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Posts Tagged ‘Relationship with God’

God Surprises 2

When is a problem too big for God to handle? When the problem is bigger than you can deal with on your own.  At least, this is how most of us work in our faith.  Or, I should say, this is how my faith seems to work.  As long as it is a problem that I can imagine to be solvable or at the least manageable, then I envision that God can also take it on.

Yes, this is a rather anemic faith. It makes God – the Creator of all the universe – only as large as myself or my imagination.  In short, it makes God – the One who possesses all the power – small.  It reminds me of the line in the Walt Disney movie Aladdin when the genie is described as “all the powers of the universe in a teeny-weeny little bottle.”

This might sound strange coming from one who for 25 years was attempting to lead other people in faith. It is a lot easier to lead others in doctrinal statement and propositional truths than it is in living reality; that is for certain.  Nevertheless, life presents challenges that require us to either put greater faith in God or give up faith in him at all.  Ministry seems to only put an individual under greater pressure to reach either end.

Shortly after finishing seminary at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri, my family and I found ourselves back in Washington State. I was called to pastor a church in West Richland, Washington.  It was not too long after relocating that we found ourselves in financial trouble.

One of the disadvantages of many pastors of small congregational churches is a lack of health insurance. Their salaries do not provide enough to buy individual family coverage.  So, many go without.  This is what my family was doing.  Later, my wife would get a teaching job in the local school district, which would help solve this problem.  But until that opportunity came along, we were on our own.  And with four kids at home, betting against doctor visits, emergency room visits, dentist visits and optometrists visits is a losing venture.

We came to a situation where a combination of events almost undid us financially. Our son needed braces for teeth that made it almost impossible to eat.  A couple of visits from accidents by our children led to emergency room visits and doctor visit follow-ups.  To top it all off, our car quit and was of no trade-in value.

One day, I sat down to figure it out how much we were underwater financially. Adding up all the extra bills we accrued as well as a couple of thousand dollars for a down payment on a used car, I choked at the figure that stared at me on the page.  It seems we would need $10,000.  It might as well have been 10 million.

The next day, in my devotion time when I took time to write in my journal, I put in writing my need. It seemed laughable that I would even write the figure in my journal.  Like that kind of money would just drop into our laps, right?  Sure.  I was skeptical of any immediate answer.  Instead, I prepared for a long road of slowly paying off bills, doing without some things, and getting used to having only one broken down used car for my family instead of two.

I always close my journal entries writing out a prayer. It helps me to put in writing and in a tangible form the desires of my heart, the needs of my family, church and community, the worries I may have as well as the hopes that I carry.  I have found it refreshing in the way it unburdens my soul.  Like writing a “To Do” list, it prevents my heart and mind from attempting to holding on to these things so I won’t forget them.  By committing them to writing it gives my soul permission to breathe and let go of all those things committed to paper.

I wrote my request for my family’s needs.Lord, we are really hurting financially.  Along with regular bills and school bills, the bills of hospital, doctors and orthodontists are burying us.  It is not my problem.  It is your problem.  Help us be a good steward of what we do possess.  Please take care of all that we have no control over.”  I know.  Not a profound prayer.  It almost seems as filled with doubt as it does faith.  But it’s all I had at the time.

Life continued on and we did the best we could for a few weeks. Several weeks later, I found myself at my regular haunt at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore.  I regularly went there to plan, write and read leadership books.  It was a good place to get out of the office and focus my week.  My “To Do” lists were generated there.

As I wandered among the stacks, I ran into a member of a family who had recently joined our church. They were there wandering among the bookshelves looking for good books to read.  I greeted the mother of the family I ran into.

Me:  “Hi!  Surprise seeing you here.  How are you doing?”

Her:  “Good!  Yes, it’s a surprise seeing you too!  I was just thinking about you.  Our family has been praying for you.”

Me:  “Well, thank you.  We really need it.  What are you all up to today?”

Her:  “We’re just out to browse books.  Hey, listen, are you going to be at the church office at all later today?”

Me:  “Yes.   I’ll be in there after lunch until about 5:30.”

Her:  “Good.  Can we all come by to see you…say about 3:00?”

Me:  “Sure!  I’ll be looking for you!”

Her:  “Great.  We’ll see you then.  We have something very important to talk to you about.”

We parted ways and I head home to get some lunch.  Her last words hung over me with a dread. I never liked being left with, “Pastor, I have something very important to talk to you about.  Can we talk later this week?”  And them I’m left wondering what it is what it is so important to talk to me about.  It is often not good.  So, I’ve been left gun-shy from such announcement.  Being a new family to our church, I imagined that they had run into some problem they needed me to solve or address.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I went home and ate lunch. Later, I made myself busy at the church office catching up on mail, email, phone call-backs, and getting things on my “To Do” list done.  Soon, I was busy enough to forget about the family’s visit at 3:00.  It was the doors opening and closing at the front of the church that reminded me of their appointment.

Me:  “Hey!  Great to see you all again.  I’m glad you can make it.”

We shook hands and chatted for a bit.  Then the mother of the family picked up where we left off at Barnes & Noble.

Her:  “Pastor, we have something very serious we want to talk to you about.”

My stomach sunk with a lead ball of dread and foreboding.  This was not going to be good.

Me:  “Well…what can I help you all out with?

Her:  “To get right to it.  My grandmother passed away last month…”

Me:  “I’m so sorry to hear that…it must be a very hard time for you all.”

She smiled and said, “No.  She was a Christian and was ready to go to heaven.  We know that she is with Jesus and happy.  We’ll see her again one day.”

Me:  “Well, that is great to hear.  What a testimony to her faith and to Jesus.”

Her:  “Yes.  Well, the reason why we are here is that she left a rather substantial inheritance to me.  Our family has been praying about what to do with it.  We’ve decided there are several things that the Lord want us to do.  First, we want to give some to the Lord’s ministries we support which includes this church.”

She handed out a check to me.

Me:  “Well, bless you!  However, I can’t take the check.  It’s against our church’s policy.  Is there a way I could have you give it to our church treasurer?  That would be much safer and more appropriate.”

Her:  “Of course.  I understand.  That is perfectly acceptable.  Should I just give it to him this next Sunday?

Me:  “Yes.  That would be great.”  And I gave her the name of our treasurer.  “If he happens not to be here, you can give it to one of our ushers too.  If it is a large check, then they can put it in the safe right away.”

They all looked at each other.  She replied, “Yes.  It’s a rather large check.  I’ll give it to one of them first thing Sunday morning.”

Me:  “Wonderful.  Again, thanks so much. I know it will be a huge help at this time for our church body.”

Her:  “Well…there is one more thing.”  She turned and smiled at the rest of her family.  “We really felt that the Lord wanted us to give you something too just for you and your family at this time.  We know that it has been a hard time for all of you and want to help.”

Surprised, I offered, “You know that is not necessary.  I’m sure your support of the church is sufficient.”

Her:  “Well, we want to be obedient to the Lord and so must insist.  We prayed about it and feel this is the amount the Lord would have us give to you.”

She handed out an envelope to me.

This is where it can get really sticky in ministry. How do you judge whether a “gift” is coming with no strings attached?  How do you account for it?  Most gifts are small.  How much was this one?  Do you dare ask?  How do you accept it humbly and gracefully?  How does it affect relationships and those you show favor to over others?

As I looked at her and at her family, I had a deep sense that they honestly meant this as an act of obedience to something they felt the Lord calling them to do. They hardly knew me as a pastor.  Yet, I felt that there were no ulterior motives.  There was a peace surrounding this gift that gave me a sense that this was a God-moment for them and for me.  So, I reached out and took the envelope.

We said our goodbyes and I profusely thanked them for their obedience to the Lord and their generosity to the church and to my family. I put the envelope into my shirt pocket and returned to the immediate duties that called me attention.  I had a long list to complete before I could get home.

We I did arrive home, it was as usually – just as dinner was ready to be served. We sat around the dinner table as a family and shared our day.  Our family’s dinner time is rarely quiet.  At the same time, we are all fast eaters so it also tends to be rather short.

After dinner was cleaned up, I remembered the envelope in my shirt pocket.

Me:  “Hey, you know that new family that started attending our church just a short while ago?

My wife:  “Yeah.”

Me:  “Well, they wanted to meet with me today.  Apparently, a relative passed away and left them with an inheritance.  They gave some to the church.”

My wife:  “Wow.  That’s great!  How much?

Me:  “I don’t know.  I asked them to give it to our church treasurer or an usher Sunday.”

My wife:  “Oh.”

Me:  “They also wanted to give us a small gift.  So they gave me this…”

I handed the unopened envelope to my wife.  I thought I’d let her open it.  I was expecting a small gift that would help with groceries or maybe the next hospital or orthodontist bill.

She ripped open the top and looked over the check.  Then her hand flew to her chest.  “Ron!”

She said this in a surprised and started voice.  I turned toward her and took the check from her hand.  As I looked at the amount on the check, I had to sit down.  It was made out for $10,000.

That evening, I went to the journal entry of several weeks back where I had written that absurd amount down as a need for the Lord to take care of for my family. Now I was able to write in that same journal the date upon which the Lord through an unassuming family answered that very request.  My little faith was answered greatly and resulted in a great amount of thanks and praise to God.

I wish I could say that I have never since then struggled with doubt. It would be great to be able to announce to everyone my never-ending faith in God’s faithfulness.  It wouldn’t be true.  Yet, God continues to surprise me in the way that he shows how much bigger he is than my belief.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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A farmer repeatedly invited a friend into his apple orchard to taste the fruit and make some fresh cider.  But, just as often, the friend said, “No, I would rather not.”

Finally, the farmer said, “I guess you are prejudiced against my apples.”

“Well, to tell the truth,” his friend said, “I have tasted a few of them and they are very sour.”

The farmer then asked which apples his friend had eaten.  “Why, those apples which fell along the road over your fence,” he replied.

“Ah, yes,” said the farmer, “they are sour.  I planted them to fool the boys who live around here.  But, if you will come into the middle of my orchard, you will find a different taste.”  [Quoted from “Echoing God’s Love” by Charles Mills (Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1999), pages 141-142.]

Daisies at Howard Amon Park, Richland, Washington, Fall 2009

Daisies at Howard Amon Park, Richland, Washington, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

On the edges of Christianity are some very sour apples – conviction, self-denial, repentance, holiness, and purity of life – which keep off hypocrites and mere professors.  If these are all that one experiences in following God, then they are just “playing around the edges of the Christian religion”.  The moral fences and spiritual boundaries are not all that God has planned for his children.  Nevertheless, for some people, this is all they know about Christianity.  They have tried it and did not like it.  It was a very sour life.  However, in the middle of the God’s orchard are delicious fruits, sweet and desirable.  The nearer to God, the center of the orchard per se, the sweeter the joy.

Are you playing around the edges of Christianity? Do you have just enough of God to make you miserable?   God invites you into personal relationship with him that offers sweet and desirable things – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Move away from the edges of a religious life.  Fully enter into the middle of all God desires and has planned for you.  There you will find what you are really searching for in life.  There you will find the sweet reward of drawing nearer to God.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Beyond Our Inabilities

In a day and age where sports stars loom larger than life, it is hard to settle for being average.  It is painful being below average in anything!  How can you compare with the likes of a Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Williams, Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez, Peyton Manning, or Tiger Woods?  It would seem that the world doesn’t have a place for your average ‘Joe’ or ‘Josephine’.

The wonderful thing we find in a relationship with God, and confirmed in the Bible, is that God does use the average person.  In fact, God uses people in spite of any weaknesses or inabilities.  The Bible story seems to tell us that God delights in using the average, ordinary person to do extraordinary things in his creation and kingdom.

Throughout the Bible we find stories about God interacting with people who have all sorts of inadequacies.  Moses stuttered too much to be a spokesperson.  Caleb was too old to go off to battle.  David was too young to be a national leader.  Elijah suffered depression.  Josiah, made king as a child, was much too young and inexperienced to start a national spiritual revival and renewal.  Peter was too compulsive and hotheaded to be a pastor-leader.  Mark was a quitter and Paul had anger issues.

Lone Tree In Fall Colors, Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009

Lone Tree In Fall Colors, Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Another great example of this is found in the story of Gideon (Judges 6 and 7).  He is someone that God used to deliver Israel from the nation of Midian.  Midian had overrun Israel and sent her people into hiding in the mountains.  They stole crops and cattle, leaving nothing for the Israelites.  Finally, Israel seeks God’s help.  He sends them Gideon.

Gideon is much too timid to be an army general.  He simply lacks the skill set required for such an adventure.  Not only that, but he seems to be somewhat of a doubter.  He is definitely not “a man of faith and power for the hour” that is for sure.  Gideon confronts the Lord with a series of troubling questions:  Why has this happened to us?  Where are all the miracles we were told about as kids?  Why has the Lord abandoned us?  (In other words, where is God when evil is present?)

Gideon’s story teaches us that God is not bound or limited by human misunderstanding or mysteries.  He is not thrown off course by what is humanly unexplainable.  Only God has the capacity to understand everything.  Nothing is a mystery to Him.  Plus, he is not put off by us because of our doubts and lack of faith.  The Lord God seems to have enough confidence in his own power and ability to accomplish whatever he wills.  He’s just looking for a little cooperation, which, indeed, will require a little faith and action on our part.

The Lord tells Gideon to “go in the strength you have.” Since Gideon was real unsure this was a mission he could accomplish, the Lord also told him, “I am sending you.”  God always uses what we have available, which is usually not much.  At the same time, he is not limited by the lack of our abilities, strength, skills or experiences.  He promises to make up the difference with what he has, which are resources way beyond ours.

Gideon’s response is a lot like Moses’ at the burning bush.  It is a barrage of reasons why this plan will not work.  Gideon’s poor self image has taught him that he is powerless and helpless.  His family is on the bottom of the social scale in the tribe of Mannasseh.  Not only that, he is the least of the family, the last born, the smallest.  Plus, he has been living in a nation that has been socialized to expect to be beaten down and on the run.

This is an amazing story that has a principle repeated over and over in the Bible.  It is a story that tells us that God is not bound by the weaknesses we were born with.  Your parents, home life, siblings, birth order, gangs, school, or neighborhood does not limit God’s ability to work in your life.  He is bigger than your genetic or environmental makeup.  He is all-sufficient in himself.  While he does not need us to accomplish anything, he has chosen in his sovereignty to partner with his creation to fulfill his purposes and plans.  So, he is just looking to you and me for a little faith and cooperation.

So, you don’t need to be a superstar.  Average or below average, it doesn’t matter.  God can use you beyond your inability.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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