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Posts Tagged ‘Quilcene’

When my family was much smaller and younger, we lived in a small Pacific Northwest logging community called Quilcene.  Now, one might read and so pronounce that name in a plain straightforward fashion like “kwil – seen.”  However, like almost all dialects of the English-speakers language, there are hidden sounds only the locals know about.  This is a sure fire way to identify outsiders (i.e. “people from not around here”).

Small Blue Boat Reflection in Port Townsend Harbor

Small Blue Boat Reflection

The local populace pronounces it “kwila-seen.”  It is the shibboleth (or is that sibboleth?) of the local dialect.   Fortunately, no one is killed over such a goof.  I believe the sound is correct and reflects the American Indian languages of the area (e.g. the Quilayutes).  It, after all, also being the name of the local tribe that used to inhabit the area.  (The Quil-a-cenes were later absorbed into surrounding tribes, most notably to the south on the Hood Canal in the Skokomish tribe.)  Unfortunately, some early English speaker’s attempt to Anglicize the word missed the short “a” and so we are stuck with Quilcene, which is much better than what the original American-European settlers of the area wanted to call it:  South Burlap.

Into this small community, my family settled.  My oldest son, Gareth, was a new-born.  A couple of years later, Cara, our oldest daughter was born at home.  Four years after, our youngest daughter, Julian, was born at home there too.  The locals quickly educated us on the correct pronunciation of the word.  This, along with learning that everybody was related to everybody else, was one of the most important lessons to learn in this small community.

Almost everyone in this community earned their living from the logging industry.  Those that didn’t were employed in some seafood related industry.  Oyster farms still do a thriving business there to this day.  Logging, however, will probably never be what it once was 25 and more years ago.  Our neighbor Bob was one of those hard-working loggers.

Bob was known for delivering firewood for many years around the Quilcene, Brinnon, Dabob areas.  He made a living doing the hard work of pulling out old trees, cutting them, splitting the cuts, and delivering it.  Most people relied upon wood heat to get through the cold, damp winters of Washington State.  “Bob the Woodman” was their main source for good dry wood.  Success at that allowed him to branch out into selective logging and clearing lots for people building homes along the curves of the Quilcene and Dabob bays.

Bob was a good neighbor.  Our properties joined one another on seven acres of wooded property.  Red Cedars and Douglas Fir inhabited most of the property.  This made a perfect play ground for my oldest two kids.  Of course, as conscientious parents, we were always careful to keep our eyes upon our kids.  Our oldest son had a habit of running off and disappearing from our presence.  This made us a little more paranoid than normal parents, if there are such things.

Seagull Reflection

Seagull Reflection

Despite our best vigilance, however, our son had a habit of wandering off.  This led to his getting into all sorts of mischief even before the age of five.  There was the time he showed up two blocks away across Highway 101 in his diaper standing in front of the local gas station.  There were the two separate occasions he discovered bald-faced hornets nests.  On the first occasion, he poked it with a stick.  He and his sister got stung.  On the second occasion, having learned from the first one not to poke it with sticks, he threw rocks at the nest.  He and his sister got stung.

As you can imagine, his penchant for exploration and getting himself into trouble only expanded as he grew older.  This explains his mother’s premature grey, his fathers premature baldness, and the slight twitch in the corner of both our right eyes.  Nature or nurture, whatever the cause, gets started awful early.  Too early in my book.  I think kids should be born educated and ready for the work force.  It would eliminate a lot of social problems.  Alas, but I’m not the Creator.  Good thing too, probably.  Giving birth to college kids would be incredibly painful for mothers.  And, how would you explain nursing?  “Come here, sweetheart!  It’s time for your lunch.”  “Aw, mom!  You’re embarrassing me.”

One of the advantages of raising your kids in a rural setting is that they learn so much by just being outdoors.  It truly is an amazing experience and opportunity.  I feel sorry for kids who grow up in the city and don’t know their way around a good wooded patch of ground.  My kids spent countless hours examining nature.  They learned a lot.

One time, my wife caught our oldest son, at about three years of age, exploring the biosphere of the upper canopy of the trees about 30 feet off the ground in his rubber boots.  He learned that, if he didn’t break his neck carefully descending the tree, his mother would kill him.  Another time, I taught my son about heat transference through convection with a steel burn barrel by telling him, “Don’t touch the barrel, it’s really hot”.  Then, he immediately tested my hypothesis by touching the barrel and getting a nasty blister on his hand.  Then, there was the time I took him to explore the mud flats of Quilcene Bay at low tide.  We were having the time of our lives seeing all kinds of tidal land creatures: hermit crabs, worms, clams, snails, and plant life.  About two-hundred yards from shore I suddenly realized he was barefoot.

“What happened to your boots?” I demanded to know.

“There way back there,” he pointed.

“Where?”

“Back there,” he kept pointing.

“How did they come off?”

“The mud took them off.”

I picked him up.  He still had his socks on but now they were as black as the mud of the bay and hung thick and wet about a foot down from his feet.  I held him out away from me as his socks swayed in the wind.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s go get your boots.  I think we’re done for the day.”

I reached down and pulled off his socks and then tucked him under my arm, carrying him like a sack of potatoes.  The extra weight made the mud pull on my boots too.  This was as much a father’s education as a son’s.

I looked down at him.  He was watching the ground pass underneath us.  “Did you have fun?” I queried.

“Yes,” he replied.  “I like the worms the best.”  He turned his head toward me and smiled.

“Of course,” I said and smiled back.

We found his boots stuck in stride just as he had left them.  The thought to stop and retrieve them or to put them back on again never seemed to occur to him.  I suppose he was too fascinated with the bugs and creatures and keeping up with his dad.

The problem with growing up in a rural setting is that property boundaries can sometimes be fuzzy.  Locals know one another and cross each others property almost at will.  Those really familiar with each other don’t even bother knocking on one another’s door.  They just let themselves in and yell, “Hello!?”  That’s country living for you.

This was difficult for my kids to learn also.  Our neighbor Bob had all kinds of fun equipment for a young boy to play on.  Gareth particularly liked the heavy equipment that would appear from time to time on Bob’s property.  He was always amazed at their size and imagined in his little mind what they could do.  One of his favorite pieces of Bob’s equipment was a skidder.  This is used by loggers to move logs around.  However, it doesn’t move anything when it’s batteries are dead because a 4 or 5 year-old boy was playing on it and pushing buttons.  It takes a long time to charge a skidder’s batteries back up.  Plus, it is not something Bob appreciated discovering when heading for the woods at 4 or 5 in the morning.

Broken Sand Dollar

Broken Sand Dollar

Bob had incredible patience with our son. I only heard him yell across our properties a few times, “Gareth!!”  By then, Gareth was almost always already home after we discovered that he had wandered off yet once again.  This let us know that our son had probably gotten into something.

As a logger, Bob had access to small seedling trees that were used to replant clear-cut areas.  Bob had a stretch of property on the opposite away from us that he decided to replant.  Good naturedly, Bob invited Gareth along to show him how trees were planted.  If they are not planted properly, they will die and the tree and one’s labor will be lost.  One must have a proper depth to the hole to make sure and get the full root system in the ground.  You don’t want any exposed root area.  Then, one covers up the roots.  However, the tap root needs to be as straight as possible, so a short, small tug is given on the tree when it is buried to help ensure this.

When investing in the life of the child, I believe it is important to give them, as much as is reasonable possible, exposure to many different things.  Who knows what will “take” in their little hearts and minds that causes them to decide to become a mechanic, doctor, nurse, plumber, lawyer, carpenter, or even forester.  Who knows the potential within the heart and mind of a child?

At the same time, who truly knows what is going on in those spaces?  When Bob returned from the woods the next day, he discovered that my son had pulled out all 100+ trees that he had planted with him.  Did they need to be recounted?  Did they need an “extra pull” to make sure they were straight?  Did they simply need to be removed because their place only appeared to be temporary?  We will never know, I suppose.  That’s a lesson we’ll never learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Some of the best stories are the ones that no one ever hears. We all like success stories.  Everyone likes to vicariously live through the success of others.  Some may even aspire to be like those they hear about in the stories.  This is no less true for small churches and their leadership.

Leaders of small churches can get caught up into the success stories of larger sister congregations and think their means of successful ministry lies along a similar path. That may sometimes be the case.  However, I predict that more often it is not.

At the same time, because the successful stories of small congregations and their leaders have no platform to be told, there are countless success stories of successful small churches to go largely unshared. Theirs are the stories that no one ever hears.  No one writes a book about it.  Church leadership magazines do not feature them.  Their leadership is not taken on the church growth speaking circuit.  They are not highlighted at any national conferences.

Imagine a church that is reaching ten percent of its surrounding community. Some small churches are doing just that while many large churches in larger contexts cannot even come close to that kind of impact.  Or, imagine a church that plays a prominent role in virtually every young person’s life in its local community school.  Once again, this is a feat difficult to replicate in a larger urban or metroplex setting.

While this church may not ever run more than one hundred or a hundred and twenty-five, its budget barely reach six figures, and its lack of resources obvious in comparison with larger churches, it nevertheless has a big story to tell. It has a big imprint in its community.  The congregation is well known and well accepted by everyone.  Similarly, its leadership is welcomed and invited by the majority of the community.

A friend of mine from Alaska, who has pastored small churches his entire life, mentioned to me recently, “I have pastored in smaller towns my entire life and find great opportunities to have influence and access.  It is easier to use media, easier to find partners like Rotary, VFW, community leaders and community colleges. Longevity in the smaller community is another great asset. Longevity builds trust in a community” (James D. Duncan).  His encouragement to small churches and their pastors is not to be intimidated by larger churches and their leaders but “make your size work for you.”

The possibility to network and have influence in smaller communities is one of the big stories that go untold about smaller churches. Community, school, and social club leaders are often sitting in their congregations or available for a casual meeting at the local diner.  Instead of focusing upon what the church does not have, the most important thing a congregation can do is focus upon what it does have and use those strengths and relationships.

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010

Tuck Lake, Wenatchee National Forest, Cascade Mountains, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When I pastored a small Assembly of God church in Quilcene, Washington, I made it a point of networking with the other pastors. This is sometimes difficult.  However, I have found more often than not that pastors of small communities are easier to get together than ones in larger towns and cities.  In this particular Pacific Northwest logging community, the pastors of the four local area churches gathered once or twice a month for coffee and prayer at the local store.

Out of these meetings there began a collaboration of ministries. No one congregation dominated the community.  However, we realized that when we put all of our congregations together that we represented almost one-third of the population of our community.  That was a pretty startling statistic for this area!  We realized that together the kingdom of God could have a big imprint upon this rural community.  That is precisely what happened for the next few years until pastoral changes began to take place.

One example was that the Presbyterian church in town, which was an aging congregation, had plenty of money but not many kids or young people. Our church, on the other hand, had plenty of kids and young people but lacked sufficient funds and workers.  So, for several years, we combined our resources to provide a week long Summer Vacation Bible School program that was outstanding.  We all impacted the kids and families of our community.  Plus, the Presbyterian church picked up a few younger families that had stopped attending quite some time before.  There was new excitement for what was being offered for their children.

A small church that seeks to use its strengths for God’s glory can end up having a big story to tell in its community. This is particularly true if it is willing to reach outside its own walls and find ways to network and collaborate with others.  For small communities, that lack of activities for kids and young people can be one such opportunity.  However, the opportunities may also be in a retirement center, food bank, or local school.

There is no replacing the hard work of prayer and meeting people. Prayer attunes the heart and soul to the Spirit of God’s direction.  However, just as important, is positioning one’s self in places to meet others so that one is available for “God appointments” and “God moments.”  In these times, opportunities arise or needs where the church may serve are made known.  Without being there, opportunities are wasted.  Without prayer, opportunities can be blindly missed.

There are many churches and their leaders who understand this simple strategy for success. It simply asks the questions, “What is God doing in our community?” and  “Where is God at work in our community?”  These two questions assume God is already at work by his Holy Spirit.  As his followers, we are the ones that must become attuned to it.  This is much different than “trying something” and praying that God will bless it or continuing to do the same old thing and praying that God will bless it like he did in the past.

This approach also asks the questions, “Where does God want to make a point of contact in our community?” and “Who does God want us to serve to reflect the light of his glory?”  These two questions are very missional.  They assume that the believers have already dedicated themselves “to go where you want me to go dear Lord.”  It also assumes that perhaps the work God really wants to accomplish is not inside the walls of the church building but out in the lives of those his Holy Spirit is already drawing to himself.

If any church – large, medium or small – is going to write a big story that glorifies God, it will require courage to sometimes try something not done before. It may require letting go of things always done before.  Often, when we say “Yes” to something, it also means we must say “No” to something else.  But when we say “No” to what is not of first priority, we get to say “Yes” to what is most important.  And, in this case, it just may have eternal consequences.

This may lead to some surprising results.

  • The church that invests itself in the families and kids of its community to put on a free Kids Festival just before school starts each year, which has given it influence in the lives of those families and kids the rest of the year.
  • The church that supports the local art festival, which has opened up relationships with community leaders.
  • The church that has committed to minister to a local nursing home by offering worship services and regular visitation followed-up with cards to family contacts of the nursing home patients, which has impressed not only the staff and leaders of the nursing home but immensely blessed the families and patients.
  • The church that has taken on the responsibility to make sure the local food bank is staffed and stuffed with goods, which has given it contacts with people it would never otherwise ever see or hear.
  • The church that offers after-school tutoring three days a week to help kids who need the extra time to succeed in school.
  • The church who has no kids in Sunday School and is made up of mostly older adults with no children at home but who offer free childcare two Fridays a month for a “Parents Night Out” and then use the time to reach and teach the children who come about Jesus.

Just as there is no “cookie cutter” ministry success model, neither is there a “cookie cutter” story template that can be laid from one community to the next. Each congregation’s profile is different.  Every community context is different.  However, God is at work everywhere and in every place.  It is up to each small church and its leadership to find the story God wants to tell that will bring him glory.  It may be a story of his glory that you have not heard before but the wonder of it all is that each of us can be a part of it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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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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So, I have another birthday coming up. This yearly event stopped meaning anything special to me years ago – somewhere after 40.  This birthday will mark my last year in the decade of the 40’s.  Next year I hit the big 5-0; that will be a much bigger deal to me.  There’s just something inauspicious about hitting and moving beyond 50.  Of course, those who have moved way beyond that mile-marker will tell me otherwise.

Believe it or not, the biggest decade markers that were downers for me were the younger ones. Turning twenty was traumatic.  Somehow, in my mind, it meant leaving “youth” and entering into “age.”  Not old-age per se, just an age where the responsibility stakes went up ten-fold in my mind.  It was, in my thinking, leaving the care-free stage of life and entering the care-burdened age.

This is one reason why I always warn my children not to worry about growing up so fast and “getting out on their own.” So far, none of them have listened to me.  I suppose it is the optimism of youth that helps us to launch into our independence.  Of course, complete and total ignorance of what really lays ahead helps too.

The other decade marker that was a downer was thirty. I was depressed for a week.  This seemed to mark me as the entrance into “old.”  All youth is gone and spent, now all that was left was aging and more burdened responsibilities.  In retrospect, however, I do have to say that my thirties were quite fun and fulfilling.  I had some real rough years closing out the decade, but for the most part they were enjoyable times.

Turning forty did not faze me all that much, for some odd-ball reason. I had some friends who made the event a lot of fun (at my expense, of course).  At the same time, there was a positive stride into the decade of the 40’s with a certain sense of maturity, wisdom and life-experience.  These have been good years with lots of good experiences.  It has held enough life adventures to keep it interesting.  So far, I think I am well on my way to fulfilling my life’s mission of “finishing strong and finishing laughing.”

This life goal or mission helps me to focus on what is important: finishing strong in my relationships with God and my family and friends and to do it all with great joy and no regrets. It is that last point that is the sticky one.  It is truly hard to finish life without any regrets so that one can end life with great joy – laughing.  Perhaps approaching the age of fifty has made me more retrospect than ever (as if I could be any more retrospect…I’m wired to be an internalizer, meditator and processor).  I had a friend tell me one time, “Boy, Ron.  The stream of thought sure runs slow through you.  But I have to say, it does run deep!”  We still laugh over that observation as there have been many funny applications to it over the years.

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

Tubing On Quilcene Bay, Washington, Summer 2007

I have been witness to many people who, at the end of their life because of disease or death, spend a few moments replaying their regrets.  There seems to be a need to attempt to correct any mistakes before one leaves this life.  Sometimes, this is not always possible.  According to Bronnie Ware, an Ezinearticles.com contributor and palliative care worker, when questioned about any regrets, the dying had five common themes that surfaced again and again:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These all strike me as having to do with my life goal to “finish strong and finish laughing.” A life well-lived and full of joy up to the end of it strikes me as something the Creator would take great pleasure in as He witnessed our leaving this world and entering the new creation He has awaiting for us.  Each of these five things recalled by Bronnie Ware reminds me that life is full of risks that present opportunities and pitfalls.  One cannot live life sheltered in hopes of coming through with no scrapes or bruises.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a message on risk-taking. It was inspiring as well as challenging.  What would we be doing differently right now or attempting to do if we knew that we could not fail?  There lies the stuff of dreams and visions.  In the message a quote was shared:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!”

What a daring statement! Like me when I heard it, you are probably wondering what brave soul, perhaps famous, made such a declaration.  Our speaker pointed out some of the risk action ideas in this quote: danger, exposure, adventure or nothing!  The quote is from Helen Keller.  What a statement from a deaf, mute and blind hero for whom getting out of bed everyday was an adventure and a risk!  The speaker pointed out that, willing to do so, she changed her world as an author, activist and even lecturer!  Suddenly, I find myself in short comparison to someone born with so many “handicaps.”  Certainly, I in accompaniment with my full faculties have a long ways to go to catch up with her.

I suppose that there is no way to completely avoid end-of-life regrets. Clarity of vision seems to be the privilege of only those at the terminus of their life’s journey.  We could all stand to learn more from them.  The words of Jesus could also help to prod us: “Playing it safe and guarding your self will not help you in the end.  Only risk-taking and self-sacrifice will help you discover who you were made to be and the reward that will await you at life’s end” (my own paraphrase of Luke 9:14).

So, to “finish strong and finish laughing” is going to require more work on my part it seems. Every day as well as every decade will be an adventure.  It reminds me of Frodo‘s recollection to Samwise of Bilbo‘s wise words in The Lord of the Rings: “Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘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‘.”  Who knows what’s around the corner of 50 – or 60 or 70 for that matter.  Might as well finish them strong and laughing with no regrets.  If anything, it will leave the devil frustrated over me and my friends wondering.

©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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Ron Almberg, Ron Frantz, Ray Canterbury, July 2007

Ron Almberg, Ron Frantz, Ray Canterbury, July 2007

How do you measure
two lives entwined?
Like twine twisted,
two lives like strings roped,
do you measure
the beginning
or the end?

How do you weigh
two lives’ treasure?
Like precious pearls,
memories like jewels roped,
Do you weigh
them each
or them all?

With the twine still twisting,
the rope yet unfinished
with the treasure still collecting,
the string of pearls yet incomplete,
I am content to know
that as our years grow
we are still in the middle,
yet to define the end
give perspective to the beginning
and find joy in the
beginning,
middle
and end.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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