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Posts Tagged ‘Repentance’

Relationship Scarring

It is impossible to go through life without ending up with scars from relationships. The fact that we wound at all is a testament to our humanity.  The fact that we are often as much the deliverers of scars as the receivers of scars speaks loudly to our own brokenness.  Children are scarred by parents.  Siblings grow up leaving scars upon one another.  Co-workers and bosses leave wounds that can range from minor paper-cut like ones to major open, seeping wounds.

Not all scarring from relational squabbles is the same. Minor ones leave their mark as do major ones.   All of them leave a lasting memory and reminder of a battle won or lost.  It seems that the closer the relationships, the deeper and longer lasting the wound and subsequent scar left behind.  Likewise, everyone deals with their relationship wounds in different ways.  Some people are more resilient and successful than others; while the others languish under memories and unforgiveness.

It may come across as naive, but it seems that people expect fellow Christians to never leave a wound or scar upon others, particularly other believers. So, when this does occur, the surprise and hurt go deep.  There is an expectation that “christians” will somehow exhibit a perfected humanity that is devoid of any ability to wound or scar with words, actions or attitudes.  This is far from the case.

The other day I was listening to a fellow believer share the story of their spiritual journey. Raised in a religiously strict, legalistic home, this person was not able to do anything “worldly;” which included among other things going to movies, playing billiards, bowling, attending dances or associating with anyone who did such things.  When this individual finally left home, they discovered a whole different world of Christian beliefs and practices.  It caused them quite a personal identification crisis.

The biggest problem for this individual, however, was not with the particular Christian expression with which they grew up. Instead, it was the readily apparent hypocrisy that was witnessed among parents, established church members and church leadership.  They could spout the doctrines of the faith, display a modicum of religious behavior and then turn right around and speak evil of one another, attack leadership and hold others in disdain.  Spiritual knowledge was greater than the spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Once liberated from their past, the person who shared their story with me expressed the joy of being able to work with other Christians. Seeing how others worshipped and practiced their faith gave a new perspective.  Unfortunately, the story shared with me included many places in the journey where terrible wounds were left by those in church leadership positions.  I felt the pain expressed.  I sensed the hurt and frustration over those that anyone would expect better behavior from in spiritual leadership.  I also knew that any such expectations were wholly unrealistic.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

We are a people of clay feet who follow the leadership of individuals with clay feet. We are a community of broken and wounded sheep who follow broken and wounded leaders.  This is all the more reason that love, acceptance and forgiveness should be the hallmarks of such communities.  Too often these qualities are absent in order to protect the appearance of spiritual perfection.  In the presence of such spiritual “perfection,” one is deemed an authority and a leader, regardless of true inward character.

Too often, what happens behind the closed doors of church offices between staff or at the board meetings or membership meetings of the congregation becomes the place where wounds are given and received. Instead of being the sanctuaries they are touted to be, they become torture chambers of spiritual abuse.  I have personal experiences with those meetings.  Unfortunately, I also have too many friends who have either left ministry or left church altogether because of the stinging scars they still nurse.

The ironic answer to all this lies within the very thing that causes us to hand out scars to others like Boy Scout or Girl Scout badges. It lies in our brokenness.  It is our brokenness within ourselves, towards others and towards God that fails us and causes us to fail others.  Like broken pottery, the shards of our life lie hidden until someone steps upon them or touches them.  Then we leave a wound.

At the same time, our brokenness holds the answer for all of us. Instead of attempting to hold up perfected lives before others to see and applaud, we would be better off acknowledging our broken places.  Instead of playing to our strengths to lord it over others, we would do better to lead and influence from our own woundedness.  Instead of attempting to portray a community of victors and overcomers who have no problems, we would serve ourselves and others better by admitting that we are a community of confessors and repenters.

I am not advocating for a fellowship of moaners and complainers who go around with sullen faces.  I am not suggesting that defeatism and spiritual poverty become the Christian model for spirituality. We have already been down that road before with the Puritans, Quakers and Pietists.  What I am suggesting is a spiritual formation and communal journey that includes a spiritual “sunshine policy.”  A “sunshine policy” is one that allows light upon a situation so that everyone knows what is going on.  It demands honesty, integrity, truthfulness, accountability, and openness.

This approach, of course, offers no guarantee against relationship scarring even among Christians. However, it does offer a more transparent way of healing our self-inflicted wounds upon the body of Christ.  This is much better than just moving from church to church or getting rid of staff for unexplainable reasons.  In this I readily acknowledge that because I am in community with and being led by broken individuals, I cannot expect to never be wounded.  Nor can I expect that I will never deliver a wound because I, too, am broken.  As such, I do understand that continuing in this community will require me to extend love, grace and mercy to others, just as they extend it towards me.

We are not called to lives of perfection on this side of eternity. We do not have the right to expect to come through this life unscarred and unwounded.  God in Christ Jesus gave us the model for dealing with sin and forgiveness.  Only through love, grace and mercy can the relationship scars we receive and deliver become the marks of true spiritual community.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Easter celebration will soon be upon us.  I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday or Resurrection Celebration.  Whatever you prefer to call it, it is a time to commemorate Passover.  This is the most important holiday for Christians and religious Jews.  What God instituted in these two events changed the course of history forever.

Passover remembers Israel’s physical redemption from slavery in Egypt.  The Passover meal is full of wonderful symbolism.  The house is purged of all leaven.  Leaven, which is natural born yeast, is a symbol of sin.  It is everywhere.  Therefore, a careful and thorough cleaning of the house takes place.  Then, special candles and dinnerware used only for Passover is set on a table.

Ceremonial food is used as sensory aids to tell the story of God delivering Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt.  Egypt symbolizes humankind’s bondage and slavery to Satan’s work and sin.  Each prayer and song during the Passover celebration has a special message in the story.  It is a holy night.

God commanded that three main Passover symbols be used in the ceremony.  He called for a sacrificial lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.  Each has its own unique significance in retelling the story of God’s salvation of Israel from slavery.

Since there is no Temple to offer the sacrificial lamb, chicken is now used.  Because of this substitution, the Passover ceremony presently centers around the unleavened bread, called matzo.  It is usually displayed in three pieces in an ornate bag on the Passover table.

The middle matzo is taken out of the bag, broken in two, and then one of the broken pieces is put back in the bag and hidden, or buried, under a cushion.  It is brought out from being buried or hidden and distributed at the end of the meal.  Often this is accompanied by any children present looking for the hidden matzo piece; a practice that may have later led to the “Easter Egg Hunt.”

The matzo is a cracker-like wafer is about seven inches square and is made without yeast or salt.  It is also striped and perforated with tiny holes.

Why such a bland bread at such an important meal?  It is to remember when Israel fled Egypt so fast that they did not have time to bake regular bread.  Simple water and flour was used for bread in the dramatic escape from Egypt.  The matzo, then, serves as a powerful reminder of God’s delivering power to those in the Jewish faith.

Indian Heaven Wilderness Trail, Fall 2001

Indian Heaven Wilderness Trail, Fall 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The importance of the Passover matzo bread is even more meaningful to Christians.  At the Passover meal, Jesus the Messiah took the matzo, broke it, and then proclaimed, “This is my body which is broken for you.”  It is a powerful reminder to Christians of the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s foretelling of the coming Suffering Servant and Messiah.

The Passover bread is untainted by leaven, the biblical picture of sin.  The Messiah, too, had no sin in his life.  Matzo is also striped and pierced; a picture of the suffering Messiah who was striped with Roman lashes and pierced in his hands and feet by nails, and in his side by a spear.

During a similar Passover celebration, just like the one coming up soon, Jesus one time proclaimed, “I am the bread of life; the one that comes to me will never hunger” (John 6:35).  For the Christian, Jesus fulfills all the meaning of the Passover bread.  God through his son Jesus the Messiah, delivers us from bondage to sin.

For the Christian, the three wafers symbolize the three persons of the Triune Godhead – the Trinity.  Jesus, the middle person, was taken from his special place in heaven, revealed to us, broken for our deliverance, buried, raised to new life, and was taken up to heaven, returning to his rightful place, and he will one day return and reveal himself again to set up his kingdom.

Bread is the universal food of the world.  Jesus the Messiah is the bread, spiritual food, we need to have spiritual life.  He said, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.  For the bread of God is the one who comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

This Passover and Resurrection Celebration let us break bread together.  Take time to purge your house and life through repentance and the forgiveness offered through the sacrifice of the Suffering Messiah and Servant of God, Jesus.  Remember the former life you once lived.  Give thanks to God for his deliverance through his son, Jesus.  And, with all your heart, seek the One who was dead but is now alive and sitting at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

©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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