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Posts Tagged ‘saints’

Human Saints

I am continually amazed at how human characters in the Bible are portrayed. One would think that if you were going to write a “holy book” espousing the virtues of a god that all your main characters in that book would be stellar examples of faith and righteousness.  What we have in the Bible, instead, is a parade of characters who are fallible, unstable, unreliable and often very poor examples for others to follow.

From Sunday School to the preacher’s pulpit, however, we usually ‘cherry pick’ the positive stories of Scripture. We like to highlight all the successes in the “good” characters of the Bible.  We then juxtapose them against the failures of the evil characters.  I have come to think that this not only does a disservice to the Bible and its message but also to its followers.  The stories of all the individuals are a mixed bag of failures and successes.  All of them are complex human beings placed in complicated life situations.  In some situations, they handle themselves well; in others, not so much.

Growing up on Sunday School lessons, David in the Old Testament was always portrayed as a hero and someone to emulate. However, a careful examination of his life as an adult reveals that even though he is called “a man after God’s heart,” he is a deeply flawed individual who on more than one occasion failed God, his family and his Kingdom.  The legacy left by him through his children and grandchildren is dismal.  By today’s standards he would be an absentee father and a failure as a parent.

In the New Testament, many of the disciples of Christ failed to get his message or understand his mission. Peter’s leadership in the early church was marked by duplicity and was called out by Paul.  Paul was known for his anger and early on alienated a young protégé and close friend in ministry.  Most of the first churches were marked with strife and doctrinal errors; so much so that all the New Testament letters contain some kind of correction if not out right rebuke.

Few Biblical characters get away with a spotless image aside from Jesus, the son of God. And perhaps that is just the point.  No one is perfect:  not any one.  Only one came to live on earth who could do so perfectly before God and man.  That person was Jesus the Messiah.

So, rather than holding up paragons of perfection, the wise author of the Bible through divinely inspiring human writers went ahead and told stories that reveal the best of human qualities along side the worst. This should encourage us all, I think.  It reveals that God knows human nature and is not afraid of dealing with its messiness.  It gives us hope that if God can work in and through the lives of such imperfect humans then perhaps he can do so in our lives too.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Instead of examining the Bible for perfect characters to model, perhaps we should be looking for imperfect human models who inspire us to believe that God is able to work in the world and in us despite our worst qualities. I think this approach is more healthy.  It gives a much greater image of God grace, mercy and goodness.  It also magnifies the work and power of God in us.  Instead of our message being about us and how we can make God look good and help him, our message simply becomes about how great God is despite us.  God gets all the glory because we cannot add anything to him or his story.

God must be pretty secure in himself to allow the written testament of his acts throughout history to include some of the biggest failures named as his followers. Most any other book of heroes would edit out those kinds of stories.  Yet, here record for us all to read and study is a raw history of human successes and failure despite God’s best efforts.  It shows us that he did design the crown of his creation to be mere puppets or robots but agents with a free will to make their own choices.  The fact that God continues to work amidst all this mess reveals the depth of love and care for his creation.  It means that, in the end, we are all saints in his eyes – very human saints.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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

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

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

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, J.r (2010)

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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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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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Lincoln City by Mo's Restaurant

River at Lincoln City, Or. © Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr (2009)

One of the advantages of being unemployed is the freedom to make room for spontaneity.  Each day is a new adventure with untold possibilities.  Today I received an invitation to meet a good friend at the local Barnes and Noble for beverage, walk, and talk.  Since it had been a while since we met last, we used the opportunity to catch up on personal and family events.  He, too, is unemployed but just finished working on a book he hopes to get published.

As always happens between us, the conversation quickly turned to talking about God, Scripture, and daily living out our faith.  Like me, he is also on a faith journey.  In other words, we are both attempting to discern what our life’s purposes are and how to fulfill the sense of mission we both hold.  We choose to believe that there is a larger story that we are a part of and that our small part of that story is important.

That belief is a part of our faith.  However, faith is much more than just a belief one holds to intellectually.  It is more than just a well known Scripture verse.  Many people have a belief system that includes God, Jesus and the Bible.  However, very few of those same people have faith.  This is because faith requires an active trust.

A great example of this is in Hebrews, chapter 11, of the Bible.  “Faith is the evidence of things hoped for” we are told there.  Recently, the Bible study teacher at the church I attend recalled what someone had once told him:  “Faith is the evidence that the things we cannot see are real.  Also, fear is the evidence that the things we cannot see are real.  The difference is what or who we trust.”

In what some have called “the hall of faith”, a list of people is held up as examples for us.  These individuals had faith.  However, it doesn’t tell us what they believed but what they did.  In other words, faith is a verb.  After every introduction of “by faith” there immediately follows an action – they went, spoke, saw, did, acted, etc.

In this sense, my friend and I are in a long line of saints who actively trust God to fulfill his promises.  It is not just a creed or statement of faith to us.  It is much more than a memorized and oft quoted Scripture verse.  We do not merely tick off a list of things of what we believe about God and his word.  We bet our lives upon it.  So, “by faith” Oran wrote a book.  And, “by faith” Ron looked for a job.  We believe, therefore we act.  That’s Hebrews 11 continued.

© Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (2009)

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