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Posts Tagged ‘salvation’

I have long had a love affair with all things Greek: Greek cuisine, modern and ancient history, the ancient Koine language, mythology, as well as its ancient philosophers, playwrights, and important figures to European development.  I find these ancient connections with the development of modern thought in philosophy, politics, arts, and sciences fascinating.  It is a part of the world that holds a unique place in the development of Western civilization.

However, it has been some time since I delved into much of anything dealing with these subjects. My eclectic interests of late have taken me into 18th and 19th century American and European history.  This period, of course, has direct ties with and influences from the ancient Greek civilization.  I find it all fascinating.  Little did I know that this fascination would come into play with my dealings with a troubled young man recently.

For anonymity sake, we will call this young man Stephen. I had just recently taken a part-time administrative position at the church we attend (Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington).  I was posting some things on the bulletin board near our main entrance when this young man walked in with one of our church members, Bill.

Bill and Stephen walked up to me and Bill said to Stephen, “Hey!  Here’s is someone you can talk to.  He used to be a pastor.”

Turning toward me, Bill introduced his new companion, “Ron, this is Stephen.  I just met him on my way in and he really needs someone to talk to, do you have time to talk to him?  I’m in charge of Celebrate Recovery and we’re just about ready to get started.”

Bill turned back to Stephen, “If you want, after talking to Ron, why don’t you join us in the Fellowship Hall right around the corner over there?  We have dinner together and you are welcome to come eat with us.”  Bill pointed to a hall off the entry way they had just passed.

Stephen, looking down at the floor, timidly replied, “We’ll see.  Maybe.”

As Bill turned to leave us, I held out my hand to Stephen and said, “Hi, Stephen.  I’m Ron.  How can I help you?

Stephen, with his eyes not leaving the floor, replied, “I just need someone to talk to.  Is there some place private we can go to talk?

My office is not a private one. It is a center of activity.  My mind quickly turned to one of the many rooms located on an upper floor of our building.  “Sure.  Let’s go upstairs.  There’s bound to be a quiet room up there we can find.”

As I led our way up the stairwell just around the corner from us, I tried to make Stephen feel at ease with some small talk.Bill is a great guy.  The ministry he helps lead, Celebrate Recovery, is wonderful.  They start out with a meal together.  If you’re hungry and want to discover some new friends, I would highly recommend going.  You’ll find a lot of good people there.  We are all recovering from something and that is a good place to deal with whatever it may be.”

I entered the first empty room and turned on the light. Then I stepped aside as Stephen entered the room.  I gently swung the door shut but left it partially open in case of an emergency.  It was already apparent to me that Stephen was really struggling with something.  We seemed weighted down by the world.  The air in the room grew heavy.

As we each found a seat, I started by asking, “So, Stephen, how can I help you?  What do you want to talk with me about?

Stephen hesitated.I just came here because I needed someone to talk to.  I don’t know the difference between a pastor or a priest.  I haven’t been to church since I was really little.”

He let his words fall to the floor and became quiet. I waited.  After a few moments, he continued, “I really don’t know where to begin.”  He paused.  Then blurted out, “I guess I just need to say it.  What do you think about suicide?

I thought to myself, “Wow.  What a way to start work back at a church!”  However, I kept my composure and remained calm and reassuring.  I did not know at what stage of threat Stephen was to himself or if he was even referring to himself.  So, I probed with a question to get Stephen to talk and be more specific about what he was thinking and feeling.

I answered, “I’m not sure I understand.  Do you mean, what do I personally think about suicide?  Or, are you wondering what God thinks about suicide?

Then, trying to lighten the approach to a very heavy subject, I said, “As for myself, personally, I think death in any form sucks…except, perhaps, in my very old age in my sleep.”

Stephen cracked a small smile.I guess I’m wondering what God thinks,” he replied.

Well, without going into a long and boring theological explanation,” I began, “the Bible paints a picture of what God had in mind for humanity from the very beginning.  It is pictured in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.  Humankind lived in perfect harmony with God, nature and one another.  However, humankind’s rebellion brought not only separation from God but also division and conflict with one another and even with nature.  One of the outcomes of this is also division and conflict with our own self.”

I paused and asked, “Do you kind of understand that picture?

Stephen nodded.

I continued, “Jesus was sent by God to reveal to us what God had in mind for us.  Not only that, but Jesus made it possible that we could be healed and restored in our relationship with God, one another, and even with ourselves.  In fact, Jesus promises a restoration of that perfect harmony one day.  Until then, life is a spiritual battle of restoring God’s order as he intended it from the beginning.”

I paused for a second to see if Stephen was tracking. He seemed deeply interested in what I had to say.  So I went on.

Stephen, I believe that many who attempt suicide do so out of the desperation of their brokenness.  It is not what God wants for any of us and it grieves His heart when we destroy what he created.  At the same time, I have to recognize that every individual is unique and the reasons that lead someone to such desperate action cannot be judged by any human.  So, God will deal with each individual out of His own mercy and love for them.  If you’re wondering if I believe that a person is automatically destined to hell because they commit suicide, I would say, ‘No.’  Only God is judge and only he knows what is going on in a person’s heart and mind at that point.”

I turned toward Stephen and asked, “Many times thoughts of suicide are driven by a sense of great loss.  Have you experienced a great loss or sense of loss lately that makes you feel like life is hopeless and purposeless?

Stephen thought for a moment and then said, “No.  Not really.”

Then what do you think makes you feel like life is so pointless?” I asked.

Stephen grew quiet. I could tell he was pondering what to say.

Finally, the words spilled out, “I guess pretty much my whole life.  My parents ruined themselves financially and so I am not able to go to college even though I and my sisters did really well in High School.  My sisters and I don’t have anything to do with our parents.  Their lives are all screwed up and we’ve realized that we grew up in a really messed up family.  So we are all angry at our parents.”

How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.

Nineteen,” he answered.

Well, there is still plenty of time to go to school and there are lots of creative ways to pay your way through school,” I offered.

Yeah, well, there is something more.”  Stephen grew solemn again as he gathered his thoughts.  “I did something really awful to someone,” he finally said.

What was it that you did?  Did you physically hurt someone?  Did you steal from them?  What was so awful?” I asked.

It was nothing illegal.  But it was something really bad.  I had this friend that I worked with and did something really bad to him.  You see, he was the manager of the store and we got to be really good friends.  We did a lot of stuff together outside of work.  I thought we were having a great time but then he started to grow really distant.  Pretty soon he didn’t want to spend any time with me.  He was pretty much the only friend I had…have had.”

Stephen fell silent for a moment and I could see tears in his eyes.I don’t know what I did to make him angry.  But he would not talk to me or anything.  I would call and he would not answer.  I left messages but he never called back.  So, I thought the only way to get his attention was to make him think that I was dead.  So, I had my sister call him and tell him that I had committed suicide because I was so sad.

Stephen looked at me to see if I would react to this news. I calmly replied, “Go on.  What happened next?

Well, my friend became really upset because he thought that he had caused me to kill myself.  Then, when I finally let him know that I was really alive and had not killed myself, he grew even more angry.  Now, it’s worse than our relationship was before and now I’m thinking that it would have been better to actually have done it.  I’ve screwed up my life.”

 

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I let a moment go by before responding.Stephen, when we began I asked you if you had experienced any losses in your life.  At that time you told me that you did not think so.  However, listening to your story, I am hearing you tell me of three very great significant losses in your life.  All of these have happened very recently:  First, you are grieving the loss of your family and the relationship you thought you had or wish you had with your parents.  Second, you are grieving the loss of a dream; a dream to go to school.  Third, you are grieving the death of a relationship with a very close friend.  Stephen, that is a great amount of loss for anyone to have to deal with in their life let alone someone as young as you.  It is no wonder to me, then, that you feel life is pointless, hopeless and purposeless.  Do you understand what I am saying and do you think what I am saying is hitting home?

Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.

You are only 19 years old.  I’m 49.  I can tell you that there is a lot of life yet ahead of you.  Life is rough and tough.  No one comes out unbroken.  In fact, the reason why I am in a faith community is because I believe that broken lives can be mended and put back together again with God’s help.  I believe Jesus not only shows us the way but also provides the way to become whole again.  Our whole church is full of broken people.  We are all at different places along the road to recovery.  You cannot get through life without experiencing brokenness.  That is what you are experiencing.”

Stephen, I cannot offer you any quick-fix formulas, but I can tell you that you are just beginning to write your own life story.  I believe that God wants to be a part of writing the stories of our lives.  I don’t think your story is over yet.  It seems hard now, but this is not the end of the story.  It might be one of your darkest chapters, but it is not the final chapter.  I want to encourage you to consider allowing God to be a part of your life so that he can help put the broken pieces your life back together.  He has a different story to write than the one you may be thinking of right now.”

What do you think about what I’ve said so far?”  I wanted to offer Stephen a chance to respond.

People have been telling me that maybe I need to consider religion,” Stephen began.  “Some of my friends say that it would help me a lot.”

Well, if you mean by ‘religion’ a formulaic way of living your life within religious ritual, then I cannot help you there.  Personally, I have not found that satisfying.  However, I like to talk less in terms of the word religion and more about relationship.  It is all about having a relationship with God that heals the division and distance between us and God, us and others, and even us and our own selves.

I wanted to draw some kind of story or parallel that might capture his attention. It was at this point that my love for Greek invaded my consciousness.

Personally, I think that without God, life is like a Greek tragedy play by Euripides.  Humankind stands no chance against the chaos of life and capriciousness of its gods.  We are all doomed.  This would make life seem pointless.  How can we ever win?  Why keep going?  We are no better than Sisyphus trying to endlessly push the bolder up the mountain only to have it come crashing down on us again.  Is our only meaning to be found in the eternal struggle?  Is that all that is left of life is to get up again and start pushing the bolder back up the mountain?  I don’t think so.  I think that there is a better way.  For me, I have found it in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in community with other believers who are on the same journey.  We are all at different places on that journey, but we all see with hope the opportunity to be healed and made whole again.”

I knew that I had just unloaded a lot, so I wanted to take a moment to see if Stephen was tracking with me or if I had just lost him with all the Greek history and mythology.

What do you think about what I’ve said?” I offered.

You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” he replied.  “I need to take some time to consider it.  I appreciate your time and don’t want to keep you any longer.  You have really helped me.”

I’m glad that I was able to help,” I returned.  “I really want to encourage you to consider taking Bill up on his offer for dinner.  I think you’ll have a great opportunity to meet some new friends there.  Also, we have a counseling center here and I would also encourage you to seek further counseling and help with a professional.  Would you like me to help you with that?

Stephen smiled a weak smile, “No.  I’ll be alright.  I just needed someone to talk to and this really helped.  By the way, do you always teach Greek when you counsel people?

I chuckled, “No.  I’m sorry.  I have an odd education background and love pretty much all things Greek.  I got really caught up into it when I was in collegeI don’t usually try to bore people with Greek history or philosophy.”

That OK,” Stephen replied.  “You see, that is my favorite subject and it is the direction I wanted to go into for college and then graduate studies.  My dream is to one day teach Greek history and philosophy.  So, I loved your reference to Euripides and Sisyphus.  I’ve not heard many people refer to them before in a conversation.”

I was surprised.You know.  I don’t think you’re meeting me today and, out of all the people here at the church that you could have talked to you, that you talked with me was by accident.  You see, if God is actively writing my story, which I believe He is, then part of my story for today was a divine appointment with a young man named, Stephen.  Can I pray with you before you leave?

Sure.  I would like that,” Stephen replied.

The room seemed a little lighter when Stephen left. To be sure, his troubles had not vanished and there was still a rough course in front of him.  I think about him and pray for him each day since our encounter.  Stephen reminds me that our world is full of people who live completely or partially broken lives.  We are all in need of repair and renewal.  At the same time, even people on their own journey toward wholeness can be used to point out the path to healing for others who are searching.  And they may even engage Euripides to help do it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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People and Places

Recently, my parents celebrated fifty years of marriage. We gathered at the church where they attended before getting married and where my dad spent many of his growing up years.  In turn, it became our family church when I was a child.  Even after we moved away from Seattle, when we returned it was always to the same church family.

The church was originally called White Center Assembly of God, but in later years changed its name to Westwood Christian Assembly. It has seen a few pastors come and go – most of them stayed for a number of years with the present pastor approaching 20 years.  The surrounding community has changed with a largely Asian immigrant population.  Once familiar store fronts are now part of what appears to be a “little Asia” in West Seattle, Washington.

The church building has gone through upgrades and improvements, but the sanctuary looks much the same as it did when my wife, Kelly, and I got married in it in 1983. Thankfully, the color scheme is a lot better than it was back then.  The old brick building that was the original sanctuary and then Christian Education wing when the new sanctuary was built is long gone.  A newer Christian Education wing takes its place.  The old fellowship hall and fireside room looks much the same as it did in the 1980’s.

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

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

It is amazing how places can evoke such memories. I remember on more than one occasion I and my brothers got in trouble for playing tag on the edges of the elevated outdoor flower area and iron railing.  The old nursery is gone to make for a larger entry, but I can clearly remember its place and even smell.  I was the church janitor for a period of time and got to know the building quite well.

The sanctuary brought back to mind many experiences: my grandfather, Walter Almberg, ushering; my grandmother, Evelyn Almberg, playing piano or organ; the place where our family sat; later, the place where the teens all sat together; the place where I played trumpet with the rest of the thinly numbered “orchestra;” and the aisle and altar where we came down and stood during our wedding ceremony.  There are more deeply rooted spiritual memories, too.  I can point to the place at the altar where first dedicated my life the Jesus Christ in the 5th grade during a children’s crusade with Gene and Esther Fiddler.  Then, there was the place on the other side of the altar where I rededicated my life to the Lord as a rebellious teenager.  There is place where I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.  Behind the platform is the baptismal tank where I was baptized as a 6th grader.

Even more amazing is how much seeing people one has not seen in many, many years evokes its own set of memories. While elderly people filed in to congratulate my parents and talk to them, I also had the joy of revisiting many people who were once Sunday School teachers, Royal Ranger leaders, Vacation Bible School and Children’s Church leaders, as well as ushers and deacons in the church; even babysitters.  Some came alone as their spouses had passed away in recent years.  Some of us recognized each others, while some of us had to be prompted as to the connections by my mother or father.  We were all filled with joy and surprise to see one another again.

I am sure that not a few of them were surprised that us kids turned out half-way decent. We certainly gave more than one of them a test of their patience when we were children.  Afterward, my dad came up to me and asked, “So, what did you think?”  I could only respond, “It’s amazing what fifty years will do to people!”  And it is true.  We all grow older, that is for certain.

What is not for certain is knowing with certainty the outcome of all the time and energy we pour into people and places. I hope that I can stand as a human monument to all the people who poured their time, money, talents, and energies into providing a good building with a spiritual nurturing environment that helped me become who I am today.  More importantly, I hope that I can be a reminder to them that their efforts as regular people seeking to follow and serve Jesus in and through the body of Christ were worth every moment.  At least, for me, those people and that place means a lot.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is an old church hymn that begins its chorus with the words, “I love to tell the story.” Sharing the good news of God’s work through his son, Jesus the Messiah, is precisely just that – telling the story.  It is his story and he is still writing it in and through the lives of people delivered from spiritual bondage and lostness.  It is a simple story.  And, when an individual’s life becomes changed by that story, it becomes a very personal story.

Unfortunately, like so many other things we do surrounding God, we have made this story really complicated. We cannot simply tell it as it is given to us.  Now we must qualify it and explain it to suit our own understanding of God.  The simple story of God’s message of rescuing humankind through the work of his son, Jesus, gets really complicated with layers of theology and prescriptions for spirituality.  I’m certain that if Jesus were to sit in many of our churches today he would be dumbfounded and caused to ask, “Are you talking about me?”  It is so hard to tell sometimes.

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010

Flowering Tree in Portland, OR., May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently, a gentleman approached me about doing the “preaching” portion of a service in a retirement center. He wanted to assure me that everything would be taken care – music, songs, prayer and even communion.  All I had to do was show up and deliver a sermon.  “After all,” he qualified, “I’m not a pastor or clergy personI don’t mind doing the song service or communion, but I can’t preach.  I’m not qualified since I’m not a reverend.”

I was speechless. Standing before me was an elderly gentleman who had a passion for serving the retirement community around us.  His manner and speech told me he was well educated and very articulate.  He was a seasoned person of the church, probably had been going for 30 or 40 years.  I thought it odd that he had no problem serving the Lord’s Supper as a non-clergy person since in many denominations that is a service only a clergy person can perform.  So, obviously his spiritual background did not come from such a heritage.  However, not able to “preach;” that is, share the gospel, tell the good news that is in Christ Jesus, teach the way of the Lord?

Since when did telling the story of God require theological credentials? I am often reminded of the apostles who were unlearned men – uneducated.  Yet, the people of their time could tell that they had been with Jesus.  They became faithful witnesses of Jesus and his ways.  Telling the story was a very simple endeavor.  It focused upon the life, ministry, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus the Messiah.  It was supported with Old Testament examples of prophetic fulfillment.

Have we made our Gospel too complicated when the average person in our church does not feel qualified to share it with others? I am not addressing shyness or an ability for public speaking here.  I am only talking about telling the story of Jesus.  What have we done with the story of God’s message in his son when those who sit in our chairs and pews for years cannot tell others – or do not feel qualified to tell others?  What have we subtly communicated to them about telling this story when we have only professional clergy share it week after week?

I gently prodded the man standing before me.Why do you think it takes a pastor to preach?” I asked.  “You sound like an intelligent and articulate person.  You seem to know your Bible and it sounds to me like you have quite a number of years of experience in your spiritual journey.  Why don’t you share the gospel with them?”

The elderly gentleman blinked at me like I was speaking Old Testament Hebrew.  “Well, because I don’t have the credentials.  I would hate to say something wrong and teach something in error.”

I attempted to counter his sense of insecurity with a suggestion.  “Well, it is true that there are some parts of the Bible that are harder to understand than others.  And it is true that there are some theological issues that can boggle the sharpest minds.  However, the story of Jesus about the things he did as an example for us and the things he taught us are pretty straight forward.  What if you just concentrated on those things?  That’s what the Gospel is really all about any way, isn’t it?”

True,” he answered.  “I just feel inadequate…like someone more qualified should be preaching.”

I’ve preached for 25 years and still always feel inadequate, even with a Bible School and Seminary education,” I offered as an encouragement, which is very true about me.  I’ve never had a sermon or Bible lesson where I felt completely adequate for the job or occasion.  “Anyway, it is not the vessel that gets the glory.  It is what is poured out of the vessel that everyone remembers.  So, just focus on telling the story of Jesus and see what God will do by his Holy Spirit in the lives of the listeners.

At that, my elderly friend seemed relieved.  “I think I can do that,” he offered.

I can offer you some ideas and moral support, but I think you are up to the task.  You probably have for a long time.  You just need someone to push you on to the stage.”  I smiled and offered a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  I could see that he was mulling this new idea over.  There was no doubt in my mind that he would do just fine or actually quite well.

So, now I am waiting to hear how he did his first few times. I am sure that in telling the story his life was changed in the telling of it and his listeners lives were changed in hearing it.  That is, after all, the most basic reason why believers and seekers all gather week after week.  We love to tell and hear the story of God’s great love in a Savior who died for us and rose again.  From this recent experience of mine, it seems that each of us needs more work on simply telling the story.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Lighthouses From A Bygone Era

I enjoy visiting lighthouses.  Along the Oregon coast, there are a number of beautiful old lighthouses that vacationers and tourists can visit.  You can climb the stairs to the beacon chamber and look out over the ocean and down the beautiful beaches.  If you are lucky, you may have the opportunity to watch a pod of whales in the Pacific Ocean go up or down the coast, depending on the time of year.  Each lighthouse is different and used to serve a unique location on the coastline helping boats and ships navigate the rugged, rocky coast and mouths of rivers.

Did you notice the words “used to” in that last line?  They are almost all decommissioned now.  Instead, their only purpose is to preserve the past memories of a bygone era.  Times have changed and technology has made them obsolete.  Their structures and purposes were not able to make the transitions into modern times.  They serve only to a history.  So, visitors come, see and leave everyday.

Almberg kids at an Oregon lighthouse, Summer 2002

Almberg kids at an Oregon lighthouse, Summer 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I enjoy visiting churches.  Unfortunately, I have found many that have become just like those lighthouses.  Their only purpose has become to preserve past memories of a bygone era.  They did not change their methods and ministries with the times and so have become obsolete for fulfilling Christ’s commission of reaching lost people and making them his disciples.  Their ministry structures and purposes were not allowed to change to meet the demands of reaching their city or town.  They used to serve a unique place and help lost people find their way to Jesus.  At one time, they helped many people navigate the difficult courses of life.  Now, people mostly just come to see and leave.

The great challenge in today’s American churches is the challenge to keep ministries cutting edge and effective – but not to just entertain the sheep already in the Shepherd’s pen but to reach the lost sheep seeking a way back home.  We do not want to lose sight of our main mission, which is glorifying God by inviting people into his Kingdom and teaching them his new Kingdom ways.

The question for every church in their particular context is simply this:  “How do we remain relevant and alive so that our message of free salvation through Jesus Christ captures the hearts and attention of those we are trying to reach?”  This is especially true of reaching the younger generation of Americans.  Just 4% of today’s 15 – 25 year-olds in America today claim any affiliation with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the Christian faith.

The two components of the Kingdom of GodMessage and Mission – are the only tools with which we work.  The message is unchanging.  It is God reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ.  However, the question we must ask is, “Is our message clear?”  A basic truth of Communication 101 is this:  The communicator has not communicated until the receiver has received the message.

So, it is our responsibility and not those to whom we are trying to communicate to get our message across as clearly as possible.  There are some things we do or the way we speak that creates static in our communication and makes it difficult for others to hear.  Sometimes, those things completely interfere with our message and make it impossible for others to receive what we are saying.  How can we “clean up our signal” to avoid hindrances to our message, make it as clear as possible and provide the optimum opportunity for people to hear it?  If we avoid answer this question, we begin the descent into irrelevance.

This brings us to the other component:  Our mission.  There are any number of ways of stating it but it is simply this:  Bringing people to the person of Jesus by telling his story and sharing his love.  How we do that will be determined by our ministry context: those God has called us to reach and the town or city he has called us to serve.  Too often, we have confused methods with mission.  Thus, our methods become more sacred than the mission.

We fear changing our methods because, in our confusion, we think that they are the only way to fulfill our mission.  If we confuse these two things (mission and methods) or out of fear refuse to address their differences, then this is where the slide into obsolescence begins.  If this is allowed to happen, slowly the church slips into becoming a historical monument rather than a vision of the future of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Regular self-evaluation and a holy dissatisfaction with the religious status quo can keep a church relevant to its ministry context which is always changing.  Examining how well we clearly communicate our important message will ensure that we remain in the Kingdom business of redeeming a self-destructing world.  Measuring how well we are accomplishing our mission and whether our methods are in alignment with that common goal will help to guarantee that everything we do to invite and help people become followers of Jesus remains effective.  Otherwise, the threat is to be spiritually decommissioned (Rev. 2:5); an alternative that leads to becoming only a lighthouse of a bygone era.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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No Sacrifice For You

Those who know me real well know that I have a strange sense of humor.  My funny bone is often struck at the most inopportune times.  Most of the time I am able to keep it to myself and keep it together.  Sometimes I will share my humorous experience or insight later with friends.  Most of the time they remain private moments of hilarity.  I was bred to keep up appearances, retain proper decorum and affect a serious mode in most public settings and especially in religious ones.

Unfortunately, it is in some of the most serious religious settings that some of the funniest things happen.  After spending most of my life in church and half of it leading congregation, I have some of the funniest stories to tell.  Some serious religious types would shudder at some of them.  Some of the more irreligious types would fall over backwards with side-splitting laughter.  It is just the way the make up of the Church is arranged.  And, since the apostle Paul tells us that God arranged the members of his Church the way he wanted it, well, we can blame it on him.

Recently, our church was celebrating communion together.  This is something we do once a month in our church tradition.  It is a celebratory time.  Different members of the congregation serve the communion to the congregation by gathering at the front of the church and dividing into four serving stations.  The congregation arises at the direction of the ushers to go to the front of the church, if they choose, to receive the communion elements – a piece of bread and a small cup of grape juice.  There is even a “gluten free” station.

This is always a special time.  The congregation continues in prayer and worship.  Some are participating in the Lord’s Supper.  Some are watching the Supper being distributed to fellow congregants.  One gives a piece of bread and one receives it with the words, “This is Christ‘s body broken for you.”  Then one gives a small cup of juice and one receives it with the words, “This is Christ’s blood shed for you.”

All those who choose to may participate in the Lord’s Supper.  Whole families take part in it together.  There are also widows, widowers, singles, and a whole host of diverse people scattered among us.  Each humbly receives a token of the body of Christ and then receives a token of the blood of Christ.

This is an important event for every Christian.   Some celebrate it every week.  Some celebrate it only once a year.  We have lay-ministers who serve it to people in the hospitals and nursing homes.  It is a special and meaningful event.  It reminds us of the sacrifice Christ made for our sins so that we could receive forgiveness and be made righteous in God’s eyes so that we can have open fellowship with him.

Without that perfect sacrifice made by the sinless son of God, Jesus the Messiah, we would still be in our sins.  The fear of death, judgment after death, and separation from God forever would be our demise.  There would be no hope for this life or the one to come.  There would be no freedom from sin’s bondage, the fear of death or the afterlife nor the hope that there is life after this life.

Moss Covered Tree on Multnomah Creek Above Multnomah Falls, Spring 2010

Moss Covered Tree on Multnomah Creek Above Multnomah Falls, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This most recent time that our church was celebrating the Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist – an accident of sorts took place.  Those who were to replace empty communion cup trays with full ones were off cue.  Suddenly, there was a line that had no communion elements.  This is a crisis of unthinkable proportions!  You cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the bread and juice elements.  It is the whole point after all.

The team of individuals at this breadless, juiceless station looked a bit befuddled as to what to do.  They were frantically gazing about looking for the team that was to be bringing refilled trays of bread and juice.  The gentleman who was serving the juice, Allen, is known in our congregation as somewhat of an entrepreneur.  He and his wife, Dee, started Martha’s Cupboard several years ago and now it is a growing ministry concern that touches hundreds of people’s lives in the Tri-cities.

Allen is also known for his sense of humor; a bit strange like mine.  I smiled as I watched him and Dee attempt to sort out what to do.  Suddenly, he turned to the next person in line and with a big humorous grin on his face said, “I’m sorry.  There is no blood of Jesus for you. And it looks like we are out of his body, too.”  He repeated this as each person came up to him and his wife, Dee, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

At first, this drew a startled look from the congregants.  Then, they would see his humor and move to the next station that had the communion elements available.  Some chuckled.  Some looked worried.  Some moved on and others glanced back in what looked like a bit of consternation at such a rude awakening to the solemn occasion.  This all got me thinking:  I mean, what if Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the upper room was ill prepared and he had run out of bread and wine?  Of course, this had me in stitches.  I like Allen!

Thankfully, it was not too long before things were restored and Allen and Dee were able to serve the Lord’s Supper to congregants once again.  However, I still chuckle to myself when I think of that experience.  We humans want to be so right and prim and proper at these important solemn occasions.  We do not know how to handle ourselves when it all falls apart into apparent spontaneous hilarity.

We have a choice.  Attempt to cover it up and continue in our solemnity as if nothing happened.  Or, we can acknowledge our humanness and laugh at ourselves.  I think God joins us in the latter.  He is not as horrified as we are at our frailties and shortcomings.

As we enter into Holy Week, I am reminded of the importance of the sacrifice Jesus made for humanity.  What a tragedy that would truly be if there really were no sacrifice for you or me?  “I’m sorry.  There is no blood of Jesus for you. And it looks like we are out of his body, too.”  No way to recover from our rebellion against God.  No way to be healed of our self-destructive ways.  No promise of life beyond this life or a hope-filled life in this life.

The story of Jesus and his sufferings and crucifixion tells us that God out of his great love provided for us what we needed and could not provide for ourselves.  The greater story of his resurrection, which we will soon celebrate, tells us that God accomplished and will continue to accomplish all he set out to do.  Death, the grave and eternity are conquered for us.  He invites us to his table to break bread with him and drink with him and give thanks.  A sacrifice has been made for you – his body broken for you and his blood shed for you.  And it will never run out.  Guaranteed.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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What’s For Easter Dinner?

Something that has plagued me since…well, I cannot remember really…has to do with the American traditional Easter meal.  Why do we serve ham?  Virtually everyone I know serves an “Easter Ham” for dinner on this special occasion.  I find it a curious practice and tradition, especially among Christians.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish Passover.  It commemorates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  It reflects the same salvation story that Jewish people to this day tell concerning their deliverance from Egypt into the Promised Land.  Before Jesus’ crucifixion, on the same night that he was betrayed, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples.  It was also an eerie portent of what he was about to go through as the Paschal lamb of God for the sins of the world.

So, why ham?  Is it some kind of Gentile celebration set against the Jewish celebration?  Was it first established as a way for Gentiles to poke their thumb in the eye of Jews?  Think about it.  Of all the un-Jewish meats to serve near the Passover – ham?  Why ham?  Did it start out as a protest of sorts against a contrived Jewish conspiracy?  Was it meant as an overt insult to Jews and Muslims?  Does anyone else find this a fascinating query or is just me all alone out here?

The most often given explanation given to me when I’ve asked friends is that it is a tradition – pure and simple.  Suddenly, Gentiles sounds like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:  “Tradition!”  Well, how did that come about in the first place?  There is definitely no connections with the original celebration surrounding Easter and Passover.

A quick search of the history and origins of eating ham at Easter turns up some interesting suggestions that seem very plausible.  It seems that as Christianity developed and further divorced itself from its Jewish roots and heritage, it embraced the customs and traditions of the Gentile cultures it was introduced to in the middle ages.  This is true of most Christian holidays: Lent, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.

Can you say, “syncretism”? A dictionary definition of “syncretism” is, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice” or “ the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms.”  Missiologist often use this word in reference to places and cultures where Christianity has adopted non-Christian beliefs, values, and practices.  Could this be applied to what we eat at Easter?  I will let the theologians and missiologists wrestle with that question.

Sea Anemone, Barnacles, and Muscles, June 2003

Sea Anemone, Barnacles, and Muscles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my search for answers, two basic ideas come out of the reason ham became the meat of choice at Easter.  One was a practical consideration.  Traditionally, animals were slaughtered in the fall and preserved for winter use by smoking or salting.  When Spring arrived, marked by the vernal equinox, a celebration ensued and the last of the winter meat was eaten.  In eastern and northern Europe, the meat of choice was pork since the pig had been domesticated early in human history.  It was also the easiest meat to preserve for long periods of time.

The other reason has pagan spiritual reasons.  In Europe, the pig was considered a “good luck” symbol.  Eating pork in the spring was a way of celebrating getting through the long winter and the anticipation of another good year of harvests and abundant new livestock, especially pigs. Maybe it was just good luck to have anything left over from winter to eat in the spring.  I do not really know, but it seems likely given the harsh living conditions of European humans in the middle ages.

Of course, the pagan roots of the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, Egg hunts, and Easter candy have been argued for many, many years.  Its connection with the pagan goddess Oestre, Eastre, Ostara or Ishtar has already been pointed out. (Which is a reason I prefer to avoid calling the day “Easter Sunday” or “Easter” but “Resurrection Sunday” or “Resurrection Day”.)  However, I have never heard anyone mention any problem with the Easter Ham.  It is curious to me since it seems to be so forthrightly anti-Semitic.

It turns out, that most of the world celebrates Easter by eating lamb.  So, Americans and northern Europeans are in a minority.  Since America has heavy influential roots stemming back to northern Europe, this should not surprise us.  It seems we brought our pagan religious practices with us – properly syncretized to Christianity, of course.  So, how do you like your ham cooked?

©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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In Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, at the end of the movie Oskar Schindler is leaving behind the forced-labor camp and all of the Jewish laborers that he helped save from the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz.  The Jewish laborers give Schindler a simple expression of their gratitude.  At that moment, Oskar Schindler realizes an awful truth.  He realizes he could have done more to save more people.

Oskar Schindler recognizes what he did to save those standing before him, but he also agonizes that he did not do more to save more Jewish lives.  While he lived in luxury, innocent people suffered horrific deaths.  All the money squandered on himself could have bought more lives their freedom.  His fancy car in which he is about to leave was worth ten or twelve people.  His gold Nazi lapel pin was worth one or two.  Schindler cries, “I could have done more save more people!”

One of the most important aspects of Christ’s kingdom is the focus on redeeming humankind.  Everyone is redeemable.  God’s call to humanity to come and be a part of his great family and kingdom is why he sent Jesus.  Jesus came to call us to the heavenly Father.  Then he made a way for us through his death and resurrection.

No human being is worthless.  No human life is a castaway or a throwaway.  We are all valuable in God’s eyes.  No one is beyond God’s redeeming love.  As an old hymn so vividly paints it, “He makes the foulest clean.”  While all of us were still foul and far from God, he loved us and showed it by sending his son Jesus to pay the price to redeem us from sin, hell, and the devil.

While the cynics and nay-sayers of society cast about on life’s junk heap skeptically looking for something of redeeming value, God looks at humanity.  There he sees value.  There he sees hope.  There his love goes out and plucks us out of own our junk heap to redeem us for our full value as his creation, which he made in his own image.

Kelly's Slough, Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Fall 2006

Kelly's Slough, Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Fall 2006 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Now those of us who are redeemed and returned to full value through Jesus Christ are given the task of spreading the message of God’s redeeming love.  We are commissioned with the task of searching the highways and byways of life.  There we will find humanity’s forgotten castaways.  Those who feel left alone and worthless can be restored to full worth and value through a loving relationship with the heavenly Father.

This is a mission infinitely more valuable than discarded bottles and aluminum cans.  We are given the task of seeing human lives restored to their original intent and beauty.  Investing in the lives of other people – women, men, and children – is where true meaning and value is found in life.

It would be a calamity to get to life’s end and realize all that we wasted on short-lived selfish pleasure.  Let us not get to the end of our days to only grieve that we could have done more.  What a tragedy to suddenly realize too late that “I could have done more to save more people!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Church Mission and Kingdom Mission

One of the 20th century’s great missiologists, Ralph D. Winter, identified the struggle between “church mission” and “kingdom mission” in the American or Western Church.  I came across one of his articles in “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader” (4th Edition).  It captured my attention and provoked my thinking in regards to the local church and my experience as a church leader.

In the way Ralph D. Winter uses these terms, Kingdom Mission is the effort to approach and deal with broad social issues that effect society as a whole.  In other words, the mission is to change all of society, not just establish a church group focused upon personal sanctification and discipleship.  On the other hand, Church Mission is the work to establish discipleship methods that focus upon personal salvation and sanctification.

This struggle between what has been called in the past “the social gospel” and the “the salvation gospel” is nothing new.  It has been raging in the Western Church for more than 150 years!  Only recently has there been agreement that it is not an “either/or”” decision but a “both/and” one.  We need both the ministry to the body and ministry to the soul for the Gospel to be effective.  However, that discussion and resolution is still a difficult struggle at the local church level with limited resources.  Despite the high profile image before us of large mega-churches, the fact remains that the vast majority of churches in America and the West are churches of less than 100 people.

On more popular terms, the struggle is between being “outward focused” or “inward focused.”  Of course, almost all would agree that the local church needs both.  However, in practice it very rarely works out that way.  The vast majority of time and money is spent on Church Mission – ministering to and keeping those we have – and not Kingdom Mission – reaching out to and helping to transform the lives of those around us not yet among us.

As a church leader, I have always pushed congregations to “think outside its walls.”  This is harder than what it sounds.  The faithful hear the words but our church structures have conditioned them to do otherwise.  Almost every ministry of the church is inward focused on Church Mission and not outward focused at all on Kingdom Mission.  I have often tried to challenge a church’s leaders by telling them that, “Unless a local church can prove its value to its community, I believe it should pay taxes!”  So far, that has not been very motivating.

The culture of the church works against this type of effort from the top down when the majority of a pastor’s time is spent – and is expected to be spent – with parishioners instead of the least, last and lost of the community.  Pastoral time is consumed with administrative duties, particularly as the church grows, as well as keeping the sheep he has content and happy.

Heaven forbid he should miss visiting someone at home or in the hospital when he is needed because he is involved in a community outreach project or ministering to someone not a part of the church!  After all, what is he being paid for?  I have been told by someone that, “Since I pay my tithes, I consider the pastor to be my employee.”  That is definitely a Church Mission attitude, not a Kingdom Mission attitude.

Colin on the wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon, 2002

Colin on the wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, Oregon, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Each of the congregations I served attempted to do things that served the community with “no strings attached.”  I considered these more than just attempts at community public relations.  I considered them a vital part of building relationship with our community as well as meeting a need.  However, in every congregation, I have faced and answered to a skeptical deacon or church leader who wants to know after it was all over, “But pastor, how many people started attending our church as a result of our efforts?  How many visited our church?  How much did this send us in the ‘hole’ in our budget?  Did anyone get saved?

These types of questions are endemic to the attitudes of many congregants.  Who can blame them?  After all, they have limited time and limited finances.  They want the most “bang for their buck.”  Nevertheless, it misses an important part of the Church’s mission; the part where the Church is to be a change-agent for transforming the world around it.  There is not quick-and-easy plan to do that in any community.  It takes a commitment to what I call “being vocal and visible” in one’s world, which requires commitment and consistency.  It earns the right to be heard and to minister to people’s real needs.

As Ralph D. Winter warned,

The Lord’s Prayer…becomes too often ‘Our kingdom come’ as the Church is concerned with the personal and spiritual fulfillment of its individual members, its building plans, etc., not the solution of problems beyond its boundaries.”

The trap in our local churches is “keepin’ busy for Jesus” but not at things that lead to real change in our communities.  What if more local churches released their people to volunteer at the local food banks, homeless shelters, clothing banks, pregnancy centers, sexual and child abuse agencies, adoption agencies, community children’s services, local family services, jail and prison ministries, and free medical clinics?  What if the local church focused on after-school tutoring, divorce and grief care, and volunteering at local schools?  If you are a church leader and reading this makes you nervous and sweat, then you understand the cost of what Ralph D. Winter is proposing.

We have conditioned our Evangelical churches to become individual focused on personal salvation and discipleship.  Even our outreach efforts are  most often measured according to what is convenient and what seems like a credible effort in our own eyes.  We want to be able to personally measure the results with “butts, bucks, and buildings.”  We want to focus upon what our own talents and interests offer instead of the needs around us.

I am guilty of this as a church leader, despite my best efforts.  I have been sucked into the vortex of “keepin’ busy for Jesus.”  Ralph D. Winter’s article provoked my thinking and a good amount of self-reflection.  I believe he sets before every church leader and local church a clarion challenge that requires our focus and dedication if we wish to be obedient to the mission of God’s Kingdom.  Let me leave you with his words,

Our obedience is certainly flawed if focused only on what the world approves.  Our obligation is to seek the expansion of the knowledge of the glory of God and His Kingdom, and this would logically require us each to prayerfully seek God about doing the hardest thing we are able to do in the most crucial task we can find.  First John 3:8 says, ‘The Son of god appeadred for this purose, that He might destroy the works of the Devil.’  To follow Jesus is to go to war.  This side of the Millennium that’s what the Christian life is.  In a war what needs to be done comes first.  And a true sense of accomplishment is not that you did what you wanted to do, or what you thought you were best at, but what you felt convinced was most crucial, most important.  Doing good things is the biblical way to portray God’s character and glory only if we are willing to act without personal conditions.”  (“Three Mission Eras: And the Loss and Recovery of Kingdom Missions, 1800 – 2000” by Ralph D. Winter in “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader” 4th ed.)

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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