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Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Deciding to leave the comfort of one’s home to enter the world of the poor in another culture is not to be done blithely.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Once determined to enter such an experience, a traveler must brace for a test of endurance and flexibility.  I am reminded of Bilbo’s warning to Frodo in the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I had heard of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyonof Mexico over 20 years ago when friends of mine made

Tarahumara Woman

annual trips with blankets and clothing to donate to them.  Their plight then was very bleak.  It seems that it has not improved much in 20 years.  There are somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people who live in the Copper Canyon.  The exact population is unknown because the Mexican government does not count them.

Three native Indian tribes make up the population in the Copper Canyon: Tarahumara, Pima and Yaqui.  Each tribe has its own language.  The Tarahumara alone have 5 distinct dialects which can make communication among their own tribe difficult at times.  They prefer the name of their own language, Raramuri  (“those who run fast” or “runners on foot”), and are known for running very long distances.  Living isolated and deep in the canyon has helped them preserve their culture, language and music.

The Copper Canyon is over 25,000 square miles or 4 times larger (some say 7 times larger) than its sister canyon, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, U.S.A.  The Sierra Tarahumara is actually made up of 6 large canyons with rivers that feed into the main part of the canyon and the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez.  The remote and rugged nature of the area isolates the Tarahumara and makes getting help to them very difficult.

This area of Mexico has been under a drought for the past several years.  This has made the bleak living conditions of the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes very difficult.  Death from hunger is a very common occurrence.  The infant mortality rate is 50%, mostly due to nutrition issues.  The high elevation (8,000 ft) and cold winters can also bring its own misery.  The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly bitter and reports of children freezing to death were regularly heard.

There are a number of different non-profit organizations and Christian ministries at work attempting to bring relief to different parts of the Copper Canyon.  My church, Central United Protestant Church (UMC), in Richland, Washington, partners with Tomas Bencomo and Tarahumara Ministries based out of El Paso, TX., and Juarez, Mexico.  We have had Tomas and Maria Bencomo and their co-worker and translator, Brenda Granados, to a few of our missions conferences, which we call Global Impact Celebrations.

Our team flew into El Paso, TX, and stayed at the Micromotel right next door to the airport.  We spent the night and then got up early in the morning and rode to a little village 8 hours south called Rio Chico.  Rio Chico is the staging area for humanitarian trips into the canyon.  It also has an experimental farm to train Tarahumara farmers.  Another experimental farm is located in Rio Bravo about 12 miles away.  These help train farmers in better farm methods.  After a season, the farmers are sent back home with seed and a steel plow that can be pulled by a mule.

The first few days were spent planting 200 fruit trees and digging and pouring a foundation for a small building.  This was done all by hand with broken shovels and picks.  So, it not only made for hard work but also frustrating work.  The elevation of Rio Chico (about 7,000 ft) made the work seem even more difficult from us lowlanders.  We joined a group at Rio Chico from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota.  So, at least we had plenty of hands to do the work.  Still, those few days produced sun burns and lots of blisters and sore backs.

Finally, we loaded up to go down into the canyon with a supply of food.  We took a large four-wheel drive box truck and a four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban.  It is a 10 hour ride from Rio Chico down into the Copper Canyon where Tomas Bencomo and his team have a boarding school.  It serves about 300 families.  It takes 4 1/2 hours to travel the last 60 miles of dirt road.  The last 2 1/2 hours is descending 20 miles into the steep canyon by a steep twisting road with 31 hairpin turns.  They are so sharp that the driver must stop in mid-turn, backup and finishing the turn.  Fortunately for our driver, we descended it at night so he did not know what he was facing as the headlamps of the Suburban shown out into the pitch black night.

Finally, we arrived at the canyon camp tired from 4 1/2 hours of constant jarring and jostling in close confines.  It was

good to get out.  The night sky was brilliant with a splash of stars, but only the narrowest portion of the sky could be seen as the walls of the canyon pinched the night sky.  It would not be until morning that we would gaze up the steep canyon wall and be amazed at what we had ignorantly descended in the dark.  We all agreed that we were glad we had done it in the dark.  Some of us may have gotten out and walked down the road otherwise.

The morning was clear as we made our way to the main boarding school.  Out buildings were scattered all along the sides of the canyon, which meant that almost everyone had to move up or down its walls.  Level ground is a precious commodity reserved for buildings and gardens.  The sounds of chickens and children filled the morning air around the school where 80 – 90 children are housed and fed.  A government teacher comes in, when she can make it, to provide education at a small building close by.  This week, apparently, she was not able to make it.

The children that stay at the boarding house or who travel up and down the canyon to go to school travel long

Food Distribution in the Copper Canyon

distances to get there.  Parents send them because they know that their children will receive food and an education.  A few of the mothers come with their children and help in the kitchen and with other duties with the children.  They are paid with food to take home on the weekends.  Typically, children head home on Fridays and return late Sundays for a new week.  The ages range from a couple years to almost 6th or 7th grade.  After that age, there are no other resources for the children.  Many of them go to work.

One young brother and sister there had been rescued last Fall from starvation.  The family could no longer feed the 1 and 2 year old boy and girl.  So, they asked another family to take care of them.  However, that family too finally came to the heart wrenching decision that they, too, could no longer feed these two and feed their own kids.  So, they were placed in a corner, covered with blankets, and left to die of starvation.

One of the workers at the children’s home heard about it and went to see what she could do.  She encouraged the family to give the children to her to feed.  They were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid of the social stigma that may accompany when others find out about their plight.  After much coaxing, the two youngsters were given to her.  She drove the 4 1/2 hours over the rough dirt road to take the children to the nearest medical clinic.

The doctor at the clinic took one look at the 1 year old boy and declared there was no hope for him.  The two year old girl seemed to be in much better shape and a chance to live.  The compassionate worker who had spent all day hiking into the canyon to rescue the children and then driving over the jarring road to get there refused to allow the doctor to deny the boy treatment.  Finally, the doctor declared, “Fine.   If you can get him to eat something, perhaps there is hope.”  The only thing she had available was a small bag of potato chips.  She gingerly took out a small piece of a chip held it up before the listless boy.  Once the morsel was registered by the boy, he lunged at the potato chip and jammed it in his mouth.  “Well!” declared the surprised doctor, “It looks like he’s going to live.”

Tomasito - saved from starvation

While we were there we had the joy of holding these two lively kids.  They were full of life and joy.  This is one story among many that reveals the importance of this type of service to the indigenous people of the Copper Canyon who are locked in poverty.  Our team passed out bags of groceries that families were able to take home.  The food was available to everyone and anyone who came to receive.  The week’s worth of food, which many of them would attempt to stretch into a month, was gratefully received.  Women received food first and then the men who had come received food for their families also.

There are no shortcuts out of the Copper Canyon.  A train rides along the rim from Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean.  For most of the residents of the canyon, the only supplies available are those that the hike out to receive and then pack back in to their families.  Some, a few, are fortunate enough to have a burro to help with the chore.  Most, however, continue to live as they did when the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them into the canyon 500 years ago.

So, we climbed back into our vehicles glad that we did not have to hike out of the canyon.  Instead, we bounced along for 4 1/2 hours until we got to a paved road, that led to the town of Creel that brought us to a good road back to Rio Chico.  After 10 hours on the road, we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted only to get up early the next morning for the 8 hour drive back to Juarez and El Paso.  It would be good to get home.

The illusion of short-term mission trips is that one has experienced fully what it means to be embedded and fully embraced in a mission project.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We were returning home.  We would go back to our routines in our American suburbanvilles.  The ones we were leaving behind would continue the work.  On Sunday, the next day, Tomas would preach a 7 am service in Juarez, an 11 am service in El Paso, and another 3 pm service in Juarez.  Then, Monday morning, he and his team would take the long torturous road back to the land of the Tarahumaras.  And do it all over again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (April 18, 2011)

Tarahumara Dwelling

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The State of Fear and Ignorance

Most of us do more out of fear and ignorance than we do out of courage and wisdom.  I know that my personal track record in that arena is not that good anyway.  Why is it that fear is such a greater motivator than courage or bravery?  Why are we so susceptible to acting in our ignorance before seeking wisdom and understanding concerning our circumstances?  Even the best of us can be taken down by these two imps of degenerate humanity.

I am constantly reminded of this in our current world affairs in the Middle East.  The West’s attempt to conquer the enemy of freedom and democracy as it appears in Al Qaeda and Taliban groups underscores this problem.  Instead of addressing the human equation, Western nations think that they are simply dealing with something that requires a military solution.  As history has showed us in all of our wars, it is never that simple.  There are many reasons why people go to war to protect their land or to force out a perceived invader.  Sometimes it is as raw and simple as “It pays the bills.”  Thus, it is another career choice and creates and military economy.

I just recently finished a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin entitled, “Three Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time” (Penguin Books, 2006).  It is so good that I purchases the follow-up book, “Stones into Schools:  Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Greg Mortenson.  It is a remarkable book about how one man is changing the world through building schools for children, especially girls.  His personal story is so remarkable and well known among the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he is accepted in some of the most hostile places to any other American.  It only begs the question: “How come more people are not doing this?  How come our American government is not taking more of this approach to defeating the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in this part of the world?

Greg Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea is not a tale of unbroken successes.  It includes many failures as well as starts-and-stops.  Nevertheless, Mortenson’s persistence and willingness to be humble and learn the ways of others wins the day.  The key is relationships; by willing to take the time to build relationships, which takes time and patience, Greg Mortenson gained permission to have influence to help tribal groups better the lives of their children.  Thus, the work of Central Asia Institute was born and given life.  This is the idea of the three cups of tea Greg Mortenson had to experience in every village with every leader:  “The first cup of tea, you are a stranger.  The second cup of tea, you are a guest.  The third cup of tea, you are family and we will die for our family.”

California Poppies, Spring 2009

California Poppies, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

What is discovered vicariously through Mortenson’s experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that the Muslim people there want the same thing that everyone in the world wants for themselves and their families: jobs, peace, and a secure future.  Poverty, warfare and instability drive even the most peace loving people to desperate actions for a different life.  We have witnessed that as Americans in our own history during and immediately following the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Mortenson’s conviction is that education is a key to freedom from poverty, constant war and government instability.  The early results from his successes at building schools in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to confirm this proposal.  The local people are willing to fight for themselves against the Al Qaeda and Taliban if they are given the right tools, starting with an education, then with clean water and finally economic development.  Groups like Pennies for Peace help advance this very simple premise.

The saddest part of the book, “Three Cups of Tea,” was the reaction of some Americans to Greg Mortenson’s efforts.  It would appear that fear and ignorance on the American side of the equation is just as dangerous as it is on the Muslim side.  There is still a state of fear and ignorance that many Americans hold to all Muslims; just witness the recent reaction of so many Americans to the idea of a mosque being built near the ground zero of the World Trade Center.  The assumption is that most or all Muslims are terrorists who want to kill, maim, and destroy anyone from the west.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The largest single effort to defeat radical, extremist Islamic Fundamentalists can only be through building relationships that bring about mutual understanding and respect.  By taking time to build relationships that binds the hearts and minds of people together, the world can change.  We must face the fact that there will always be haters and destroyers in the world.  We may not be able to change them.  However, we can change the state of fear and ignorance in which they hold everyone.  Let’s pray more Greg Mortenson’s arrive to help us get there.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Until All Are Free, None Are Free!

Years ago, a movie came out about the famous Scotsman, William Wallace. It has become one of my favorite movies to watch.  The movie, “Braveheart,” is also a great story that reflects the work of power structures at work all over the world even today.  I am not recommending watching the movie because of the violent images.  Nevertheless, the story is a powerful one even if the history has been shaped to fit a Hollywood movie.

The ruthless king of England, Edward Longshanks, ruled with an iron grip, including the Scottish lands.  The Scots were unable to throw off King Edward’s rule because they themselves were warring with each other.  Plus, they were divided over the heir to the Scottish throne.  Robert Bruce was a prince of the Scots and an heir to the throne, but he was cowered by King Edward and refused to confront him.  As a result, other Scot clans wanted to put forward their own prince and heir to the throne to lead them.

The politics, land ownership, and multiple heirs to the throne make for a complicated situation that paralyzed the Scottish rulers so that they remained under the cruel and wicked rule to Edward Longshank’s court.  They were prisoners in their own lands while at the same time, lived in relative comfort and security apart from the common people who suffered more greatly under the oppression of unjust rulers.

William Wallace, a national hero in Scottish lore, was a commoner who stood up to the English rulers.  He challenged them by rallying his countrymen around a bigger picture of what true freedom could offer them.  He reminded them that at any time their enemy could return.  He painted for them the possibility of complete victory over the enemy.  He also challenged the princes of Scotland that their positions, lands, and possessions were not just for their own personal comfort and enjoyment but also for others’ freedom.

The tension between Robert Bruce and William Wallace arose when Prince Bruce wants to do everything to protect the rights and positions of the Scottish nobles.  He was careful to make the ‘politically correct’ moves and not take too great of risks.  On the other hand, William Wallace, who has no position and no power, raised his voice for the ‘common’ people and their bondage.  He challenged the nobles to not just consider their own relative freedom, but the slavery that their fellow Scots bore.  He cried out for a courageous leader, even believing that William Bruce could be that leader if he so dared.

Both men face risks differently and face different risks.  One had everything to lose, the other nothing.  One saw only what there was to lose, the other what there was possibly to gain.  One saw the pain and price to bring about the change; the other saw the pain and price to bring about a new future.  William Wallace challenged Robert Bruce by defining what “noble” really means.  He called him to make the ultimate sacrifice for others and to personally lead the charge.

Hood Oranmentation, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2009

Hood Oranmentation, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This is a story that reflects the struggle of the most power structures at work in the world today.  It also portrays what goes on in many churches and denominations.  Those that have been around awhile are at times too comfortable with their present position and possession.  They have come to think that it all exists for their own personal comfort and safety.  Those who have gained positions of influence and experience are locked into doing what does not require much risk.  As such, they have lost sight of the threat of the enemy.

What the church needs today are courageous servants and leaders who are willing to take risks for the good of others who are suffering under bondage and slavery to the enemy of their souls.  It needs a bigger picture of freedom, not just for personal comfort and safety, but for those still under the rule of a cruel taskmaster.  This will mean using position of power and possessions enjoyed in the world to gain freedom for others.

Does your life reflect a Robert Bruce or a William Wallace?  Does your heart cry out for your brothers and sisters still in bondage to our common spiritual enemy?  Is your rallying cry, “Until all people are free, none of are free?”  What risks are you willing to take to bring someone out of slavery to poverty, addiction, and unjust social structures?  What cost are you willing to pay to help someone grow in their freedom in Christ?  Let the cry of God’s people be heard for all those in bondage to sin and Satan: “Freedom!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Truck Stop Jesus

One would have expected a different plan to introduce an important person; even if that person was a baby.  Historically, after all, royal births were always accompanied by fanfare and celebration.  Every important dignitary in the world is notified and invited to the event.  When the savior of the world arrived little more than 2,000 years ago, maybe someone made a mistake and got the address wrong.  Not only that, but they forgot to get reservations.  The young couple was left out in the cold to give birth to their child among animals and all that accompanies animals posted in a barn.  These would not be the first sights and sounds that I would have wanted any of my children to have as their first experience in this world.  Jesus’ birth was so radically different than the antiseptic world we live in today.  It leaves the modern individual amazed he survived his first year.

The irony and mystery of Jesus’ birth is that it was planned ahead of time to take place just the way it unfolded.  Prophets hundreds of years before had already laid out how this baby boy was going to come into the world.  The details they left for others to figure out, who were some of the wisest people on earth by the way, did not include royal privilege, birth in a capital city or any of the other things that would normally accompany the birth of someone important.  There was no golden spoon privilege for this messianic figure.

Imagine a modern day set of new parents caught far away from any hospital, family or friends when the expectant baby decides to come into the world.  Not only that, but now the birthing plan, carefully prepared hospital bag for mother and baby and new born baby clothes are all forgotten.  The fact of the matter is that even for 1st century Joseph and Mary the conditions of the birth of their child were far less than desirable.  Any parent of any socio-economic class at any time in history would have hoped for better.

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  Bethlehem, the city of ancient king David’s origin, was not an important city on the world map 2,000 years ago.  It still is not in today’s political or economic world.  It was more like a modern day truck stop on the way to a major city – Jerusalem.  Today it is a walled-up small city that survives on the arrival of tourists who come to ogle the supposed site of Jesus’ birth.  It is a battle-scarred town divided by deep religious factions that only seems to know peace once a year.  In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was not prominent.  Its history was more storied than its present.

Bethlehem was a place that served the more impressive city of Jerusalem to the north.  Its trade in sheep, wool and grains provided for the needs of the much bigger and more important metropolis.  Bethlehem was a place one passed through on the way to Jerusalem.  It was rarely, if ever, a destination city.  On the trade route from Egypt, it served as a resting place for the traders.  The surrounding hills provided pasture for the sheep that were used in the temple sacrifices or kitchens of Jerusalem.  Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, also had rich fields surrounding it that provided the wheat and barley for Jerusalem’s bakeries and kitchens.

Like a modern day truck stop, then, traffic was always flowing in and out and through with goods on the way to the more important city of Jerusalem.  At the time of the census, when Joseph had to report to his ancestor’s hometown, Bethlehem, the already bustling city was packed.  The only space available was the equivalent of a small garage where some vehicles of transportation were parked.  Unfortunately, these eco-friendly vehicles would also leave their exhaust all over the floor of the place.

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Truck stops are never pretty places.  As much as I appreciate the Flying-J Travel Plazas, Pilot Travel Centers and TravelCenters of America, they are not places I ever intend to stay very long.   I am always just passing through.  On top of it, I would definitely not ever have dreamed of having a child at one of those places.  Perhaps it is for the purpose of avoiding having children at truck stops that doctors now discourage women from traveling during their final couple weeks of pregnancy.

Jerusalem was the capital city; the city of commerce and politics; the center of religion and learning.  Everything and anything important that happened took place in Jerusalem.  In the United States, it would be the equivalent of New York or Los Angeles.  In Europe, it would be the Paris or London.  In Asia, it would be the Tokyo or Beijing.  Anyone who wanted to be anybody made their way to Jerusalem, bought property, and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.  Perhaps God did not get updated about conditions in Palestine during 1st century B.C./A.D.  I suspect, however, that he had a different plan and procedure than the one derived and practiced by humans since their arrival.

The birth of a messiah and savior would have been much more pronounced if I had been calling the shots.  Everyone on earth would have known that “God-in-the-flesh” had shown up on the scene to straighten out the crookedness of humankind’s ways.  It surely would not have been left up to a few foreign wisemen and local low-class shepherds to welcome the arrival of the most important figure in human history.  But then, I am not God.  This is not my creation.  It is not my story.  Plus, I suspect that God’s ways are directly counter intuitive to most of our human ways.

As it is, God might as well come in disguise. I mean, who among us would be apt to recognize his arrival today anymore than his contemporaries did then?  His economic class, education and means of arrival did not shout “God’s here!” in neon letters that is for sure.  Besides the angelic proclamation to lowly shepherds, no birth announcement cards were sent out.  Likewise, most scholars and religious leaders did not get the cryptic prophetic message left hundreds of years before by various writers of the Old Testament.  So, in a sense, when God sent a savior, he did it on the sly.

So, the most important birth of the most important human was scripted ahead of time to take place in obscurity – a couple of low socio-economic status and a shed on the back side of a truck stop served as the main characters and the setting.  As the story continues, things do not get any better.  Soon the couple was on the run from the law, spent a few years as illegal immigrants in a foreign country and only returned to their own home town years later.  The messiah grew up in obscurity and learned the family business.

This amazing story of truck stop Jesus violates our highest sensibilities of what we believe God is like.  We like to picture him in a Cathedral with mighty stone pillars and statutes, rich woods and tapestries, and lofty music.  I think, rather, that given Jesus’ birth record he would be just as out of place there as he would be at a Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales.  After all, we like our deities to remain “high and lifted up” – far above the corruption of lower class humanity.  We would rather have the name of our deity pronounced in the more lofty open throated English “Gawd” than the too familiar buddy-buddy name of Jesus.  Somehow, a god who would prefer blue-grass music to Mozart and Beethoven just does not meet our criteria for divinity.

I suspect that if we were to have to look for Jesus’ arrival today that we would be better off looking for him at a truck stop.  His neighbors are more likely to be migrant workers and trailer park inhabitants than a gated suburban community.  I suspect that his address would more likely be under a bridge, overpass or homeless shelter than in a 2,000 square foot house.  He would be more acquainted with the living conditions of foreigners in our land than the economic well-to-do and socially established.  As a religious reformer, his audience would more likely be among the illiterate and poorly educated working class than among the highly respected theologians and seminarians of our day.  His calloused carpenter hands would shake more gnarled and calloused hands than manicured ones.

In short, most of us might have a hard time relating to this truck stop birth of Jesus.  I suspect, however, that it is all part of God’s redemption scheme.  For those of us who think we are better off than others, we will need to get down on Jesus’ level and humble ourselves to accept him and his mission to the least, the last and the lost of this world.  To those among this latter group, he raises their vision, empowers their future and invites them to participate in his redemption story.  So, the next time you have a chance to stop in your travels at a truck stop, just think to yourself, “Maybe Jesus is here.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Lutefisk Lessons

When the holidays come around, my mind immediately wanders back to the days our family gathered around my grandparent’s dining room table with a huge plate of steaming lutefisk set upon it.  My grandmother was from German descent, but my grandfather came directly from Sweden as a young boy.  So, my grandmother learned to cook the Scandinavian fish delicacy for the family.  We always ate it on potatoes with white gravy.  That is just the way it came.  I was told that it was because we are Swedes and that it was the only proper way to eat it.

My grandfather, Walter, took pride in finding lutefisk fresh in the Ballard, Washington, markets.  Ballard is a city just north of the city of Seattle, across the Lake Union canal, and sports more than its fair-share of Pacific Northwest Scandinavians.  My grandmother, Evelyn, took pride in complimenting the seasonal foods with all things Scandinavian – yulekake, krumkake, rosettes, lefsa, and kringla.

Now, lutefisk lovers all over the world have suffered ridicule at the hands of non-lutefisk eaters.  I do not know why there is such animosity towards us.  So, to better garner mutual understanding and perhaps greater dialogue on such culinary subjects, I offer below the recipe for cooking lutefisk from “Our Favorite Grange Recipes,” which was compiled and edited by the Home Economics Committee of the California State Grange with Gladys True as Chairperson and printed in 1965 by the Record of Yolo County:

  • Clean thoroughly and place in a wooden bowl or pail.
  • Add water to cover and set in a cool place for 5 to 6 days.  Change water each day.
  • Remove fish and thoroughly clean wooden bowl.
  • Make a solution of water, lime, and ashes and allow to stand overnight.
  • Drain off clear liquid and pour over soaked fish.  Set in a cool place for 7 days.
  • When fish is soft, remove from solution, scrub bowl well and soak fish for several days in cold clear water.
  • Cook in boiling salted water at simmering temperature for about 20 minutes.
  • Drain well and serve.

NOTE:  The Norwegians serve the fish with melted butter; the Swedes serve it with white or mustard sauce.  Allow 1/3 pound per person.

And that is just for the first piece of lutefisk!  Two things are made very, very clear when reading this recipe.  First, preparing and cooking lutefisk takes a lot of forethought and planning.  There is a good three weeks before one could eat this delicacy.  Also, I would like to humbly point out, this obviously takes a higher than average level of intelligence.  Secondly, at the end of the process, the cook has a very clean bowl.

I have recently lived in another lutefisk eating haven of North America. It is the Red River Valley of the North.  The beautiful thing about living there is that virtually every truck stop and restaurant serves lutefisk for the holidays.  Why, one could eat out at a different restaurant every night of the week from Thanksgiving until Christmas and have lutefisk every night!  It is obvious that this truly is the place of “Walhalla” – “the valley of the gods.”  These people are blessed.  Truly blessed by the divine.

Walhalla, Pembina Gorge, North Dakota

Walhalla, Pembina Gorge, North Dakota ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I consider myself to be a fortunate man to have such a rich heritage and life experience.  I am thankful that I live in the United States of America.  This is a rich and bountiful land filled with people from all over the world.  These holidays allow us to give thanks and celebrate the religious background that helped us attain such blessings.

However, if you are like me, as we enter into the holiday seasons, it is much too easy in the hustle and bustle to forget that gratitude and appreciation should be the greatest marks of the season.  Somehow this gets lots in the midst of frantic Christmas shopping, Thanksgiving meal planning and cooking, company Christmas parties, family gatherings, and decorating.  The greatest challenge to all of us is to not let the overindulgence of our materialistic society numb us to all that we are blessed with in this world.  I want to gently caution you as I remind myself:  Do not forfeit your future as collateral for fulfillment today with material goods that fade so quickly away into a closet, storage unit or Goodwill bin.

Americans seem to think that God will wink at our gluttony and overindulgent materialism in the face of the rest of the world’s needs.  I think we are wrong.  I believe we will be judged as a nation by how we treat the hungry, poor, naked and immigrant in the rest of the world.  Our expanded waistlines as well as overstuffed closets and storage units testify against us like the blood of Abel crying out from the ground.  How can we have and enjoy so much when so many have so little?

I want to challenge all my friends to consider the food you eat and the things you purchase in light of eternity and your eternal reward.  My family, for example, gave Christmas money this year to Gospel for Asia to help purchase a goat for a needy family.  This goat will provide milk and cheese for a long time.  We did this to remind ourselves how blessed we truly are in this world.  There are plenty of local and global ministries that help the poor and downtrodden.  I would recommend visiting the website adventconspiracy.org to get more ideas.  I challenge you to remember these ministry efforts in your giving during this season.  Remember what Jesus said, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me”.  Now, there is something that will last much longer than three-week old soaked lutefisk.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Post-Christmas blues hit us around January when the credit card bills start arriving from the post office.  A few of us experienced them early from the NSF notices from our bank.  Add these to the extra pounds our bathroom scale reveals to us and it painfully reminds us that we over did it again this year.

The problem with Christmas expenses is that they come with very good intentions and feelings.  We want to display our love through the things we buy.  Somehow, new socks and underwear doesn’t say “I love you” to our children as much as an iPod or cellular phone.  Can you get away with buying Tupperware or vacuum bags for your Sweetie instead of the Macy’s outfit or Zales jewelry she’s been ogling the last couple of months?  I don’t think so!

Why is it that love – especially radical and passionate love – is always displayed in the gifts we give to the objects of our love?  The greater the love, the greater the sacrifice for the gift.  This explains the bragging rights that come along with wedding rings.  Guys, it better say, “I love you.”  A LOT!!  Extravagant gift giving is almost a universal communication of love and affection.

The apostle Paul tells us that God displayed his love toward us in this:  He gave his son, Jesus, for us.  Wow!  THAT is an extravagant gift.  The apostle is so overjoyed by such a thought that he shouts on the page, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”

As you move into this New Year, how have you displayed your love for God this past year?  Does it look like vacuum bags or fine jewelry?  Would it be described as being closer to new underwear and socks or an iPod?  If the Creator of the universe went out of this world to display his love for you, how can you return the affection this New Year?  Would you consider something extravagant or radical?

Sun Flower, Walhalla, North Dakota

Sun Flower, Walhalla, North Dakota ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Larry Powell in his book, Blow the Silver Trumpets, tells the story of a missionary who preached in a remote, poverty ridden area in West Africa.  He appealed for support of Christian work throughout the area and encouraged those present to give what they could toward the construction of a building, which would serve as a medical clinic and a place of worship.

Approximately two hours after the worship service, a young woman came to the missionary and presented him with $40 to be used for the building project.  The missionary was stunned.  Where on earth, he thought, did this poverty stricken woman come up with such a large sum of money in a region afflicted by such painfully forbidding economic circumstances?

Confounded, he posed this question as politely as he knew how.  He was informed that she had gone to a wealthy planter and sold herself into his service for the rest of her life. Let us be clear about what I have just told you! She had sold herself into the service of a landowner.  And why? This was her way of giving herself into the service of Jesus Christ.  Not partially, but totally.

That sounds like a radical price to pay doesn’t it? Pretty extravagant, huh?  Instead of asking yourself what you can get away with to show your love for your heavenly Father, why not ask, “How much can I sacrifice?”  Perhaps it is in your personal worship, your commitment to prayer, or your service to others in his name.  Maybe it will take the form of giving him control of the parts of your life that you have thus far withheld from his authority and control.  It could be giving up and giving over an addiction or troubling habit.

I’m not talking about just writing a larger check.  That is too easy for many of us.  I’m talking about giving your life away as a radical expression of your love and devotion to the One who saved you and called you.  I’m thinking of giving something that will return the same kind of love that bankrupted heaven and caused it to send its very best.  Radical love will not offer gifts and sacrifices that cost nothing and come with no forethought.  So, give your heavenly Father something costly this year – a real gem.  Yourself.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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The Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot.  He wanted more of everything.  Here is how Tolstoy tells the story:

One day a farmer received a novel offer.  For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day.  The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown.  Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace.  By midday, he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground.

Well into the afternoon, he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point.  He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run; knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost.  As the sun began to sink below the horizon, he came within sight of the finish line.

Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared.  He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth.  In a few minutes, he was dead.  Afterwards, his servants dug a grave.  It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide.”

The title of Tolstoy’s story was: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (Adapted from Bits & Pieces, November, 1991.)  In the end, Tolstoy suggests, all a man really owns is a 6-foot by 3-foot piece of earth, so we are better off putting our confidence elsewhere.

Jesus, like Tolstoy, warns us (Matthew 6:19 – 24, 33) that we had better not put our trust in the promise of materialism.  If we do, we will be sadly disappointed.  Instead, there is something of eternal value that we can give our lives to pursue.  Anything we forfeit here on earth to gain what is in heaven will be returned to us there 100 times over (Matthew 19:29) along with eternal life!

Unfortunately, the western church in particular has drifted away from this teaching of Jesus.  Like first century Judaism, we associate material blessings with God’s favor.  Yet, very few people as well as nations have ever passed the prosperity test (Deuteronomy 8:8 – 10; 31:20; Jeremiah 5:7; Hosea 13:6).  The antidote to the poison of material envy and greed is “seek first His Kingdom and righteousness and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

However, this is not a prescription for poverty either.  We are not more spiritual if we are poor – or act poor because we do not want people to think we have anything, which is hypocrisy.  Instead, in abundance or in want, the Lord wants us to trust him for all our needs.  He wants to use us to pour out his riches and grace upon “all nations” so that through us all people will know that He is God.  Like Abraham, he was to bless us so that we can be a blessing!

Nowhere is this more evident than in the churches of nations of the two-thirds world that are marked by material poverty but spiritual abundance in revival, signs and wonders, and miracles.  These saints do more with less for the Kingdom of God, while the American church does less with more.  While we are rich in available materials and resources, we are growing more and more Biblically illiterate and spiritually impoverished.  Thinking that we are rich and blessed, we are truly “blind, naked, and poor.”

Waitsburg Tombstone

Waitsburg Tombstone ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

While in Albania, I saw a church that was struggling with the simple resources that we take for granted everyday and every Sunday.  Can you imagine attempting to teach Sunday school or disciple without materials in your own language?  Can you imagine a church without any resources to pay for a staff of pastors and office help to keep ministry going?  Can you imagine doing Children’s ministry without any props or tools?

This is what I witnessed in Albania.  Yet, I saw a vibrant church in prayer, reaching lost souls, fellowship, and growing future leaders.  I witnessed creative people and pastors inspired by God who gathered dozens of children to teach them about Christ.  I saw the church gather for prayer and then “hit the streets” to find people to pray for and possibly be a witness to them about the love of Jesus.

My family has paid a price for my trips abroad to Albania and India.  Seeing such poverty among the world’s poorest of the poor ruins a person.  It gives one a jaundiced eye toward our western materialism and consumerism.  As such, for the past several Christmases we have not exchanged gifts.  We have not given gifts.  Plus, we have asked our friends and relatives to help us express Christmas in a new way.

Every year we pick a world poverty problem to target and give towards efforts that attempt to meet it.  We have supported homes for girls rescued from forced prostitution; bought and put together medical kits for AIDS patients; bought chickens for a impoverished family.  This year we are buying a goat to be given to a family in need.

This is a great time of year to ask ourselves:  How much stuff do we need to be successful?  How many material things do we need to feel God’s care and love?  How long do we wait until we have the earthly things we need so that we can answer God’s call to bless others?  How much of this world’s stuff are we dependent upon for our personal happiness?  How much “earth” does one need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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A surgeon was speaking to a small group of university students about his work in the Gaza Strip. He was reminding the students that we North American “fat cats” knew nothing about gratitude.  Nothing!

On one occasion, he had stopped at a peasant hovel to see a woman on whom he had performed surgery.  She and her husband were dirt poor.  Their livestock supply consisted of one Angora rabbit and two chickens.  For income the woman combed the hair out of the rabbit, spun the hair into yarn and sold it.  For food she and her husband ate the eggs from the chickens.

The woman insisted that the missionary surgeon stay for lunch.  She insisted on showing her gratitude to him this way.  He accepted the invitation and said he would be back for lunch after he had gone down the road to see another postoperative patient.  An hour and a half later, he was back.  He peeked into the cooking pot to see what he was going to eat.  He saw one rabbit and two chickens.

The woman had given up her entire livestock supply–her income, her food, everything – to say “thank you.”  He concluded his story by reminding the students that, as Americans, we know nothing of gratitude.  He wept unashamedly.

Old Abandoned Truck

Old Abandoned Truck ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg (2009)

There is another incident concerning gratitude that will never be forgotten.  It is about a woman who poured costly perfume over our Lord’s feet as she wiped them with her hair.  Make no mistake–the perfume was expensive, three hundred denarii, a year’s income for a laborer in Palestine.  Enough to keep a family alive for twelve months.  Also, in that culture, a woman’s hair was among her most precious personal possessions.

Some, who witnessed that event, including Jesus’ closest disciples, objected to such an extravagant display of affection in view of personal need – or even need of others.  Jesus asked a very pointed question, “Who loved more – the one forgiven much or the one forgiven little?”  Obviously, the answer was – and still is – the one who was forgiven much.

In view of what Christ did for us, how can we be stingy in our worship, our praise, our tithes and offerings, our time in his service or in fellowship with his body – the Church.  The vivid portrayal of Christ’s extravagant sufferings for our sins in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” should move us to be just as extravagant in showing our gratitude and worship to our Heavenly Father and Savior, the Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  And yet, according to the surveys made by Barna Research, the average Evangelical Christian gives only about 3% or their income to the ministries of their local church.  Americans spend more on dog food annually than on giving to charities or mission work!

Perhaps it is time some of us got more extravagant in our worship.  It is about time we got radical in our display of gratitude for all that God has done for us and ‘sold the farm’ or ‘broke the bank.’  After all, how much do we really love Him?  How thankful are we?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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