are more concerned about being right than anything else. It is more important for them to be right than it is to respect the others differing opinions or feelings.  It is more important for them to assert what they deem to be the absolute truth than it is to mutually seek understanding and arriving at “truth” together with someone they started out in disagreement with in the first place.  In most cases, they may win the argument but they lose the battle.

The real battle in so much of our public dialogues of late is not who has the right answer but who can be the right person. Everyone thinks they have the right answers, whatever the subject being debated.  We witnessed this during the recent public health reform debate.  We see it in the discussion over financial reforms for Wall Street.  We hear it in the discussion about what to do with terrorists, or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or immigration reform, or drug control, or…well, you get the idea.

There are certain high profile individuals on both sides of any issue who think that shouting the loudest, more smartly demeaning their opponents or gaining mass agreement is all that is important to win the day. Once again, I am afraid the focus upon only winning the debate or argument will ultimately lose the larger battle of gaining common ground and understanding to build relationships and alliances.

Being right does not, no matter what one may think, necessarily guarantee one has the moral high ground if assertion of it only leads to hostilities and making enemies. One can be right in all the facts and wrong in every way.  However, being wrong in all the facts but right in one’s attitude and actions will, I am confident, ultimately bring one to the right conclusions even if their starting point was erroneous.  A position of being a humble learner of another’s point of view is not a position of weak acquiescence to their position.

I think this position is true in any number of relationships. For instance, should a parent assert their “rightness” over seeking to understand the position or thinking of their child?  I have been guilty of this – thinking that I must somehow convince them that I know better and that I know right.  I have discovered that sometimes seeking to understand their thinking and point of view become the bridge that convinces them that I am right after all.  In other words, being the right kind of person to my child is more important than always being right.

Lincoln City, Oregon, August, 2009

Lincoln City, Oregon, August, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

How many relationships have been ruined because individuals were more concerned about asserting the idea that they are right than they were about being the right friend, parent, son, daughter, brother, sister, grandparent, etc to the people around them?  Constructive dialogue sometimes requires us to enter into the world and mind of the other person before we make them cross the bridge into ours.  Seeking to be the right person for what is needed to reach mutual understanding becomes more important than simply being right all the time.

This does not require an individual to give up what they believe to be a rational and cogent point of view. They do not need to adopt erroneous thinking or a bad idea.  It is possible to hold onto one’s position and still enter into another person’s thought processes to understand them and their reasoning.  This exchange does not necessitate a denial of what one’s believe is true.  It does necessitate an honest effort to understand others.

So, the next time you are faced with someone who does not see things the way you do, whether it is your child, co-worker, friend, relative or acquaintance ask yourself,Do I simply want to be right?  Or to understand and be understood?”  The answer to that question will determine the outcome of the discussion or debate.  What do you want from this relationship; to be right or to be the right person?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It is part of the American ideal to think that “all men and women are created equal.” In terms of human value this is true.  In terms of human capacity it is not.  Every human person is unique in his or her talents and capacities.  Not everyone can be a LeBron James on the basketball court.  Not everyone can be a Warren Buffet in finances.  There was only one J.S. Bach.  There will only ever be one Albert Einstein.  There will only be one you or me.

Into human talent and capacity the good Lord put a lot of the right genetics into the right person at the right time. The famous runner Steve Prefontaine was made to run.  He had all the right biological equipment – heart, lungs, feet, legs.  A tragic death took him too soon from this world.  I ran cross-country in High School and did OK.  However, I never did as well as others even though I trained just as hard.  I played hours upon hours of basketball.  I never got as good as many of my peers.  I certainly was never going to be another Michael Jordan.  There is only one of him out of all the millions of kids of his generation who played basketball and the hundreds who even made it to the professional leagues.

We probably all have had an argument with our Creator at some point in our life where we wanted to know, “How come you didn’t make me like so-and-so?”  In our limited understanding, the world, or at least us, would be better off if we were like the one we idolize.  Almost all of us want to be Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” – superman or superwoman.  However, this mythical humanoid never existed and never will.  After all, human capacity is limited.  This is what reminds us that God is God and we are not.  There is no limit to God’s capacity.

So, in our minds and hearts we play to our fantasies instead of the realities with which we are dealt; at least for awhile. I have discovered that this is where maturity comes to bear in our lives.  It is the recognition and acceptance of our own limited human capacities.  This is no stoic acceptance of the death of dreams.  It is, instead, the embracing of our full potential and willingness to explore it to its very edges.

Granted, our cultural heroes can inspire us to greatness. But living vicariously through their achievements and accomplishments is not enough.  The “joie de vivre” is to attain to one’s own measure of greatness to whatever capacity that may be as an individual.  This is why so many of us are amazed at how some of the ordinary people in our lives become our “ubermensch” at the end of their life.  It is not until the sum of their life is put before us at the end of their life that we realize how truly great they were as a person.

Seagull Reflections, Long Beach Peninsula, Fall 2009

Seagull Reflections, Long Beach Peninsula, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus alluded to the human capacity in his parable of the talents. In the parable (Matt. 25:14 – 30), the master did not give everyone the same amount of talents.  Each was given what he or she could steward according to the wisdom of the master.  The only stipulation was that they take what they were given and use it to its full capacity so that when the master asked for an accounting of what he gave them they could show how it had been invested.  This is still applicable to us today.

The accounting of our human life is not going to be summed up in comparison with anyone else when we stand before our Creator. We will not be able to turn to anyone else and say to the Creator, “But I didn’t get as much capacity as her!”  We will not be able to complain, “Why didn’t you give me a chance with the capacity that he had?”  Instead, the Creator will look at us and ask, “I created you for this purpose in this place at this hour.  What have you done with what I gave to you to live and enjoy life to its fullest?”

The existential choice each one of us has is to determine to live life to the fullest within the measurements of the unique capacities we have or to spend our life decrying who we are not and what we do not have. This is why envy and jealousy is such a sin.  They not only attempt to second guess the Creator’s work and purpose, but it ruins the very one who harbors it.  Envy and jealousy paralyzes one’s ability to enjoy to the full extent what they have been given in life.  They destroy the full potential of the one who harbors them.  No wonder Paul warned Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).  Perhaps the apostle Paul in his old age knew by experience the damage envy and jealousy can do in one’s life.

I know that for my own spiritual journey, it has been liberating to come to the acceptance and contentment of what I have a capacity to do and what I do not have the capacity to do. This gives me permission to say “Yes” to the things that the wise Creator has created me for in this life.  It also gives me permission to say “No” without guilt to the things that the wise Creator has not given me the capacity to handle.

This is not to say that there are not times where He challenges me and stretches my capacity in order to enlarge my life.  However, these have been painful times and thankfully infrequent.  At other times, the Creator has placed me in challenging positions where I must depend upon the capacity of others – or completely alone upon Him – to see me through.  This makes me aware of my need for others in my life and my necessity to depend upon Him.  He did not create any of us with the capacity to travel the journey of life alone.

Joyfully living within the limits he has created me with allows me to enjoy life.  This kind of contentment with “life as it is handed to me” allows me the freedom to fully explore all that the Creator has created me with and for in this life.  Free from envy, jealousy, anxiety and perhaps even anger, I can discover what it means to be Ron Almberg “created in Christ Jesus to [do] good works” (Eph. 2:10).  In other words, it is accepting that “God planned for [Ron Almberg] to do good things and to live as he has always wanted [him] to live” (CEV, with my personalization).

So, you and I may not be the next sports all-star or the next American Idol. Neither of us may attain to international recognition for some scientific breakthrough, gaining the Nobel Peace Prize or appearing on the cover of Time magazine.  However, we are in the most important place in the universe – the heart and mind of God when He created us and set us in this world in our generation among the people we influence.  And He’s watching us.  Cheering us on.  Helping us when we ask.  Because more than anything, He wants us to reach our fullest potential/capacity.  Not only will it bring us the greatest joy – “joie de vivre” – but also bring Him the greatest glory.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Restructuring Discipleship

I am a bibliophile.  I’ll freely admit it.  I am a reader and collector of books.  My wife, Kelly, would say too many books.  Alright, I probably have a couple thousand too many.  However, each one is special to me.  I have a connection with each one.  That is why when I went to “weed-out” my library a couple years ago I could only part with a box full of books out of my whole library.  And some of those in that box were painful to part with as I donated them to the local library for their book sale.

Out of all of the books I have read over the years, while I have received enjoyment and learned a great many things from them, only a handful of them have truly been life changing and transforming.  Those special books along with their authors still provoke my thinking and reflection to this day – no matter how long ago I read them.  Some of those authors include Richard Foster, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Phillip Yancey, Leslie Newbigin, Thomas Merton, Detrich Bonhoeffer, and few others.

One recent book I have read that is having a lasting impact is “The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives” by Peter Scazzero with Warren Bird and Foreword by Leighton Ford (Zondervan, 2003).  The whole premise of the book is to propose a restructuring of the way discipleship is done in the local church.  It takes you on a spiritual journey with pastor Scazzero as he discovers what was missing in his own spiritual formation and how he led his church into what he discovered every Christian needs to grow and mature.

While the book is written for Christian leaders, most specifically pastors, it addresses issues that affect everyone in the local congregation.  The church that I attend, Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington, just went through it church-wide in its small groups.  Many people benefited from the study and found some of the truths discussed in the book transforming.  The issues discussed throughout the book are universal and apply to every walk of life so that they could be applied in the corporate world or individual lives who are looking to grow and mature as persons beyond where they are presently.

The emotional part of our humanness is rarely dealt with in our society.  Most of us were taught to “stuff it” and hide our emotions.  Peter Scazzero points out how this has had an ill affect upon all of us and especially upon spiritual formation with the church.  The tendency is to think that if we are having troubles that what we need to do is apply the right doctrine or spiritual truth; or put more effort into a spiritual disciple like prayer, fasting, worship, prayer in the Spirit or Bible reading; or search our hearts and souls for hidden sins and unforgiveness; or look intently in the Bible for a Scriptural promise that will give us hope.  While all of these are good things they are not always the answer.  There may be deeper issues that we need to address.

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The author then takes his readers on a journey of considering the hidden emotional components of our lives that may be interfering with our growth as spiritual and emotional beings.  He suggests five steps that he devotes a chapter to each.  They are, briefly,

  1. Look Beneath the Surface.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches take the time to look inside their hearts and ask, “What is going on that Jesus Christ is trying to change?”  The author uses the picture of an iceberg to portray how a person’s life show’s very little of what is really going on upon the surface.  The vast majority of who we are lies deep beneath the surface.  So, the first step is to invite God to bring an awareness of what those “beneath-the surface” issues are and transform them so that we will become more like Jesus.
  2. Break the Power of the Past.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches recognize how their past – individually and collectively – affects their present ability to love Christ and love others.  There are complex ties to the past and the present.  All of these pull at us and shape us.  For instance, the family we grew up in is our primary and most powerful system that shapes and influences us – for good or for bad.  Recognizing what those and who those are and dealing with them so their negative power over us is broken is important to moving on and growing up.
  3. Live in Brokenness and Vulnerability.  Contrary to our societal model that teaches us to “lead from your strengths,” Peter Scazzero asserts that the Jesus model is to live and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability.  Emotionally healthy people and churches understand that leadership in the Kingdom of God is from the bottom up – a place of service.  It is the ability to lead out of failure and pain, question and struggles, and letting go of the need to control that empowers individuals and churches to grow and mature.  By far, I found this chapter the most challenging and, at the same time, the most freeing.
  4. Receive the Gift of Limits.  This truth directly coincides with the previous one.  Emotionally healthy individuals and their churches accept the limits God has given them.  Whatever and however many talents they have been given by God – one, two, five, or ten – they joyfully accept them.  This sets them free from the frenzy of a covetous life of trying to be like someone else or another church.  Such individuals and churches are marked by a contentment and joy about how God has made them and purposes to use them in his Kingdom.
  5. Embrace Grieving and Loss.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches embrace grief as part of the journey to become more like Jesus.  There is an important discipleship component in learning to grieve our losses – dreams, relationship, tragedy, death – because it is the only path to becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Covering over our losses only disfigures us and stunts our growth toward becoming whole and healthy individuals.  It shapes all of our future relationships and the way we lead others.  We are often too quick to try and ease the pain when God is attempting to use it to shape our souls.
  6. Make Incarnation Your Model for Loving Well.  This simply means intentionally following the lifestyle of Jesus.  Peter Scazzero asserts that there are three dynamics to Jesus’ model for us: entering another’s world, holding on to your self, and hanging between two worlds.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches will learn how to fold all three of these dynamics into their lives.  God changes us as we engage others and learn through them.  This keeps our feet in the real world spiritually.

As with all life-transforming books, when I put them down I always ask, “Where was this 20 years ago?” I could have used this book a long time ago!  I look back over the years and see how I have frustrated my own growth as a person – spiritually and emotionally.  I am thankful for it now.  Although I finished reading it some months back, I find myself constantly going back to it and “chewing” on some of the points that have really impacted me.

Like many formational books of its kind, it rubs against the contemporary approach to success and wealth and health.  I doubt that you will hear Oprah Winfrey or Doctor Phil using this book in any of their approaches to life.  Nevertheless, there are life-changing truths that can shape our lives and spiritual journeys from here until the end.  It will affect not only us but our world.  As Richard Foster notes, “…the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Celebration of Discipline).  True that.  And so perhaps it is time some of us consider restructuring how we do spiritual formation.  I know I am in.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healthy Holistic Spirituality

Since Jesus’ departure from earth his disciples have attempted to follow his path of teaching and practice.  Unfortunately, he left behind ideas and concepts about a Kingdom.  He did not leave behind a lot of details about how this spiritual life should work – organizing the church, spiritual disciplines, and a myriad of other details that constantly change with times and cultures.  We are left to work that out as we commune with him through his Holy Spirit and the fellowship of the saints.

Surprisingly, for the most part, the church has performed fairly well.  It has its black moments in history.  It has suffered backsliding and experienced renewal and revival. It has been mixed with earthly governments and rule to its own demise and suffered through the revolutions of breaking free from them.  It has fallen prey to wolves in sheep’s clothing and expelled or rejected their rule and authority.

Nevertheless, the message and work of the Kingdom continues on and changes lives.  The message is that God has sent Jesus, his son, to restore the broken Creator-creation relationship with people everywhere and the work is that he is present in and among his people through his Holy Spirit to undo the works of evil and the Evil One.  As such, the church has been a major force throughout history in serving the poor, the hungry, the widows, the sick and the orphans.  Today, there is much work being done through its services to provide clean water, free health clinics to villages, free education for children, and working to eliminate preventable diseases.

Still, most of this type of work goes unnoticed by the world’s skeptics, cynics, agnostics and atheists.  This is not to suggest that the effort is to have some kind of global balance sheet of “good things” versus “bad things” done by Christians.  Nothing will satisfy those who look with anger and prejudice against others for whatever reasons.  The point simply is this:  The Kingdom of God has always been about a message accompanied by a work.

When Jesus ministered on earth, his sermons most often followed his work among the sick, demon possessed, oppressed, poor and outcasts of society.  He was not satisfied with staying in the local synagogue preaching and teaching.  Neither was he content with staying where he was most popular and most successful according to statistics.  He was always about his Heavenly Father‘s business.  There was work to be done.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many early sermons.  Almost all of them followed some work by miracle or powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit.  James expects this pattern to be continued and chides his readers through his letters for having faith without works.  As such, their faith was dead and worthless.  Faith not only has a message but it has a work that it must do.

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I am wondering if believers in any given congregation in our area can identify these two things in their local church.   What is the message of the church?  Can they summarize it precisely and succinctly so that their neighbor or co-worker could understand it?  Just as importantly, what is the work of the church?  What work does their local fellowship of believers do to undo the work of evil and the Evil One around them?  What activities are their congregation engaged in to affect the lives of the least, last and lost of the community they live in?

The church’s credibility is not just in the integrity of its message – something we in the Evangelical churches like to focus upon.  The real credibility of the church is in the work it does that aligns with its message:  God has come to restore humankind and creation to himself by inviting everyone into relationship with him and work with him to undo the work of evil and the Evil One.  While we work on getting the message out, it might be time to also roll up our sleeves and get to work in the world around us.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Marriage and Family: The Selfishness Eliminator

Following Biblical principles and precepts over our own feelings is a much needed message in our world today. This is especially true in marriage relationships.  A recent post by a friend, Cindy Holman, got me thinking about this whole issue.  I have witnessed too many couples break up because one or both “just want to be happy,” regardless of the instructions and commands of Scripture.  I often thought that this is what Jesus had in mind when he wondered aloud, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

When I mentored young couples preparing for the own marriages, I always emphasized the apostle Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 to them. I required nine sessions before I performed the wedding ceremony of a couple. The content of these sessions grew mostly out of the things I wish someone had discussed with me about before I got married! A big part it was starting with a theology of marriage and the marriage covenant.

A Christian’s marriage and the Christian marriage ceremony is more than just a pretty party put on by the bride and groom and their families (mostly the bride’s).  It is the act of making a covenant before and with God.  God is not just a spectator but a participator in the act of the covenant ceremony.  He is not simply another witness of a ceremony between two people.  He is an third agent in the covenant made before the human witnesses in the room.

Breaking up a marriage is more than just a dissolution of a contract.  It is the violation of a covenant persons have made with God.  Yet, how many couples break their covenant with only consideration of their own personal interests and not the interests of God in the relationship?  Marriage is treated more as a contract between two people than it is a tri-part covenant between the each of the individuals and God.  Thus, God enters into and has an active part and interest in the outcome of the covenant relationship.

Because every couple is unique and their relationship is unique, I don’t believe that there is a “cookie cutter” approach to healthy marriages. What works for one couple and their family may not work for another.  Every human relationship has a certain amount of dysfunction in it by fact that spiritually fallen human beings are involved.  I think every married couple has looked upon the relationship of another married couple with a certain amount of amazement at their ability to “make it work.”  This is why God’s covenantal involvement is so important.

Viewing the marriage as a covenant before and with God as a couple helps to solemnize and solidify the relationship, I think. Also, discovering how each individual in the relationship, and so each relationship, is unique is also important.  The uniqueness each person brings to the covenant will shape that relationship and make it a unique one.  This is not a bad thing.  I rather think it is a good thing and reflects the incredible creativity and diversity of God’s work in humanity.

For instance, my wife, Kelly, and I could not be more different as persons. It was soon after leaving college that we realized that the only thing we had in common was college!  This, of course, has led to an interesting journey together. Right now, what we have in common is our children!  Surely God has a sense of humor.  We often look at each other and ask ourselves, “How in the world did we ever get together?”

I like jazz and rock-n-roll. She likes classical and opera. I like comedy – admittedly sometimes twisted and weird. She likes the more serious and straightforward approach to life. I see a lot of grey in the world. She sees it as pretty much black and white. I like the rugged outdoors and to backpack and hike. She likes camping but prefers the convenience of a bathroom and shower. I like to be actively involved in sports. She does not care for rugged physical activities for the most part. I like reading histories and biographies.  She likes reading mysteries.  I like American history.  She likes European history.  I like modern art and decor. She likes early American and antique styles. My relationship with God has always been very personal yet dynamic. Her relationship with God has always been highly communal yet distant. I like discovering and playing with new technology.  She likes the stability of things remaining the same and struggles getting around the computer and internet.  Well, you get the picture. And, yet, we’ve worked hard on our relationship, through it’s ups and downs, getting off the “same page” and then back on the “same page,” through “thick and thin.” I am certain that we are not the only couple like this. Nevertheless, this year will be 27 for us in August.

Purple Starfish, June 2003

Purple Starfish, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Many couples like to promote a particular practice as THE  key to THE success of a lasting healthy relationship.  I am not certain there is one outside of a vibrant personal relationship with God that each person in the relationship must have for himself and herself.  For instance, I am not certain that “doing devotions together” is necessarily the magic bullet to a healthy marriage relationship. I am certain it can’t but help! Nevertheless, too many couples find themselves on different spiritual paths. Their approach to God and Scripture is too different to be able to come together reasonably.  The promotion of this idea as the ideal only ensures that couples who do not do this or are unable to do this are made to feel guilty and condemned.  It misses the point all together.

Having a vibrant personal relationship with God that is daily plugged into the Word and His Spirit is what is important. Kelly and I have devotions and private times but have rarely done them together. We have many interesting discussions. We will at times share and pray together. We often pray together as a family or lead our kids in prayer for specific family needs and concerns. One of our family practices is to include praying for missionaries when we prayer a prayer of thanksgiving before our meals.

It would be nice if we could share this together.  However, my approach to “daily devotions” is so much different than Kelly’s and vice versa. How we think spiritually, how we relate to God and His Word, how we process with another person present, and what is meaningful to each of us is so different that we found we get more out of our time separately than together!  Our attempts only led to feeling guilty, condemned and useless because we were trying to meet someone’s expectations of what we were supposed to be doing.

Someone once said that marriage is God’s way of beating the selfishness out of us. He puts two selfish people together and watches them beat it out of each other. Then he gives them kids! Marriage and family is a humbling endeavor to say the least. Yet, it is an important part of shaping us even into our adulthood. If we invite God into the process and humble ourselves before Him, our spouse and our children, He will use that very process to form in us his nature and character. That, afterall, is His ultimate goal.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr (2010)

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There is a story about a little girl who, on the way home from church, turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, the preacher’s sermon this morning confused me.”

The mother said, “Oh, why is that?”

The girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are.  Is that true?”

Yes, that’s true,” the mother replied.

He also said that God lives within us.  Is that true, too?”

Again, the mother replied, “Yes.”

Well,” said the girl.  “If God is bigger than us and he lives in us, wouldn’t he show through?”

Sometimes the simple words of a child can reveal such great truth.  Shouldn’t Jesus show through us?  Indeed, if we are living our life for him, we will allow his light to shine through us.  Matthew 5:16 tells us to “So let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven.”

Too often, we dismiss the importance of Jesus showing through us through the good works that we do for Him.  However, Jesus made it clear that this is an important part of our witness to the world.  The things we do for others should be like a bright neon sign that declares, “Followers of Jesus here!”

Gareth and Cara at Sunset, Strawberry Point, 2002

Gareth and Cara at Sunset, Strawberry Point, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus is made real to the world – our children, friends, neighbors, and family – by the work we do in his name.  It is the type of fruit on the tree that identifies the tree.  It is the same way with the spiritual fruit born in our lives.

Unfortunately, the church culture has more “bark than bite” when it comes to the gospel.  We frequently do not “walk the talk.”  This is why it important that everyone who calls himself or herself a follower of Christ find the place where they are to serve.  A disciple cannot grow to be like his or her master if he or she does not do the same work the Master did as an example for us to follow.

Jesus’ example to us is most clear when he washed his own disciples’ feet.  Those who should have humbled themselves to wash their master’s feet and offer to wash other’s feet instead argued, stubbornly sat waiting for someone else to do what was necessary, and allowed the honored guest at the table do it instead.  How awkward.  At least Peter had the sense to protest.  The others seemed content to let Jesus do it!

Nevertheless, we can be guilty of the same servant apathy today.  The problem is not that there are not enough opportunities to serve and minister.  The problem is that there are not enough servants.  Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful!”

There are a great many opportunities for the Kingdom; more than anyone can count or imagine.  “But the laborers are few.”  The greatest need is willing servants who will humble themselves to do what is necessary to reap the rewards of the harvest.  “Pray…to send forth laborers…”

One of the strengths of a healthy, vital church is that ministry is not clergy driven.  It does not depend upon a “professional” or recognized “pastor” to be initiated or get done.  Everyone being a minister and serving others is a value embraced by everyone in such a fellowship of believers.  Everyone is a priest with a position to serve someone else for the glory of God.  God’s light of glory shines through them.

How does God “show through” you?  What good works do you do for the least, last, and lost around you that brings glory to God?  In what way are you personally engaged in the harvest fields of the master?  Does a life of serving others mark your life like it marked the Master’s?

I encourage you to let God be bigger than you.  Allow Him to do something bigger through you than you could ever imagine.  Who knows, someone may see what you do and give thanks and praise to God for it.  All because you allowed God to show through.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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