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Posts Tagged ‘Religious People’

Engaging A World

This is the time of year when many churches, at least Assemblies of God churches, hold an annual business meeting.  It is an annual report to the members of the congregation from the pastor(s), deacon board, and church leaders.  The previous year’s and next year’s budget is reviewed and approved.  Reports on church events and happening from ministry leaders are received.  Everyone, especially, anticipates the senior pastor’s report on the congregation, which relates the advances of he previous year and the hopeful future of the next.

As a senior pastor, leading these meetings could be a challenge.  Coming to a new congregation, it was always curious to me how these events were misused and abused by church leaders and congregants alike.  I always determined to set a different tone and expectations for these meetings.  In twenty-plus years of being involved in them, I never had a bad annual business meeting (Thank the Lord!).

I have heard stories of meetings that were contentious and troublesome.  Decisions came to depend on “pre-business meeting” politics.  Leaders railroaded there agendas through the decision making process.  Congregants ended up in yelling matches with the churches leaders or one another.  Most churches I stepped into at one level or another violated their own Constitution & Bylaws in moving the meeting’s date, electing officers, approving (or disapproving) pastoral continuance, along with a number of other things.

It is no wonder that so many people today are soured toward the church as an institution, denomination, or organization.  Many of us cannot even run a business meeting in “decency and order”.  I am not surprised that many people attending church today refuse to become members of their church because of their bad experiences.  There reason is always, “I don’t want to get involved in church politics.”  And who can blame them.

There are many reasons for a church to slide into such petty and meaningless schemes and unhealthy relationships.  However, let me focus on one that I believe may be the biggest reason.  It is simply this:  A church body that has slid so low in its relationships has done so because it is unengaged in the Kingdom of God and its mission.  It has become self-focused.  It has turned inward to war against itself rather than war against the kingdom of darkness that surrounds it.  James, the brother of Jesus, in his New Testament letter warned the church that this will only lead the church to “devour one another.”

This brings us back to a church’s annual business meeting.  How it is run and what its focus becomes can be a symptom of a larger problem.  I have sat through too many business meetings as a parishioner where the most important things talked about was the next church maintenance project, the selection of a color for furniture, the proper setting for the temperature in the sanctuary, and what kinds of foods should be served at the “Fellowship Hour”.

Other than the building, everyone was satisfied to know that the number of “butts and bucks” coming into the church was relatively unchanged or slightly improved.  A small decline in those numbers did not warrant alarm since the church experienced those before.  An alarm was only set off only if there was a mass exodus of those “butts and bucks”.  Only then did the pastor need to start to sweat the security of his job.

If these things are the only focus of an annual business meeting, the days are numbered for a congregation.  It will not be long before inward focus upon personal comforts and preferences become the main talking points in every gathering.  The church has lost its focus and reason for being.  Jesus did not say, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not spoil its convenience and comfort.”  No.  He said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  The church is made to be engaged in warfare.

I propose that any church’s annual business meeting or congregational meeting should focused on two simple things:  First, reporting what God has done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His people and through His Church the previous year.  And, second, projecting what the church leadership team – pastor(s), deacons, ministry leaders – prayerfully believes God wants done in His Kingdom to accomplish His Mission in His world through His Church the next year.  Admittedly, those are tougher things to report and project!

The focus will necessarily be upon how the church was engaged in its mission to the world.  No reports from its leaders will be sufficient that just lists events and activities.  Keeping busy for the Lord is not an indication of fulfilling the church’s mission.  Activities do not equate to Kingdom engagement!  Money collections do not indicate Kingdom involvement!  It requires a congregation and its leaders to ask the hard questions:

  • How many of us were engaged with our time, treasure and talents in God’s mission in the world?
  • How many who were unengaged in God’s mission the previous year became engaged in it this last year?
  • How many were trained for a specific mission in God’s Kingdom to be obedient to carry out the task He has called them to do for Him?
  • How many of those in our community who were unengaged with the Kingdom of God before this last year became engaged with the Kingdom of God through our church’s efforts or the efforts of an individual from our church?
  • How many of those outside our church did we engage with the Kingdom of God – locally, nationally or internationally?
  • In what specific ways did our church or individuals from our church engage our larger local community with the Kingdom of God through acts of service – feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for the orphan, care for the widow, look after those in prison, stand against injustice?
  • What persons in our community are unengaged with the gospel that we can reach out to by serving them and sharing God’s love in order to engage them with the Kingdom of God?

These questions – and there are others that could be asked along these lines – help us to celebrate what God is doing in and through the Body of Christ.  They keep everyone’s eyes upon the most important mission of a church – glorifying God by lifting up His Son, Jesus Christ.  It helps everyone to realize that there are more important things than color coordination, room temperatures, and choices between desserts or salads.  The important task of sharing God’s love is never done.  Yet, when it is done in faith and obedience it should be celebrated.  That becomes the reason for holding an annual meeting in the first place.

The church exists to engage the world with the Kingdom of God by sharing His story and revealing His glory.  We cannot do that if we are focused only upon “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We will reach for what we measure.  If we measure success in terms of personal comfort and convenience, then that is what we will always reach for first.  However, if we measure in terms of personal and corporate engagement of the Kingdom of God with the world, then that is what we will always try to attain.  So, who wants to give the next annual report?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the surprising recurring themes in the Bible regards how often God’s people miss the point of God’s purposes while those far from God grasp it.  For instance, for all their study of Old Testament scriptures and religious disciplines, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day completely missed the arrival of the Messiah and his Kingdom.  Meanwhile, those they considered “sinners” – tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the demon possessed, the leprous, Samaritans, Canaanites, and Romans – welcomed the Messiah.

When Jesus went to a well-to-do religious man’s house for dinner, the man did not receive Jesus with the usual custom and courtesy expected at the time and in that culture – he did not have Jesus’ feet washed.  It was like saying to Jesus, “Come again when you can’t stay so long.”  The only point for inviting Jesus was to test him to see if he really qualified to be a teacher or rabbi.  This was despite the fact that Jesus openly taught and performed miracles for everyone to witness.

A sinner surprised the man and his dinner guests by showing up and washing Jesus’ feet.  Never mind that she inserted herself where she was not invited.  She was qualified on no spiritual terms to be in this host’s home, let alone touching a man who is supposed to be righteous and a teacher.  She does not qualify because she works in the sex industry; she is a prostitute – a modern day equivalent of a street walker, pole dancer and stripper.

The self-righteous host is put off not only by this sinful woman’s intrusion (What would the neighbor’s say!?) but also by the fact that Jesus appears to be unfazed.  He doubts Jesus’ credentials on the spot.  If Jesus was really a prophet or true teacher of the Law, he would know “what kind of woman” was touching him and defiling him.  This supposed saint, for all his prayers, religious education, and spiritual devotion missed a personal visit from the One that he and all of Israel had been longing for since time unmemorable – the long-awaited Messiah.  However, the sinner did not.

The sinful woman wept over her sin as she sat at Jesus’ feet and used her tears and her hair to wash Jesus’ feet; the same beautiful hair that she had used time and again to allure her clients into her web of manipulation and sin.  The same hair men lusted to touch and that invited them to so much more.

Her hair, the object of her worldly beauty and pride, became a dirty towel stained and streaked from the filthy feet and smelly toes of the promised Messiah.  The heaving and sobbing woman was an unwelcome spectacle and distraction to the dinner host and his guests as much as the unwanted Messiah.  Her pitiful condition grew as her hair matted in dirty clumps and her face streaked with tears and makeup.  To such well-off and proper folks, the woman and Jesus made a despicable scene that only repulsed them further.

It is then, I imagine, at the height of social discomfort, that Jesus used the occasion to point out how often sinners surpass “saints.”  He looked to the prideful host and religious leader and said, “You never welcomed me.  This woman [whom you consider full of sin and unworthy] has not stopped welcoming me. The one forgiven little, loves little.  But the one forgiven of so much, loves greatly.”

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jonah is another case in point.  The prophet is called of God to be used by God to go preach the message of judgment, forgiveness, and salvation.  The only problem?  It is to people he considers enemies and “heathen.”  God wanted him to go to the Assyrians’ capitol, Nineveh.  They had brutalized the nation of Israel.  Jonah did not just see them as beyond God’s love but also undeserving of God’s love.

Instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah decides to run from God and his mission.  In the middle of a storm, the heathen sailors are scared out of their wits.  They discern amongst themselves that it must be some kind of divine retribution and began to pray to their gods.  It was of no avail.  The storm continued to rage.  Meanwhile, Jonah slept uncaring and unaware of the danger they were all in.

When the sailors finally awaken Jonah to the imminent threat, Jonah understands what may be going on.  He coughs up the real reason for his story and tells the sailors that, for them to be saved from divine judgment, they must throw him overboard.  Unwillingly, the sailors obey the word of Jonah and are saved!  Barely able to contain themselves, they give God praise for their salvation.  Interestingly, their obedience and resulting worship of God surpassed Jonah’s – an Israelite and prophet of God.  It seems that they are more open to God and his message than God’s own messenger.

However, the irony does not stop there.  Tired of the stench and torture of riding in the belly of a great fish, Jonah repents and asks for God’s help – after three days.  (He is either a very stubborn man or a slow learner in God’s school of discipline.)  After being delivered upon a Mediterranean beach somewhere, Jonah obediently, but still reluctantly, goes to Nineveh.  He preaches God’s message of soon coming judgment, repentance, and forgiveness.  The people hear the message and turn to God and repent.

One would think that this would be Jonah’s opportunity to rejoice.  An enemy of Israel had accepted the God of Israel and received salvation.  However, just the opposite is true.  Instead of praising and worshipping God for such a miracle, Jonah goes to a nearby hilltop overlooking Nineveh to pout.  Jonah is mad at God.

When God sends a large plant to give Jonah shade, Jonah is glad for it.  When the shade plant dies, Jonah gets angry with God again.  He is more angry over the demise of a plant than the possible demise of lost souls.  He has more compassion for a plant he neither planted nor cared for than he has for a people that God placed upon the earth.

The one who pleaded for God’s mercy in the belly of a great fish and received it becomes angry at this same God who showed mercy to another people.  He could not stand the thought of God extending the same salvation he received to people he deemed to be unworthy of mercy and salvation.  God was treating those outside his covenant with Abraham the same as those within the covenant of Abraham.  And there is the rub for both Jonah and Jesus’ religious host.  The One who included them in a covenant of blessing and salvation also wants to include those who appear hostile or even unredeemable.  God’s inclusion and invitation is greater than theirs.

I must admit my own tendency to be like Jonah or that rich religious host.  Smugly, I assume and presume that God’s grace and blessings are for me.  After all, I like to “claim them” as my own and walk in them.  I have been taught that throughout my Christian journey.  However, I forget that God’s work of grace and salvation is for all people – inside and outside the covenant.  God’s desire is to show the world that he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending [judgment]” (Jonah 4:2).

Unwittingly, my assumption and presumption lend itself to a blind arrogance on my part.  I think that I have the inside track and have my “spiritual act” together, when in reality I may be farther away from God than the nearest sinner who is broken hearted over his or her sin.  Too often, I have pridefully approached God’s throne of grace and mercy and, when asked to confess my sin, have replied, “Let me think…ah…nope…got nothing.”  And then rejoice that my life is not the mess of “those sinners” around me.

I might as well be in Jonah’s place, asleep in the bow of a boat in the middle of a storm of judgment.  I can really be that spiritually unplugged and numb.  Broken and weeping sinners in repentance surpass me in spiritual awareness.  A visitation from the One I am looking for goes right past me and I miss the opportunity.  Worse yet, the One I say I live for and proudly proclaim to spiritually lost people visits them and I doubt their salvation and whether they really “got saved.”  I remain wary of whether God is really working to change their lives.  I suspect their claims to being blessed by the Lord.

Thankfully, God has not given up on working in people like me.  He is still interested in transforming doubtful, depressive, peevish, prideful, irritable, and obstinate Jonahs and religious people.  It may be time to take some lessons from newly redeemed sinners around me on humility and thankfulness.  Perhaps I can learn again the “joy of salvation” from “a gracious and compassionate God.”  At any rate, this “saint” has some catching up to do with the “sinners” around me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Wells Deep Enough To Get Living Water

During his ministry here on earth, Jesus was always a lot harder on religious people than he was on the spiritually lost and forsaken.  His ministry was frustrated more often by the attitudes of the religious people around him than those who were far from God and synagogue.  Sometimes, he could not perform miracles among them.  For the most part, his mission and message was not accepted by them.

The ones who should have known better and been most ready to receive his works and words rejected them and him.  In other words, the religious folks who thought they could see were really spiritually blind and didn’t know it.  Alternatively, those in spiritual darkness and blind were the ones to “see a great light” as it “shown upon them” (Isa. 9:2).  The irony of this should not be lost to us today.

I often wonder what kind of reception Jesus would receive among the religious folks who inhabit our churches today.  Would we be ready for him or miss him?  Would we recognize him?  Would we accept his challenging words and unconventional works?  Would he find faith and freedom among us to work miracles or a place where he “could not work any miracles” (Mark 6:5)?

Robert Beringer, in Turning Points, tells the story about a little boy who got separated from his parents in a large shopping center.  The Security Department quickly located the child and took him to an office, while the frantic parents were paged over the public address system.  One of the security guards got a large ice cream cone for the boy.  When his parents arrived at the office, there was their little son happily eating his ice cream.  Suddenly, as his parents embraced him, the child burst into tears.  One of the security guards said, “Gosh, I guess he didn’t know he was lost until he was found!”

Beringer goes on to point out, “There are many who are bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.  Many people have tried to substitute the accumulation of things for good relationships, but no matter how much they get, something is still missing in life.  Their pipe does not go down deep enough to draw living water, and they feel lost.”

Sadly, that describes too many people in the church today: “bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.”  In our materialistic society, we have been duped into thinking that filling up our lives with more things or filling our lives with more activities will bring satisfaction and substance to our lives.  Meanwhile, Jesus is left standing on the periphery at our hearts’ doors knocking.  Like the little boy, we do not know that we are lost.  Like the religious people of Jesus day, we do not realize what we are missing because of our spiritual blindness.

Orange Rose Bud, 2009

Orange Rose Bud, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the apostle John’s book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, two of the letters written to the seven churches are telling.  To the church in Ephesus, Jesus condemned them for leaving their first love.  He invited them to “remember, repent, and return” (2:5) to loving him first so that their spiritual light and life would continue in the world.

To the church in Laodicea, Jesus condemned them for their spiritual apathy and arrogance.  They thought that they had it all together – “rich, successful, and in need of nothing” – when they were really “pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  Jesus invited them to be “zealous and repent” (v. 19) because those he loves he will “rebuke and chasten” (v. 20).

This challenge to the church today became even more real to me when I ministered in India near Visakhapatnam and Rajamundri.  Before I left, there were many Americans who wanted to know if it was true that miracles were easier to witness overseas.  They carry the nagging feeling that somehow the mission field of America is more difficult than the mission field elsewhere in the world.  I do not believe it is.  I believe that there are no barriers for the work of God to be done except for the zeal and faith of God’s people.

If the work of the Gospel and its accompanying signs, wonders, and miracles are more prominent in other places; it is because the church there goes “down deep enough to draw living water.”  They are still vitally and vibrantly connected to the “Source of Life”.  At different times in its history, the American church has had the same connection to her Lord and Savior.  Like the American church, the church overseas struggles against the same declination towards spiritual apathy and arrogance that causes spiritual blindness.

However, in India, for the most part I saw a church strong and vibrant.  I believe it witnessed the Lord confirming his Word with signs, wonders, and miracles because it “dug wells deep enough to draw Living Water” by:

  1. A regular practice of “waiting upon the Lord” in prayer.  Like the church in the book of Acts, believers in India devoted themselves to prayer – lots of prayer and waiting upon the Lord.  Then, fearlessly offering prayer for anyone in need and willing.
  2. A regular practice of proclaiming the Gospel in market places.  Like the New Testament church, believers in India boldly preached and shared the Gospel in the public market places – even right in front of Hindu temples!  They regularly invited their neighbors over to their houses to share Jesus and love them.
  3. A regular practice of serving the orphan, the widow, and the poor.  They are more than will to prove their ministry through their generosity to the saints and everyone else (2 Cor. 9:13).  Their ministries of compassion open doors of opportunity to not only preach Christ but pray for the sick and oppressed.

These things place the Indian believers in a position where God’s grace and power must show up.  Then his Kingdom is built on nothing but his Word and his power.  There is a simple desperation in the life of the church that depends upon the Word and power of the Lord.  Ministry is simple: prayer, preach, and provide for the poor.

Wherever the church puts their faith into practice like this; the Lord shows up to work among his people – whether in India or America.  The American church’s nagging sense that it has lost something in connection with the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be the Lord knocking at the door just as he did in Ephesus and Laodicea.

The question is, will we return to our “first love” and the works we did at first – such as devoting ourselves to prayer, sharing the Gospel in the public market places, and providing for the poor?  Each of these practices places us in a unique position where we need the Lord to answer, show up, and provide.

On the other hand, are we too rich, too full, and too satisfied to hear the knocking at our door?  Whether Jesus shows up depends upon us.  It may be time to dig our wells deeper to draw upon the Living Water the Lord offers to those who are spiritually thirsty.  Perhaps we can take some “well digging” lessons from our brothers and sisters in churches such as those I visited in India.  Now is the time to start digging!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (2010)

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Charismatic Indulgences

I am enjoying facilitating a class at our church on the Protestant Reformation.  I love to read and study history; especially church history.  The characters, issues, and drama make for some very interesting reading under the craft of a good historical scholar and writer.  Admittedly, under a good scholar but bad writer, it can also be absolute drudgery!  However, there a plenty of great historical story tellers that make history come alive to those interested.

One of the aspects of studying history that always amazes me is how much we do not learn from it.  As much as I would like to believe that humankind is on an ever evolving incline of knowledge and understanding, a study of history shatters that delusion.  Knowledge and technology have not made us any better.  I like to repeat a quote I heard years ago which asserts that “to suggest humanity is better off because of technology is to suggest that a cannibal is better off with a knife and fork.”  Instead of progressive improvement, we seem to be in a constant cycle of enlightened discovery and abject stupidity.  Nevertheless, this is what makes studying human behavior and history fascinating and entertaining at the same time.

For instance, one of the abuses of the church the reformers wanted to purify from the Church was the abuse of indulgences.  Some Reformers did not want to do away with the practice of indulgences all together, but just correct their abuses.  Others, such a John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, could find no biblical warrant for their practice and wanted the practices of indulgences done away with completely.  The reformation tradition follows Wycliffe, Luther, and others in their assertion that any church tradition and practice must be established solely upon biblical evidence.  This assertion is one of the main reasons why Protestant churches emphasize Scripture – translation, study, and knowledge – above all else.

The practice of indulgences was long practiced in the Catholic Church.  It is still practiced today.  It is closely tied to the Catholic theology of Purgatory.  This is another doctrine that Protestants and Reformers rejected because of lack of Scriptural evidence.  A broad explanation of indulgences proposes that the good works of Christ and the saints have been deposited in heaven for all Christians in the treasury of merit.  These merits may be applied to the sins of Christians at the approval of the pope and applied to individuals by archbishops, bishops, and priests.  The application of these merits enables one to avoid paying further for their sins in purgatory.  Extreme abuses preceding and following Martin Luther’s time allowed these indulgences to be bought with money.  Thus, sin became a really money maker for the church.

Aside from the biblical and theological problems that indulgences and purgatory pose for biblical Christians, the Protestant Reformation recaptured the New Testament doctrine of God’s grace displayed and applied through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s son.  Martin Luther, studying Romans and Galatians, came to the conviction that God’s grace cannot be purchased or earned.  It can only be received as a free gift.  Both the temporal and eternal forgiveness and salvation human longed for and needed was only available through faith in what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection.

As much as the Protestant Church would like to think that it is free from the influence of such doctrine and practice, one needs only to watch or listen to the selling of God’s grace in today’s Christian marketplace.  While salvation may not be up for sale, the grace of God to work miracles, provide, give guidance, and heal surely is in today’s popular Christianity.  It can be purchased by sending in an offering or purchasing a book or other materials.  At such a low, low price, God’s grace for healing and wealth will be released.

The Protestant Church has its own forms of relics too.  By purchasing prayer cloths, anointing oils, Christian jewelry, and other such items, and extra measure of God’s grace will flow in blessings to the believer.  All types of shamanistic items are sold to the unwary in hopes that the favor of God can be purchases instead of appropriated through simple faith.  It seems, in coming so far in history, we have not gotten very far.

The same grace that is made available through faith in Christ’s work that brings salvation is also available for all the other blessings of the Kingdom.  Why do we think they be can bought or sold?  They are given freely by grace.  They are “charismata” – grace-gifts given to us out of the love of the heavenly Father and his son, Jesus.  They are made available to everyone.  There is no need for a mediator – priest or televangelist.  We are asked, individually and communally, to come in faith believing “that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him.”

Pink Rose in Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Pink Rose in Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Charismatic and Pentecostal stream of Protestantism is particularly caught in this trap of heresy and unorthodox practice.  Perhaps what is needed is a new reformation or a new “protest” that rebukes those responsible for such abuses.  Not only do they mislead the faithful.  They are profiting just like their Catholic forefathers upon the misery and sinful conditions of people who are needy and vulnerable.  Instead of selling them “a bill of goods” that will not profit their followers, they should be pointing them to the grace that is in Christ Jesus for every blessing.

Unfortunately, the same problem that caused the faithful 5oo years ago to fall into this trap and error is still prevalent today.  It is a lack of knowledge of the Word of God and its basic doctrines.  Unlike 500 years ago, however, the Bible is available to us in our own language.  We can read it and study it for ourselves.  We have learned teachers and preachers who are proclaiming the truths of the Scriptures.  What seems to be lacking is an attentive audience.

This sort of reminds me of the church Jesus chided when he revealed himself and his plans to the apostle John.  It seems that even though we live in an age where we can see, we are still blind (Revelation 3:17).  We live in a country that is rich with the teachings of God and access to biblical truth, and yet we are so poor.  It appears that Western Christianity is clothed with beautiful religious garb, but we are really naked.  Perhaps we do not know how wretched we really are if so many of the faithful in our Protestant, Bible-believing churches can fall into such error.

A start for all of us might be to study our history.  We need to rediscover what was lost and then found in the Reformation.  Some of the Reformers and Protestants paid for the discovery and practice of these truths with the ultimate price.  Perhaps then we would appreciate more fully today where we are in human history and the opportunities we have around us by way of Bible teaching and tools.  Most importantly, hopefully, we would refuse to fall back into the errors from which the Church in large measure was rescued.  Like Martin Luther, maybe we need to take a hammer and nail and post them in a prominent place so we will not soon forget.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healing Haiti

Another catastrophic disaster hits a part of our world.  It is something that we never get used to witnessing via newspapers, news magazines, television news cycles, or internet pictures and videos.  The suffering is overwhelming.  The feeling of uselessness from our living room chairs suffocating.  Some of us pray.  Some of us give to our charities of choice hoping that our dollar will go where it is needed most.  All of us wonder, why?

There is a human propensity to try and make sense of our world; especially when struck with natural disasters.  In some ways, we deal better with blatant human evil that reeks suffering and destruction.  The “why” is answered for us.  We see the results of twisted evil human nature every day.  We recognize evil in one another.  When it spills over into our lives, we at least have some semblance of a reason for our suffering; there are mean, evil, wicked people in the world that cause pain and suffering.  However, what reason do we have when it is impersonal “Mother Nature”?

Natural disasters catch us in a web of meaninglessness like Victor Hugo’s fly in the spider web of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There is no one to blame.  It is just how nature works.  It is “the circle of life” at work in our world.  Death and birth continue on in an unfeeling, meaningless cycle.  There is no rhyme or reason.  Whether tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, disease or cancer, nature takes its course in all our lives.  Even if we live our lives without succumbing to disease or accident, we will end our days in a “natural” death.  We are the products of natural courses at work in the world.  We are also subject to the work of natural courses in our world.

In our modern, scientific age we like to arrogantly think that we can control or predict nature.  And, while our ability at prediction has gotten better, we are constantly and painfully reminded that nature is full of surprises for us.  We are far from reaching the limits of human knowledge.  We are constantly discovering what we do not know.  After all, that is part of the mystery of human science and discovery:  We do not know what we do not know!

Nevertheless, there are still those who like to attempt to negate the mystery of creation by offering a “cause and effect” answer for every event.  The recent example of Pat Robertson’s explanation for the disaster in Haiti is a great (or perhaps, better, tragic) example of this pernicious human trait.  He claims the mythical legend of Haitians making a pact with the devil to be free from French rule is the cause of Haiti’s troubled history as well as present disaster.  Not surprisingly, his comments have created an uproar.  Unfortunately, he has had a history of “foot in the mouth” disease.  His reason for the tragedy of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and New Orleans destruction from Hurricane Katrina’s?  American abortions.

All such attempts at explain or come up with a “cause” for disasters in the world will always be controversial.  It may very well be an effort in futility as well.  When biblical Job suffered the loss of everything through one disaster after another, his well-meaning friends attempted to come up with a reason or cause.  It was the very same one that Pat Robertson uses.  It is the result of sin.  While personal sin has its consequences, it is not always the case.  In fact, God brags about Job’s righteousness.  In the end, Job’s friends get a rebuke from the Creator for their lame attempt to explain what God was trying to do in the world and in Job’s life.

While Job’s friends wanted to find some personal sin for the cause of Job’s sufferings, Job wanted to blame God.  He assumed that he deserved God’s total and complete protection from every trouble.  He attempts an in-your-face chest bump with God.  God puts Job in his place simply by pointing out that the Creator does not need the advice of his creation on how the universe should run.  The courses of nature were established by God without Job and his “wisdom”.  In the face of God’s creation and grandeur, Job does the wise thing.  He shuts up.  Oh, that our modern day commentators and wisemen of God’s ways would do the same thing!

In Jesus’ day, there were two tragedies that captured the attention and heart of the country.  First, apparently, an evil ruler brutalized and massacred some people in Galilee (Luke 13:1 – 5).  Second, a tower in Siloam fell down and killed some people in a tragic accident.  One was a tragedy by human evil.  The other was a tragedy of meaningless accident.  Jesus exposed the futile human attempt to explain these events by blaming human sinful conditions by asking, “Do you think they [the ones who suffered and died in these events] were sinners more than anyone else?”  Jesus’ answer is in the emphatic.  “Absolutely not!”

Jesus offers us no explanation for these disasters.  He seems to be content to let the mystery of the “why” to rest upon his listeners and us.  Instead, he does offer a universal explanation for humans everywhere and in every age.  “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Huh?  At first his answer – or explanation – comes across very cryptic.

Jesus does offer us a parable.  He tells of an owner of a fig tree who finds it not bearing fruit.  He wishes to cut it down but at the intervention of his arborist decides to give it another chance.  This story, like a laser beam, is aimed at Israel.  However, it speaks to us all too.  God delights in showing mercy.  He is not put off by “giving more time” to those who are due judgment.  Jesus’ point to his listeners is that we are all due judgment!  Therefore, we all had better discern our spiritual condition and turn to God.  Jesus uses the tragic stories of his day to point out that the sudden demise of these people should remind us all of our frail condition and existence.  It should remind us all to look to our own spiritual conditions instead of looking to point fingers and blame such events on someone’s sin.

Red and White Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Fire and Ice Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Haiti’s suffering should be a reminder for us all.  We all have our own “pact with the devil”.  If Haiti’s suffering is the result of such a pact then we are all under the same judgment and deserve the same, no less.  Likewise, we are all at the mercy of the natural forces at work in God’s creation – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, disease and cancer.  These strike the righteous and the unrighteous.  There were many believers in Jesus who died in the earthquake and many who continue to suffer today.  Are we more righteous than they because we were not there and did not experience it?  I think not.

Instead of wondering why, it is perhaps more constructive to take a personal spiritual inventory and ask ourselves, “If something like that were to befall upon me today, am I spiritually ready to go into eternity and meet God?”  This would help us far more than sitting in the seat of self-righteousness and pronouncing judgment upon the sin in the lives of others.  It only makes us as useless as Job’s comforters and deserving of similar rebukes from God and the suffering Jobs.

Instead of looking for a cause for such suffering, it is perhaps more constructive to approach these situations with the same attitude that Jesus did on similar occasions.  When faced with overwhelming human suffering around him, Jesus did not attempt to explain the reason for human suffering.  He, instead, looked for ways in which God could be glorified in such circumstances.  This was the case of a man blind from birth (John 9:1 – 5).  The disciples, so like us today, wanted to know the cause or reason for this person’s suffering.  “Rabbi.  Who sinned?  This man or his parents so that he was born blind?”  Jesus’ astonishing answer is that it was not because of sin.  Instead, “This happened so that the work of God could be displayed in his life…we must do the work of him who sent me.”  Could it be the same with Haiti?

Perhaps the best response to Haiti is not looking for reasons or causes.  Perhaps the best response is, instead, to ask, “How can we do the work of God in this situation?”  On this side of eternity, we might not know all the answers and reasons.  However, we do know that God has a work he wants to do.  Perhaps the best response to such tragedies is to seek to do God’s work of healing and restoration.  In the end, God is not going to quiz us with, “Did you come up with a plausible explanation of why this happened to them?”  Instead, he’s going to want to know, “How did you do my work in the midst of such sufferingDid you bring healing to Haiti?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Public Displays of Worship

How we love to laugh at ourselves!  A joke frequently told in parts of the upper midwest USA that exposes its Scandinavian heritage is, “Did you hear about the Norwegian who loved his wife so much that he almost told her?”  (You could put Swede, German, or any other Northern European group in there.)  Yes, we Scandinavian and Germanic folk are known to be a somewhat emotionally reserved.  Some would say we are emotionally constipated!  Granted, we are not a little reticent about open public displays of affection.  We were taught early on to guard the expressions of our hearts.

Unfortunately, this cultural attitude creeps into our attitude and expressions of worship towards God.  Our definition of worship done ‘in decency and order’ means in an acceptable fashion to our cultural tastes; something that does not move one out of his or her comfort zone.  At the same time, we can look across the great diversity of God’s kingdom and see many expressions of worship that draw upon our hearts: southern gospel, urban gospel, African American gospel, not to mention the other diverse styles and types of worship around the world.  If you were to sit through a Latin American or African church worship service, the sight and sounds would be a lot different than a typical upper midwest USA service.

Never mind cultural flavors in worship, the Bible describes worship as “bowing low, kissing another’s feet, expressing adoration.”  Simply, worship is the love language of the worshipper.  How much do you love the One you worship?  That will indicate the level of your extravagance in displaying your love to the object of your love.  Now, I am not talking about weirdness.  Neither am I talking about expressions that draw attention to the individual worshipper instead of to the Lord.  True worship points to and gives focus toward God only.

Opening Rose Bud, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Opening Rose Bud, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The book of The Song of Solomon is an extravagant display of affectionate words and actions between two lovers.  To real conservative people, it comes across as being ‘over the top.’  When I was a poor Bible college student, I wanted to show the girl I was interested in how much I cared for her.  On Valentine’s Day, singing groups on campus would deliver Singing-grams with a carnation.  So, I used the last of my pocket change to have a group deliver a carnation and sing, “You Light Up My Life”  (Yes, I’m THAT old!).  I wanted to do something extra special to show how much I cared for her.  (Unfortunately, I later learned it was a song she hated!  Oops.  Well, she married me later anyway.  Some things are forgivable.)

Two stories of Scripture that have always captured my imagination are found in 2 Samuel 6 and Luke 7.  In both of these cases, something extravagant was done to worship the Lord.  In 2 Samuel, David “wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might…with shouts and the sounds of trumpets.”  David’s worship, along with “the entire house of Israel,” before the Lord was an extravagant celebration of his love for God.  Michal, David’s wife and the daughter of Saul, was embarrassed by David’s unbecoming conduct and “despised him in her heart.”

David’s response to Michal was not to gain her approval!  He told her, “It was before the LORD…I will celebrate before the LORD.  I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes…”  I have to admit that I cannot recall a time in my spiritual journey where I would call my worship of God “undignified” or something that caused me to be “humiliated”.  Still, it this proposal by David challenges me and prods me.  Have I ever allowed my worship of the Lord to become that extravagant?  I am more like Michal, I am afraid, than David.

In Luke 7, a story unfolds that is recorded in all four gospels.  It is the record of a single worshipper at the feet of Jesus.  This was not a ‘religious person.’  Far from it, it was “a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town.”  In other words, she was the town prostitute and everyone knew it.  While Jesus reclined at a religious leader’s table eating dinner, this sinner came up behind at his feet weeping profusely.  Using her tears to wet Jesus’ feet, she then took her long, beautiful hair (the object of her glory and dignity in her culture) and washed them clean.  Next, she kissed his feet tenderly and took the alabaster jar of perfume she brought (worth more than a year’s wages – $28,000 in today’s terms) and poured all of it on his feet, rubbing it in carefully to anoint them.  The aroma of her perfume filled the whole room.

What an amazing picture of extravagant love openly displayed before others.  Of course, not everyone could appreciate such worship.  Some, like the Pharisee, were put off by the woman’s reputation and ‘over the top’ self humiliation.  It was undignified!  In the other Gospel accounts, one of Jesus’ disciples was bothered by what appeared to him to be a waste of money, time, and effort.  Jesus stopped all those who looked down their noses at her by asking, “Who loved more?”

As forgiven and redeemed sinners, we should appreciate more than anyone extravagant worship and displays of lavish love for our Lord and Savior.  He has forgiven us for so much.  He has given us so much.  Yet, if you are like me, we have grown uncomfortable around others who openly display their adoration of God in song, dance, and shouts of joy.  Early 20th century Pentecostals were especially known for their extreme acts of worship.  They did not earn the name “holy rollers” for nothing!  However, a tame “Jericho march” would throw many worshippers into a tail spin today.

What Michal saw as “undignified” and “humiliated” was for King David a celebration of his love of God.  Both David and the sinful woman worshipped and displayed their extravagant love publicly, not in private.  Does the world around us know how much we love the Lord?  Is public thanks and love to God expressed from our lips daily and on every occasion we get to give it?  Or, are we afraid that we will appear “undignified” and be “humiliated” because we appear so radically in love with the God who forgave us and blessed us with his salvation?

If worship is the love language of the worshipper, do others know that we are in love with our Redeemer, the Lover of our soul, and the ‘fairest of ten thousand?’  It might be time to let the secret out and let others know.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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