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Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’

We just spent several hours observing teenagers hanging out at our local mall.

We came to the conclusion that many teenagers in America today are living in poverty.  Most young men we observed didn’t even own a belt; there was not one among the whole group.

But that wasn’t the sad part.  Many were wearing their daddy’s jeans.  Some jeans were so big and baggy they hung low on their hips, exposing their underwear.  We know some must have been ashamed their daddy was short, because his jeans hardly went below their knees.  They weren’t even their daddies’ good jeans, for most had holes ripped in the knees and a dirty look to them.

It grieved us, in a modern, affluent society like America, that there are those who can’t afford a decent pair of jeans.  We were thinking about asking our church to start a jeans drive for “poor kids at the mall.”  Then, on Christmas Eve, we could go Christmas caroling at the mall and distribute jeans to these poor teenagers.

But here is the saddest part…it was the girls they were hanging out with that disturbed us most.  Never, in all of our lives, have we seen such poverty-stricken girls.  These girls had the opposite problem of the guys.  They all had to wear their little sister’s clothes.  Their jeans were about 5 sizes too small!

We don’t know how they could get them on, let alone button them up.  Their jeans barely went over their hip bones.  Most also had on their little sister’s top; it hardly covered their midsections.  Oh, they were trying to hold their heads up with pride, but it was a sad sight to see these almost grown women wearing children’s clothes.

However, it was their underwear that bothered us most.  They, like they boys, because of the improper fitting of their clothes, had their underwear exposed.  We had never seen anything like it.  It looked like their underwear was only held together by a single piece of string.

We know it saddens your heart to receive this report on the condition of our American teenagers.  While we go to bed every night with closets full of clothes nearby, there are millions of “mall girls” who barely have enough material to keep it together.  We think their “poorness” is why these 2 groups gather at the mall; boys with their short daddies’ ripped jeans, and girls wearing their younger sisters’ clothes.  The mall is one place where they can find acceptance.  So, next time you are at the mall, doing your shopping, and you pass by some of these poor teenagers, would you say a prayer for them?

One more thing:  Will you pray the guys’ pants won’t fall down, and the girls’ strings wont’ break?

We thank you all,

Two Concerned Grandmothers

[author unknown]

Happy Eating Lard

Happy Eating Lard

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Many believers only look for God’s activity in the midst of crises. As long as life runs along smoothly, the idea that God is or wants to be involved in life is the farthest thing from their thinking.  At least, this seems to be the way I live most of my life.  The unfortunate thing about this way of living one’s faith is missing the ways that God surprises us in everyday, simple things.

When my young family and I moved to Quilcene, Washington, I had the joy of exploring the many local lakes for fishing. The settings are very beautiful; the fishing good.  Unfortunately, much of the shoreline of the lakes is unapproachable.

Many times I took my son along with me. He would patiently hold a fishing pole waiting for a fish to bite.  However, as any young boy would, he soon grew bored and would explore other things around him.  One day, after a great time at a lakeside but no fish to show for our efforts, I breathed a simple wish more than a prayer, “Lord, it would sure be nice to have one of those two- or three-man rubber boats to haul to the lakes.

My life did not depend upon getting one and neither did my fishing. My son, Gareth, and I could continue going to the lakes without one.  It is just that it would make the experience a little more enjoyable and, perhaps, successful.

A few days later, I met with the pastor from the Presbyterian church in town. Everyone called him Pastor Ray.  He was well into his 70’s and he and his wife, originally from Southern California, were temporarily filling in at the small town church.  We had a habit of meeting regularly two or three times a month.

As I was getting ready to take my leave after this particular day’s conversation, Pastor Ray stopped me and asked, “Do you do any fishing?”

I replied, “Yes.  I like to spend my extra time at the lakes around here and often take my son with me.  Do you do any fishing?”

I used to,” he sighed with longing.  “I’m getting too old to go out anymore.”

That’s too bad,” I offered.  “The lake fishing around here is great.”

Well, me and my wife have a small rubber raft stowed in our RV we want to get rid of to make room for other things.  Would you like it?” he asked.

How much do you want for it?” I tendered, supposing that he would want to sell it to get something in return for it.

“Nothing!  If you want it, it is yours.  Otherwise, I’ll find someone else to give it to,” he said.

Sure!  I’d love to have it.  The other day I was wishing I had one,” I told him.

A short while later, Ray brought by the raft. It was a nice, large three man raft (though it said four, they must have meant midgets).  I thanked him profusely.  It had everything necessary: pump, oars, cushions, and quarter inch plied wood piece to fit the bottom.  It even had a mount for a motor.

I wasted no time in getting it into the nearest lake to try it out. It was a lot of fun and I could get into some choice parts of the lakes.  Fishing definitely improved.  Gareth liked floating in the raft.  Rowing it was not too bad.  But I often wondered what it would be like if I had a little electric boat motor to get around.

Hyas Lake Valley, Washington State, September 2010

Hyas Lake Valley, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

A few months later, I showed my prize “boat” to a good friend. He was impressed but commented, “You need to have one of those little electric bass motors for this.  That would be great!

Yeah,” I responded.  “Maybe someday.

Bass Pro Shops

Image via Wikipedia

The next day, my good friend returned to my house with a Bass Pro Shop catalog. He handed to me and said, “There some good electric motors in here I thought you’d enjoy looking at to fit your boat.”  With that, he got back in his truck and left.

Cool,” I thought and looked forward to looking through it later.

That evening, I picked up the magazine and flipped through the magazine. There was something for every outdoor sportsman.  The fishing section was huge.  Finally, I got to the electric motors.  The pages had been marked with a paper.  The paper, it turned out, was a check for one of the motors and a battery.  Stunned, I looked at the check and then looked at the motor and battery my good friend had circled in the catalog.  A note scribbled in his barely legible handwriting said, “Enjoy this gift.  My wife and I wanted to do this for you.”

I recalled how just a few weeks ago I had breathed a desire toward heaven for something as insignificant as a rubber raft to fish and enjoy the out of doors. Now, here I was with both a boat and a motor.  It dawned on me then and continues to roll through my mind even today that the Creator delights in giving us the desires of our heart at times to just surprise us.

I have not always gotten everything I have wished for or prayed for in my life. I have yet to figure out the secret of getting everything I want from God.  I suppose he has other plans.  However, there are plenty of people who seem to want to treat him like some kind of heavenly vending machine or divine emergency exit from trouble.

Whether gifts of blessings or escapes from trouble, God’s help seems to always come as surprises: unexpected, in the final moments, and only at times that seem to have some hidden divine agenda. The surprise itself may be the point of the lesson.  It makes the times that God blesses or intervenes unforgettable.  And we all know that one of the greatest of human failings is forgetting – our blessings, life’s lessons, times of help, and those who care.

This may be the importance the old song intended when we sang,Count your blessings, name them one by one…count your many blessings, see what the Lord has done.”  Our faith buckets are leaky and our memories undependable.  Regular times of giving thanks for all of life’s events and what God has done in them can help us.  The Thanksgiving Season is a great opportunity to do this, though I doubt that very few actually do.  One thing about it, God will continue to surprise.  Perhaps we surprise him when we actually remember.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Some lessons in life can only be learned by personal experience. Others can tell you about them, teach you them, help you study to be prepared for them and even explain them.  However, the only way for a person to learn to ride a bike is to one day get on it and try to ride it.  The only way a person is going to learn to drive a car is actually get behind the wheel of one and take it around town.  Nothing prepares one for these lessons but personal experience.

Sometimes it is that way with our spiritual journeys too. There are some things about our relationship with the Creator that can only be learned by personal engagement and interaction.  We will never learn them vicariously through someone else’s experiences.  No Bible study or theological lesson can fully prepare us or help us appreciate certain aspects of the journey unless we experience them for ourselves.

One of the benefits of certain renewal movements within the Church has been an emphasis upon personal experience. While it should never trump Scriptural revelation, there is something certainly powerful about personal revelation into the nature and character of God.  After all, someone can go on all they want about the power and beauty of standing on a mountain peak.  But personally standing there and experiencing the exhilaration is something quite different all together.

Some of us have to trust the pictures, stories, and experiences shared by others. On the other hand, some of us get to experience it for ourselves.  We become a part of sharing the story.

I grew up with a Christian religious background that cherished personal experiences with God. It was one thing to have personal knowledge of God.  Our sect took, and continues to take in most circles, great pride in personal experiences.  So, it has been no surprise to me when God in certain seasons of my life has “showed up” in ways that surprised and delighted me.

In my early spiritual formation, I attended a Bible College in Kirkland, Washington, now called Northwest University, after High School. There I shaped and honed spiritual disciplines that still guide me today.  Aside from the general education courses and Bible or theology courses, the opportunity to discover my own spiritual stride for my journey greatly informed my future.

The Winter quarter of my freshman year, I learned from the College’s financial aide office that I would not be allowed to return for the Spring quarter because of my outstanding bills. I owed more than $1,200.  I would need to pay that balance before I could continue to attend.

At the time, I was working at an Exxon gas station in Totem Lake, Washington. The owners were two brothers who were really nice.  They were not Christians but nevertheless hired guys from the Bible College because we all were honest and had a good work ethic.  I appreciated the job, but it just was not enough to keep ahead of my school bills.  I was going to have to inform them that I would have to quit my job as well as school and return home to where my parents lived near Sea-Tac.

The school had given me notice at mid-quarter, so I figured I had a couple of weeks ‘to see what would happen.’ I am not sure what I was expecting would happen, but I have always tried to keep an optimistic outlook.  So, I continued classes determined that I would at least finish that quarter.  If worse came to worse, then I would find work from home and possibly come back for the Fall quarter.

In the mean time, I had started the practice of scheduling one of my class-time slots on my schedule for a time of prayer and reflection in the Men’s Dorm Prayer Chapel. I found it helped me keep a regular schedule for prayer.  I also found the quiet time in the Chapel refreshing.  So, during this time, I added my dilemma about school, paying my school bill and what to do about my job to my list of prayer needs.

As the quarter wound down, my prayer times grew a little more desperate. I may have been the uncertainty of my future, but I found myself praying more intense and intentional prayers.  After all, I needed direction.  I needed answers.  I needed help!

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It finally came to the point where I needed to do the right thing by my employers and give them my “two weeks notice.” This is a kindness of employees to employers that allows them time to find another employee to replace them and so not disrupt the work place.  I planned on giving notice on a Friday.  At the beginning of the week, on a Monday morning in the Men’s Dormitory Prayer Chapel, I offered God another chance to throw out a rope and rescue me.  Otherwise, I was determined to see it as a closed door.  I was even strongly considering not coming back to college.  I was second guessing everything.

I was perhaps exhausted from struggling with the whole situation in my mind. The stress of the unknown and uncertain weighed heavily down upon me like a 110 lb. sack of sand.  It was in this state that I dumped everything upon the prayer bench in the prayer chapel.  I had no answers, no direction, and seemingly no help.

After expending all my words and thoughts, I fell silent. The room echoed my silence back to me.  My head rested on the prayer bench as I sat upon the floor with my eyes closed tight.

There was nothing. Nothing came to mind.  No brilliant idea.  No flash of inspiration.

Suddenly, I heard a voice speak audibly, “You’ll be here next quarter.”

I opened my eyes started and looked around because I thought that I was alone.  There was no one in the room with me.  Yet, the voice was clear and unmistakable.  I blinked in the dimly lit room.

The words bounced around in my head:You’ll be here next quarter.”  With those words, an unexplained settledness sent upon me.  A certainty about my future filled my heart.  Someway, somehow, I knew without a shadow of any doubt that I would most definitely be at school next quarter.  I took the words only I heard and the feeling only I felt as a gift from God.

I got up and went to get ready for my next class. I had to go to my room to gather a couple of books.  When I entered my room, my roommate was there.  Do I tell him what I just experienced?

As if on cue he asked, “Hey, have you figured out what you’re going to do for next quarter?”

Shaken, I replied, “I’m not sure yet.  Why?”

He looked a little anxious, “Well, I may have another roommate lined up.  That’s all.  If you’re not going to be here that is.”

With as determined a look as I could give him I said emphatically, “I will be here next quarter.  You can count on it.”

You are?” he looked surprised.  “How do you know?”

God told me,” I said and turned and left the room.  I didn’t want to chance seeing him laugh at me.  We were at a Bible College to learn about God, after all, not actually believe God.

As the week continued, I held on to that experience in the Men’s Dorm Chapel. It became an anchor.  However, the question of what to do with my job at the Exxon station came to a conclusion that Friday.  Friday came and I still had no way to pay for school.  The settled assurance that I was still going to be in school next quarter had not left me.  I came to my own conclusion that however God provided for me to be there it was not going to be through the brothers who owned the Exxon gas station.

As soon as I got to the station that Friday afternoon, I called one of the brothers aside and explained my problem. I told him that I really appreciated the job and really like working there.  However, since I was not going to be able to continue at school, I was going to have to move back home with my parents.  Therefore, I would have to quit my job.  He still had two weeks before finals and I would have to move out.

Working with college students, I am certain that both of those brothers had heard the same story over and over before. He thanked me for letting him know.  He said he liked my work and was going to miss me.

He shook my hand and said, “I’ll let my brother know.  If you know anyone who wants a job, let them know to come and talk to us.”  And with that, we went our separate ways doing our own jobs at the station.

Later that day, he and his brother announced that they were going to catch dinner and would be back. They had a back-log of cars to work on and wanted to use part of the evening to catch up.  I busied myself with pumping gas for customers and repairing tires.  Soon they returned.

As I was walking through one of the bays, the brother I approached earlier in the day came up to me and handed out an envelope.

My brother and I were talking over dinner and decided we wanted to help you pay for college.  We’ve never done this,” he explained.  “But he and I just felt we needed to do this for you.”

I was dumbfounded.  “You guys don’t have to do that.  If I can’t pay back college, how am I going to pay you guys back?”

You don’t worry about that,” he said.  “Whatever you are able to pay, you pay back.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

I was humbled by their generosity.  “Thank you so much,” I offered.

Well,” he muttered half to himself as much as to me, “we do expect you to stick around and work with us.  And don’t tell the other guys.  We don’t want anyone to start thinking that we are a charity or college loan fund.”  He smiled and winked at me.

I understand,” I said.  “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.  Thanks.

When I got back to my dormitory room late that night, I took the envelope out and opened it. The check that was written out to me was enough to settle my past school bill as well as get me well on the way paying for the next quarter’s tuition and books.  It dawned upon me that I never told them how much I owed on my bill.

I sat on the side of my bed amazed that God would not only personally give me reassurance about where my future lie, but that he would also use to non-Christian employers to help meet the need. It all defies explanation.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But most certainly divinely ordered ones.  I still think of those two brothers often and pray for them.

Now, I could have studied many Scriptures on God’s provision; even memorized many of them. I could also have read many personal experiences of others about how God provided for them.  None of that could or would have the impact upon my life in the same way as God surprising me by speaking to me in a chapel, reassuring me in my heart and then working out the details in the most surprising way.  It has helped to keep my eyes open to other ways God wants to surprise me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 3

There is a great debate among modern evangelicals as to whether faith is its own spiritual substance. Does faith cause miracles to happen?  Or, in a more benign manner, does it cause God to move, act or show up on our behalf?  On the other side, others argue that faith causes nothing, that God is sovereign and moves or acts according to his own will and that all that is necessary is for faith to believe and trust that God is present.

For my part, 6 years of Bible College and 3 years of seminary have left the question open ended for me. I have come to believe that faith and God are mysterious things.  The scholastic rationalism that came out of the enlightenment would eviscerate our faith by attempting to dissect our knowledge of God into its smallest parts.  Parts of God keep jumping off the table of knowledge, however, and escaping our reason.

So, the answer must lie somewhere in between what we know and the shroud of mystery surrounding the Holy One. In my life, there have been times when God has seemed to work in accordance with my expectations.  Then, there are those times when God seems to have worked outside my expectations or despite my expectations.  These are the times that God surprises me.

Shortly after our oldest son was born, we moved to Quilcene, Washington. I had accepted a small Assembly of God church’s invitation to pastor.  We found an old single-wide mobile home to live in and settled into a life on the rural Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.  Logging was the main stay of the economy besides a few Oyster farms around Quilcene and Dabob bays.  The church was newly built and most of the people who attended fairly new Christians.

My parents visited us one weekend. So, early on a Saturday morning, we were sitting around the breakfast table finishing breakfast and enjoying coffee.  I had just finished making a fresh pot of coffee and poured hot, steaming mugs for everyone.  Our son was walking by then and toddling around the kitchen between grandparents and parents.

Suddenly, faster than anyone could react, my son grabbed his grandfather’s coffee mug and pulled it on to himself. He instantly started screaming.  I got up to get to him.  My wife, Kelly, was already taking off his one piece sleeper that he was still in to get the hot liquid it had soaked up away from him.

I looked him over and noticed that his left forearm was already starting to blister with a big ugly red bubble. So, I picked him up and rushed him over to the kitchen sink, turned on the cold water and ran his arm under the tap.  He was still screaming as Kelly checked the rest of him over.  It seemed that his left arm, the one he reached for the coffee mug with, was affected the worst.

I continued to run cold water over his arm for many minutes and watched as the blister on his arm grew. I knew from personal experience that this was painful.  A few years before I had opened the cap on a radiator of a car and steamed my right arm.  I had one blister from my arm-pit to my wrist for many weeks.  It took a long time to heal.  The pain for the first week was excruciating.

As my son’s cries turned to sobs, he started to wiggle in my arms. I took this as a sign that he was done with the cold water.  So, I placed him on the kitchen floor and we looked him over again.  There was nothing else that seemed to have burned.  Only his left arm still had a big blister.

My dad suggested, “Let’s pray for him.”

So, as a family we gathered around the bewildered little boy and prayed. My dad led in prayer that his arm would heal and that Jesus would take the pain away.  Amen.  It was as short and brief as just that.  Nothing melodramatic.  Just a simple prayer.

I remembered that I still had some bandages and burn cream ointment left over from my burn experience. So, Kelly dug it out of the bathroom.  We applied a little cream, bandaged the bright red wound with its water-bubbly blister and watched as our son went to the living room to play with toys.  Soon, he was lost in his own little world playing and chattering to himself.

Stones in Beckler River, Washington, July 2010

Stones in Beckler River, Washington, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Later that day in the early afternoon, we were all outside. Our young son was running around the front yard.  He seemed oblivious to the earlier morning events.

Well, he doesn’t seemed bothered by the burn,” Kelly noted.  “His bandage is coming loose, though, I should adjust it before it falls off and he gets it dirty.”

I went over to him and picked him up to take him to his mother.

He watched as his mother unraveled the bandage so that she could re-wrap his arm again. When she got down to the wound, the blister was gone.  In fact, there was only a small red spot where it had been before.  We looked at each other amazed.  Then we called my parents over to look.  We were all surprised.

Kelly took the bandage off the rest of the way, cleaned off the burn ointment that was still on his arm and let our son continue to play. We all stood amazed as we watched him chase a ball around the yard as each of us took turns rolling it to him.  It seemed like such a small thing and yet such a surprising thing.

So, was it our faith displayed that caused God to surprise us with his grace? Or, was it simply that God enjoys surprising us with his goodness?  Maybe both.  Either way, we are always surprised.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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10. “They told me at the Blood Bank that this might happen.”

9. “This is just a 15-minute power nap like they raved about at the Time-Management course you sent me to.”

8. “Whew! Guess I left the top off the White-Out.  You probably got here just in time!”

7. “I wasn’t sleeping!  I was meditating on the mission statement and envisioning a new paradigm.”

6. “I was testing my keyboard for drool-resistance.”

5. “I was doing a highly-specified Yoga exercise to relieve work-related stress.  Are you discriminatory toward people who practice Yoga?”

4. “Why did you interrupt me?  I had almost figured out a solution to our biggest problem.”

3. “The coffee machine is broken…..”

2. “Someone must have put decaf in the wrong pot…”

AND THE #1 BEST THING TO SAY IF YOU GET CAUGHT SLEEPING AT YOUR DESK…

1. ……In Jesus’ name.   Amen.”

[author unknown]

Meetings, The Practical Alternative To Work

Meetings, The Practical Alternative To Work

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Untamable God – Part 1

Most of us do not like the idea of serving a god we cannot somehow manipulate or control; that is if we are really honest with our selves.  No matter how “orthodox” our beliefs, we tend to want to invoke prayers, verses of Scripture and dubious faith promises to get our own way with our god.  Some believers will even use holy water, anointing oil, prayer clothes and other objects of faith like they were some type of medieval relic with a promise of power from this god to do what we want and think we need.  What if the real God of the universe looked at all of these efforts and said, “Meh.  Whatever.”  And then went on and did what He thought best for His plan and His creation.

That seems to be the picture we have of God in the Bible, though many evangelical believers, especially Charismatics and Pentecostals, will not like it.  Instead of an all-sovereign Being who serves His own purposes, we prefer a lesser god that can be manipulated with shaman-like faith chants and magical workings.  A careful reading of the Psalms, the book of Job, the Prophets (especially Daniel) gives us a completely different picture of God.  A portrait of God that seems to be missing from so much of our American Christian faith.

This failure to see the largeness of God – His majesty and sovereignty – has led many believers to a spiritually bankrupt faith.  When they enter into a difficult time, trial or test, they say all right prayers, quote all the right Scriptures and repeat the mantras of popular faith teachings.  They will seek prayer, the laying on of hands by other believers, anointing with oil and even send money to a popular faith preacher in hopes of getting their prayers answered – at least the way they want them answered.  If it works out the way they wanted, then their faith “works!”

However, if all of their efforts go by seemingly unnoticed by God, then they begin to question their faith and even God.  I cannot count how many times I have counseled with believers who think that they have done “all the right things” to get God’s attention and the answers they want only to discover “none of this works.”  I have been told by some seasoned believers who became embittered by such trials that “God has never done anything for me.  So, why should I believe in Him or serve Him?”  I have heard from others that “God has never answered my prayers or been there for me when I needed Him, therefore, I don’t believe He exists.”

God is reduced to a personal butler-deity or good-luck charm to get one’s wishes or at least protection from bad things.  What if God does not “play” by those rules?  Yes, sometimes out of mercy, grace or kindness He may act despite our ignorance.  However, what if in God’s Kingdom that is not the normal way in which the Sovereign of the universe acts or responds?  In fact, what if such approaches to His majesty is actually an affront to Him and offensive?

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One of the critiques of agnostics and atheists is If God really existed and was all-powerful, then why doesn’t He stop wars, famine, disease, etc from taking place?”  This, of course, is assuming that God would act in human history as…well, a human.  The bigness of God would, instead, require a God who is beyond human understanding and reasoning.  Since He knows His creation – especially the human ones – and sees all of history and all of future in total, He is not required to act for the benefit of anyone person or people group.

Others in the agnostic and atheist camp argueGod is morally responsible to do something about human suffering!”  The double edged-sword that 1) “God is responsible because He seems not to act,” and 2) “God is responsible because He seems not to care” is a powerful argument.  At least, it is if one assumes that God as God acts in the way a human agent would/should act in a particular space and time.  However, God is neither human nor bound by the limitations of knowledge or experience in our space and time.

Faith in an enormous, untamable God requires us to believe that He is not only all-powerful (omnipotent) but also all-knowing (omniscient).  Thus, He will act as He sees fit.  All creatures of the earth, the Bible tells us, must submit to His purposes.  When the Bible says that in the last day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) it is implying just that sentiment.  It does not mean just “Lord” as Savior, but also “Lord” as Master and Sovereign.  The uncomfortable fact of Scripture is that the One who sits over all His creation and all the nations of the earth is too big, too untamable.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome, in short, is the psychological phenomenon in which people become enamored with those who enslave them and hold them captive.  Christian music artist Derek Webb made this a part of his new album by the same name.  In it he explores how people, particularly Christians, have fallen in love with things that ultimately destroy them.  This seems to be the reality of the human story throughout time.

This smart application of a psychological phenomenon to the human spiritual condition caught my attention.  Personally, I think Webb is on to something and has creatively pointed it out for us.  Of course, that is what artists are supposed to do, right?  I really appreciate artists that take us below the fluffy surface of life to get to the gritty reality of day-to-day living.  I like to think of them as prophetic artists.

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, it is easy to name the ways in which fallen humanity as a whole and our American society in particular has fallen in love and come to identify with those things that are destroying us.  It is quite another issue to look within each of our own hearts and find those places, people and things that we have become enamored with that are really destroying us spiritually albeit ever so slowly.  Our affinity to our self and our sin goes unnoticed most of the time.

Instead of keeping up an adversarial mentality towards our own spiritual enemies, we have learned to make peace with them.  Rather than staying in constant battle-mode, if we are honest with ourselves, we have taken off our armor, dropped our weapons and started enjoying the company of the enemy of our souls.  This goes against the message of the New Testament which is replete with pictures of saints as boxers training their bodies, athletes staying fit for the race and warriors constantly armored and at the ready to use their weapons.  We are to be always on our guard because our enemy, the devil, is always going around searching for an easy meal.

Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome is where American Christians in particular have become enamored with affluence, materialism, comfort, gluttony, convenience, pornography, anger, swearing, gambling, selfishness, personal rights, image and looks or the hundreds of others lures and sirens of our age calling us to our own destruction.  At best, these things merely make us spiritually impotent against the spiritual enemies of our age.  We are no longer poor and impoverished; but we no longer have spiritual authority or power when and where we need it either.  Collectively we have lost our prophetic voice and the right to speak to our culture because we have become just like the rest of our culture – enamored with the enemy.

What will it take for the evangelical churches in America to come out of their spiritual Stockholm Syndrome? I do not know.  We have experienced national crises and have soon afterward returned to what we were before.  Perhaps God in his goodness and grace will visit us by his Holy Spirit and awaken us from our slumber.

Meanwhile, there are many who, like bellwether sheep, are ringing the bell as loud as they can to call us back to where we belong.  I am not certain I agree with Derek Webb’s approach when in one song he chides those who “don’t give a s—” about thousands dying around the world daily.  Such shock treatments, reminiscent of Tony Compolo’s similar attempt more than two decades ago, rarely have the desired effect.  Nevertheless, I cannot denounce his attempt to do something to ring the alarm.  I just think there are more effective ways.

Treatment for spiritual Stockholm Syndrome will take time and commitment.  The Great Counselor is the only one who can give us the wisdom necessary to navigate out of this spiritual and moral dilemma.  The spiritual manual for living – the Scriptures – must be our map out of this spiritual wilderness.  Finally, recognition of our true spiritual condition must result in a cry for help from the Lord who is full of grace and mercy.  He will fulfill his promise to help when we cry out to him.  Only he has the power to break free those who are stuck in a spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.

©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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Distant and Silent God

American popular theology likes to focus on the joys of a relationship with God; and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, it has left many Christians with an anemic theology that does not adequately grapple with pain, suffering, death and times when God seems to be distant and silent.  We like to talk about the nearness of God, but not his farness or otherness.  We like to express the beauty of his revealed Word and share times when the real presence of God broke upon us in a difficult time.

My limited experience among American Christians has been that we avoid looking into the times that God appears silent and distant toward us.  We squirm in awkward silence when someone shares such an experience.  It seems to us to walk the edge of doubt and unbelief in the goodness of God and the rewards of following him; and we are afraid of falling off that edge.  Particularly among Pentecostals and Charismatics, who relish the personal experience of God’s presence and power, admitting to such a struggle almost comes across as a complete abandonment of the faith.

I have known the distance and silence of God.  Some spiritual fathers and mothers of the faith have called it “the wilderness.”  They have likened it to the wilderness experiences of others in the Bible; most notably Elijah and Jesus.  Elijah fled to the wilderness.  Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit.  For both, God does not appear, speak, or comfort until the end of the wilderness experience.  The “desert fathers” of the early Christian faith sought out the wilderness experience and what it could teach them.  Me?  I would rather avoid it.

Nevertheless, I have had my experiences in the spiritual wilderness where God is silent and distant.  One such instance marked me for life because of what I both experienced and learned through the ordeal.  A number of years ago, during my first pastorate at Quilcene Assembly of God, the Lord allowed me to go through a dark and terrible time where he seemed silent and distant.  Nothing I seemed to do appeared to help – no spiritual discipline, no trumped up spiritual fervor, nor any amount of crying out in prayer.  I felt abandoned.

I was warned of the coming wilderness event, however, by a good friend.  Ron Frantz and I had begun a close spiritual relationship and began speaking into each others life.  Ron had displayed great love for me and was interested in helping me grow spiritually as well as a leader of that small congregation of believers.  We both had a passion to see God glorified in the small logging community.  I not only knew that Ron prayed, but I also knew that he heard from the Lord.  One day, on his way to work for a few months in the Eastern United States, he stopped by the office to pray for me and say good-bye.

Before he left, he told me that the Lord had given him a word of encouragement for me.  I was excited to hear what the Lord might possibly say to encourage me and our small congregation.  With a small grin on his face and a look of compassion that expressed a genuineness that those who know Ron will know well, he told me,

The Lord wants you to know that in the days ahead you are going to go through a very dark time.  While it may seem like the Lord is not present, the Lord wants you to know that he will be with you and not leave you.

I was stunned.  “THAT’S the ‘encouraging word’!?  I’m going to go through a dark time?

No,” Ron said.  “That the Lord is going to be there in the midst of it.”

And you’re leaving town,” I noted.  “Thanks for the warning...and encouragement.  I think.”

Well, I’ll be praying for you while I’m away.  I’m sure the Lord has something special for you through it because He loves you so much.”

That is a typical Ron Frantz’ response.  He always focuses upon the goodness and love of God in all circumstances.  It is what makes him so endearing, such a great friend, and wonderful spiritual companion on life’s road.  I am sure that even as a child, when his mother or father spanked him, he must have turned around afterward and said something like, “Thanks for that.  I know you did it because you love me so much.”

We prayed and parted our ways.  Ron headed east and I headed went back to pastoring the folks of Quilcene and raising a young family.  Soon, I would forget about what Ron shared with me as time and activity erased the memory of it.  It would take being in the middle of a spiritual wilderness to jog it loose.

It was only a few months later that I found myself entering into unfamiliar spiritual waters.  It was a time of a spiritual wilderness that brought uncertainty about my call to ministry, my worth, and my relationship with God.  I slowly slipped into a period of time where God seemed remote and distant.  Prayers did not seem to go any farther than the ceiling.

The heavens seemed closed.  Studying God’s Word for personal devotions or for sermon preparation felt lifeless.  Preaching and teaching God’s Word was drier than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found no joy or satisfaction in any of it.  But the worse of it was how distant I felt from God and how silent he seemed to become.  Yet, despite all of this; strangely enough, the church congregation grew and prospered.

This brought about a real crisis of faith and torment of the soul.  Did I do something to displease God?  Did I sin and alienate God?  No amount of soul-searching brought any answers.  I doubted my call to ministry.  I doubted my ability to lead a congregation.  I wrestled with giving up and throwing in the towel.  Then, one day, Ron’s encouraging word before he left came back to me.  I had been forewarned about this experience!  This is what Ron must have been talking about and encouraged me to remember that God was present despite what I felt.

For a few months, the words Ron spoke into my life were the only thing I had to hold on to.  Sure, I had the promises of God’s Word.  But whenever I read God’s Word, there seemed to be no life in them.  Sure, I had personal communication with God, but fellowship through prayer seemed dead and to be only one-way.  I would often repeat to myself, “Lord, you promised your presence at all times.  You even sent Ron to personally tell me.  I choose to believe that you are here even though it seems that you are not.”

Soon, however, that personal confirmation did not seem to be enough.  I could not talk myself out of the dark despair of what seemed to me to be God’s absence and silence.  My prayer became singular and focused upon only one request, “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  For many weeks, that was my only prayer.  I shared it with no one.  Few people knew the cry of my heart.

Mount Rainier, 2002

Mount Rainier, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Months later, Ron Frantz returned from working out east.  He was anxious to go to a conference in Moses Lake, WA. with me and a mutual friend of ours, Ray Canterbury.  I was not as excited about the conference as much as I was looking forward to time away with two good friends.  The Lord had knitted our lives together spiritually and we were learning a lot from each other.

The last meeting of the conference, we sat up front and were anticipating the return trip home.  The speakers and worship had been good.  However, for myself, I did not enjoy them as much as others appeared to be around me.  My soul was in anguish.  God seemed to be distant and silent.  I sat in my chair and prayed only one prayer.  I went to the pre-service prayer times and prayed only one prayer:  “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  I had no other prayer.  I could pray no other prayer.

As the meeting was wrapping up, and we began to look at each other to check on whether it was the right time to exit, one of the speakers came over to us and said, “Do you guys all know each other?”

Yes,” we replied.

I believe that Lord has a word for each of you.  Why don’t you come up here for a moment,” he offered.

At this, I have to admit I was not spiritually minded at all.  My first thought was, “Great!  This is all I need.”  Truthfully, I just wanted to head home and was anxious about getting back on the road.  We had a long drive ahead of us.  Plus, the fellowship and discussion in the car would be much more invigorating than whatever this guy had to say to us.  I am more than a little skeptical of strangers who do not know me, and whom I do not know, giving me “words from the Lord.”  My experience has been that more often than not, they are good intentions that completely miss the mark.

As the guest speaker was talking to each of my friends, I felt my spirit shrink.  “All right, Lord,” I prayed.  “If you want to speak through this person to me, then I will receive it.  But the only thing I am really interested in is what I have already been asking you for these past months.  God, I am only human.  I really need to know you that are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  Then, I waited.

Soon, this spiritual stranger was standing in front of me.  I shifted me feet nervously, wondering what the outcome of this chance meeting was going to bring.  My main worry was that it was not going to be too embarrassing.  I was suspecting that “the word from the Lord” was going to be some meaningless, generic pabulum spoken over countless lives before me.  My expectations could not have been any lower.

He stood in silence a few moments before me as if to examine me.  “You are the pastor of this group, aren’t you?

Good guess,” I thought.  I was dressed very unpastoral, but something must have given him a clue, I thought.

Well, the Lord wants you to know that he is with you.  That he has never left you.  And that he is pleased with you.”

I was shocked.  These were the only words that he could have spoken that would have meant anything to me.  It was as if he read my mail.  Of course, he did not, but the Holy Spirit at work through him did.  He said a few things after this but I heard nothing else.  I broke into tears and weeping as the realization of what I had just heard hit me.  God had heard my hearts cry, spanned the distance I felt, and broke the silence by speaking directly into my life and situation in a way that was unmistakable.  Ron was right.  The Lord did have something special for me in it all.  He does love me very much.

As you can imagine, the ride home was very lively as we all shared our impressions and experiences of the conference.  It went much faster than we wanted.  I shared with Ray and Ron my experiences over the past months and the impact of my experience as the speaker at the conference spoke into my life something no one else could have possibly known.  From that time on, there was a freshness to my spiritual journey I had never experienced before.

I cannot explain to anyone why God sends us through periods where he seems to be distant and silent towards us.  I know some who have had an experience like this last years instead of months.  I know some who came through these times scarred instead of healed.  I know others who have come through wilderness times more spiritually empowered than ever before.  God does not seem to need to explain himself.  He is God – even when distant and silent.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a need today for just plain common sense.  Here is some sage wisdom from an old farmer who has been around the barnyard a few times:

* Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong.
* Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.
* Words that soak into your ears are whispered…not yelled.
* Meanness don’t jes’ happen overnight.
* It don’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.
* Every path has a few puddles.
* When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
* Most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna’ happen anyway.
* Don’t interfere with somethin’ that ain’t botherin’ you none.
* If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.
* Sometimes you get, and sometimes you get got.
* The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with watches you from the mirror every mornin’.
* Always drink upstream from the herd.
* Good judgment comes from experience, and a ‘lotta that comes from bad judgment.
* Lettin’ the cat outta’ the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back in.
* If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around.

Such simple proverbs boil life down to simple, memorable truths.  Isn’t it amazing that much of life’s problems have simple solutions?  Unfortunately, our sinful human nature’s propensity is to complicate life.  I am sure that it is the work of the devil to make life more burdensome and complicated.  It does not have to be.  Our heavenly Father did not design life to run in the ‘fast and furious’ mode.

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus described life in his kingdom as “blessed/happy,” “fully free,” “abundant life,” and “abiding.”  Does that sound like your life?  If not, it may be time to re-focus.  Can you boil what is important down to a few simple things?  Jesus did and made it simple for us.

First, he said, “Abide in me.  Apart from me you can do nothing.” All life comes from him.  In his teaching of the vine in John 15, Jesus plainly and pointedly teaches us where our life must find its source.  How are you connected to him – the vine – through personal prayer, Bible reading, fellowship with other saints, serving others and worship?

There is no substitute for prioritizing our life around him and the way his life flows to and through us.  Your journey as a disciple of the Lord Jesus begins with your own desire and initiative to ‘connect’ your life with his life.  No one can do that for you.

The distractions of life brought about by our self-pleasing desires (think ‘lusts’) and goals (think ‘pride’) do more to rob us of living fully in the kingdom of God now than anything else.  We try to either pay off the past or store up for an uncertain future.

Does this bring us any real peace or satisfaction? No.  There is always something more.  Standing opposite these distractions, Jesus is calling us to tarry with him right now.  He is calling us into his rest, peace, joy, and abundant life.

Second, he said, “Follow me.  I will make you fishers of men.” Witnessing and bearing our testimony about Jesus is not as much a duty or a formula as it is a natural result of following Jesus.  If you ‘abide in the vine,’ you will bear fruit.

Showing and telling Jesus to the world will be a natural product of our lives as we learn to follow/abide in Jesus.  Abiding is in the promise to the disciples in Acts 1:8, because when they ‘wait in Jerusalem’ they would ‘receive power to be witnesses’ of Jesus.  See the connection?  Jesus promises to make us witnesses – “I will make you” – who bear testimony to his work and work.

As we focus upon the ultimate goal of knowing Jesus intimately through prayer, bible study, serving, sharing, and worship, the natural byproduct will be making Jesus known to the people around us in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.  In this way, we will ‘fish’ for people who are seeking God.  Notice that the key word is “fish” and not “catch.”

One thing I have learned over the years is that there is a reason why people call it fishing and not catching!  Some days I don’t catch anything – or don’t even have a nibble!  Those are discouraging days.

Similarly, as “fishers of men and women” our concern is not with the catching but with the fishing. The Holy Spirit is the Great Catcher of men’s and women’s hearts and souls.  Only he can draw a person to the Father, convict of sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come, and sanctify a person’s heart.

Our duty is to be the lure, the net, the hook to attract lost people.  The only way to be such is to focus on the ultimate goal of being with Jesus.  Isn’t that so much easier?  Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?  Sounds like just plain common sense to me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, J.r (2010)

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