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Posts Tagged ‘Sin’

God Surprises 2 1/2

Where does it say in “the good book” that the Creator of the universe must continually prove himself to his creation? It doesn’t.  But yet he does.  I suppose that is a part of his sovereign choice; to continually reveal himself in and through his creation and also at various times in specific ways.

It seems to be part of human propensity to have the memory and attention span of a very average fruit-fly. We constantly forget to see God in his creative works all around us.  It takes us banging into something to cause us to sit up and take notice that our universe in its largest parts down to its smallest parts is fearfully and wonderfully made.  But then we go merrily on our way and soon forget again who made it all and who still holds it all together.

A constant refrain in Psalm 106 is that God’s creation “forgot” or “did not remember.” How like us!  It seems that part of The Fall’s curses was a short memory.  Psalm 106 recounts all the great and marvelous things God did for his people but then concludes each episode with “but they did not remember” or “they forgot.”  It seems that one of the purposes of remembering is to believe that what God did before in the past, he can do again.

I, at least, find my life constantly repeating the same mistakes of Israel:they forgot His works and His wonders which He had shown them” or “the day when he delivered them” (Psalm 78:11, 42).  At worst, the experiences laid out in the Bible become only ancient history lessons of what God had done at one time.  At best, my own experiences of God’s “works and wonders” in my life become distant memories of what God did that one time.

One cannot help reading Israel’s Old Testament history and want to yell at the pages of the Bible,C’mon guys!  Look at all that God has done already!  Why can’t you believe him?”  Of course, the arrogance in that is forgetting our own faith journey (or should it more appropriately be called “lack-of-faith journey”?).  It is a rare saint to whom God has not had to prove himself over and over again.  Like I said, I forget.  Forgetfulness tends to breed doubt and unbelief in me.

Fortunately, God is patient. Or, I prefer the old word long-suffering.  For, truly, he suffers a long time with us.  To our benefit and to God’s credit he does not forget.  He does not forget that earthly existences are mere breaths or mists in eternity.  He does not forget that we are as fragile as fruit-flies in a fruit bowl.  “God remembered that they were made of flesh and were like a wind that blows once and then dies down” (Psalm 78:39).

So it is that every new trouble is an opportunity to remember what God has done. Because what God has done before, he can do again.  At least, that is how it is supposed to work in theory.  More often than not, if you are like me, you have forgotten.  And you have forgotten to remember, recall and recount God’s many blessings.  So, if you are like me, I end up frustrated, angry and throwing a tantrum over my troubles.  Finally, exhausted, I turn to God for help.

Once again, fortunately, this is where God not being like me is really a good thing. As the psalmist reminds me, “When God saw the trouble they were in and heard their cries for help, He remembered his Covenant with them, and, immense with love, took them by the hand. He poured out his mercy on them…” (Psalm 106:44 – 46).  God remembers.  God is immense with love.  God is present.  God is abundant in mercy.  Boy, I sure wish I could remember that every time I’m in a place of need or trouble.

A few years after the last God surprise I shared in “God Surprise 2“, my family had relocated to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I was pastoring Valley Christian Center.  The house we were renting had to be sold and soon we were looking for a house to rent or to buy.  We wanted to be close to the church, which really limited our options.

Finally, we found a house to buy that we could afford with an unfinished basement. The previous occupants had done a lot of work to the house but left most of the basement unfinished.  They let their two young sons use it for a hockey rink.  You have to have lived in that part of the country to understand that idea.  It met most of our family’s needs and so we went ahead and purchased it.

The big problem was finishing the basement. We really need the room.  More importantly, a bare cement basement during a Grand Forks, North Dakota, winter is colder than most places in the lower 48 states.  And my wife absolutely hates being cold; more than she hates the devil.  Hell for her would not be a lake of fire but a frozen lake.  So, this posed two problems:  One was the money it would take to finish the basement.  Two was the “who” of who would fix it since I am no carpenter.  Nevertheless, my family moved into the house.

Late in Fall, I was visiting a plasma center to donate plasma and make a few extra dollars. I tried going once or twice a week.  The extra money paid for gas or for a few extra groceries in-between pay days.  During that time of the year leading up to the holidays, the plasma company held big drawings with prizes.  They hoped to get more people to come in more frequently to increase plasma donations.

Ever time a client went in and was screened, he or she was handed a little sheet or paper to enter the drawing. Those slips of paper were then added to a large wire drum about half the size of a 50-gallon barrel.  At first, it looked huge compared to the little pieces of paper.  Then, as the weeks went on, it looked too small as it began to fill up.  On top of this, this plasma center was one of five other centers that would have names entered into the drawing.

Now, I have never been a big one for drawings. Those that I have entered, I have never won anything.  I have plenty of friends who have had that fortune, but not me.  So, on this occasion I did not bother to fill out the slip of paper and enter my name in any drawing except when badgered by one of the screeners prepping me for a draw.  Only then did I reluctantly enter the drawing.  And, as the wire cage filled up, it only confirmed my suspicion of “what’s the use?”

On one visit to donate plasma, the cold air from the Canadian Arctic was settling into the Red River Valley of the North.  Snow was already blowing and the frosty air would take your breath away if you breathed too deeply.  I thought about the unfinished basement.  How in the world would I heat that to keep it comfortable?  My wife hates the thought of being cold more than the threat of catching the West Nile Virus.  What would we do?

As I entered the center, the young attendant screening the people that morning asked if I was entering the drawing.

“Naw,” I said nonchalantly.  “Look at all the names in there!  I never win anything from these things anyway.  I’ve put my name in only a half-dozen times at most.”

“Well,” she challenged, “you can’t win if you don’t enter.”

“Now you sound like a commercial for the state lottery!” I kidded.  We both laughed.

“This is the last day to get your name in,” she reminded me.  “What’s there to lose?”

“All right,” I relented.  “I’ll fill out the little slip of paper just to make you happy.”

“What if you won the Grand Prize?” she asked.  “What would you do with the money?”

The Grand Prize was $10,000.  That was beyond my ability to even think of winning that in the drawing.  I would set my sets a little lower on one of the dozens of Apple Nano-pods being offered in it.

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “I guess I would give some money to a hospital for handicapped children I just found out about in India on a recent trip there.  Then, I would finish my basement with the rest of it.”

“How unexciting!” she announced.  “No trip?  No party?  No buying something special?”

“No,” I answered back.  “In my book those would be pretty special enough.”  Leave it to a young college student phlebotomist to consider the average things in life unexciting.  Wait until she grows up and has a family, I thought to myself.  I smiled and moved on to the next station.

As I went back to one of the many beds to have my plasma drawn, I thought half to my self and to the Lord, “Lord, it sure would be great if I did win that $10,000.  What a great way to help with the children’s hospital and to also finish the basement in my house.  $10,000 is not big in your economy.  You’ve done that before for us.”

Soon, I was hooked up to a machine drawing out plasma and putting back in red blood. I started to read the stack of magazines I took with me each time I went.  I found the time to be a great way to catch up on reading.  A little over ninety minutes later I was on my way with a few more dollars in my pocket.

Sea Anemone, Port Townsend Marina, Washington, July 2010

Sea Anemone, Port Townsend Marina, Washington, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

After the beginning of the New Year, I returned to the plasma center. The place was full of University of North Dakota students back from winter breaks.  This was a popular place for university students to make a few extra dollars for school life.  After signing in, I went to the waiting room with the rest of them.  Soon one of the nurses approached me.

“Mr. Almberg?” she asked pensively.

“Yes?” I replied wondering what was up that a nurse was talking to me.

“Mr. Almberg.  We need to talk to you.  Do you have a few moments to come with me?”

“Sure,” I answered.  Inside I was thinking that my last plasma draw must have been off somehow.  If you have too low of iron or too high of something else, you have to take a break for a couple of weeks before you can come back in.  This had happened a couple of times before.  So, I was preparing myself for the usual dietary questions.

We entered a small room.  There were a couple of other phlebotomists there as well as the center’s director.  He sat down opposite me and said with a very serious face, “Mr. Almberg, we have something very serious to discuss with you.”

“Uh, oh.  What did I do now?” I responded trying to diffuse what appeared to be a serious situation with a non-serious response.  “Cholesterol too high again?”

“No, no,” he smiled.  “We’re just wondering what you’re going to do with $10,000?”

I stared blankly back at him.  I was sure that this was a joke.  One of my friends worked at the center and she was standing in the corner of the room with a Cheshire cat-like grin on her face.  I was suspicious.

“Who knows,” I smiled back trying to hide my nervousness for the punch line I knew must be coming up.  “I’ll let you know when I have $10,000.”

“Well, the reason we called you back here instead of telling you out in the waiting room is because you won the Grand Prize drawing of $10,000.”  His smile got bigger.

I looked at him.  I looked around the room.  I looked over at my friend and she was nodding her head like a bobble-head doll on the dash of a four-wheel drive truck gone mudding.  I was dumbfounded.

“You’re kidding me,” I spit out.

“Nope,” the director reassured me.  “Congratulations!  You’re our winner out of all the entries from all six centers!  It will be a few weeks before you get your check, but for right now we need you to fill out some paper work to get it processed.  Are you OK with that?”

“Good grief, yes!” I responded somewhat still befuddled.  Each of the people in the room came by to shake my hand and congratulate me.  My friend was last and said, “I’m so glad it was you who won it!”

“Unbelievable!” I responded.  “Who’d have ever thought!?”

After filling out the paperwork, I went back to one of the beds to do what I had come to do.  Give plasma and make a few extra dollars for gas and odd groceries.

As it turned out, I was able to donate $1,500 to the children’s hospital in India as well as finish the house’s basement with the help of a friend.  I paid him and he used the pay to launch his journey into full-time missions work with Royal Rangers International.

There is a frequently quoted “fact” that “Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.”  That may or may not be true.  I do not know.  What I do know is this: God’s blessings do.  What he has done before, he can do again.  We – that is I – just need to remember that important fact.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

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

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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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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It is so odd to parent teenagers. Their maniacal mood swings create for some incredible drama.  A parent can go from being the best dad/mom to the worst parent ever in milliseconds.  When I give permission for my daughter to do something she wants to do, I get hugs and smiles and a giggly girl excited about life.  However, if I decide that what she is asking permission to do is not permissible or that she must obediently follow-up on something I requested or required her to do, then I become an unthinking, ugly ogre who has no more sense than an aphid and my beautiful girl turns into an unrecognizably grouchy and surly carbon-based life form.

The parent of a teenager can exhibit all the brilliance of Einstein and still not be recognized for any measurable contribution to his/her child’s well-being the same said child. My teenage son can bounce into the room, ask for my opinion about something, presumably because of my 21 years of education and life experience, and then turn around and do just the opposite.  This, of course, leaves me completely dumbfounded, especially when I become blamed for the outcome in spite of the fact that my counsel was exactly opposite of his own chosen course of action.  It is still my fault in some sort of vicarious way.

It is amazing how a child’s perspectives about his/her parent can change on the flip of a dime. When they are going well, according to their desires and plans, the parent is all-loving, all-wise and full of beneficence.  When things are not going so well, then the same parent – in the twinkling of an eye – becomes the vicious judge of their world, the destroyer of happiness and the cause of all the world’s ills.  The jump between these two emotive universes can happen several times in the same day.  It is as if the child is a being who is able to live in parallel universes and able to jump between the two at will.  Or, perhaps, they really are two different children who keep swapping places with each other between their good/bad universes.  The problem for the parent is never knowing what child they will wake up to in the morning or which one they are addressing at the dinner table.

Ancient Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, July 2003

Ancient Mayan Architecture, Chichen Itza, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If all this sounds ridiculously twisted, imagine how God must feel toward his human creatures. We tend to treat him in much the same manner as hormonal teenagers.  When life is going well, God is good!  When life is going bad, God is distant, deaf and demanding our blood.  When it appears he answers our prayers the way we want them answered, then God is to be praised.  However, when it appears he has declined to hear our prayers or gives what appears to be a resounding “No!” to them, then he is to be neglected and ignored.

One of the outcomes of my disobedience toward God is not only how I view my self but also how I view God. It affects my perspective of him.  Sin twists my perspective of God to where he no longer is “Our heavenly Father” but my condemning judge.  My perspective changes from one that sees God as for me to God as opposed to me.  He becomes, instead of the giver of life, the destroyer of life.  My twisted perspective then affects how I look at worship, church, the Bible, Christian leaders and fellow Christians.  How I believe God sees me becomes tainted.

This twisted perspective happens on a larger group or national level too. When the economy is robust and our jobs are good, then God has definitely blessed America.  However, when a disaster strikes or the economy tanks and we lose our jobs, then God is accused of not really being loving, caring and all-powerful.  After all, thinking like hormonal teenagers, if God really loved us, cared and was all-powerful, then he would always side with us; he would always say “Yes!” to our requests; and life would have no disappointments or pain.

The duty of the mature adult parent is to be the emotionally stable one when surrounded by the unsteady tides of teenage angst. It does not serve any purpose when the one who is supposed to be the adult acts just as emotionally immature as the teenager.  Of course, for an exhausted and frustrated human parent, this is not always the way it works out.  Even we have our limits and the worst comes out of us.

Fortunately, God does not have such human limits. He is the perfect parent who loves and acts with consistency.  He is the heavenly Father who does not change his perspective towards us no matter how much ours might change towards him.  When we are unfaithful, he remains faithful.  Even when we are in the position of a prodigal child, he remains the loving father waiting and hoping for his child to return to his/her senses and return home.  His perspective of us remains true even when ours gets twisted by our rebellious, deceiving hearts.  He sees us clearly with eyes of love while we view his character and nature dimly through suspicious eyes.

The hope that every parent of a teenager has is that one day they will mature and “grow out of” their emotionally unstable ways. I wonder if our heavenly Father does not wish the same thing for us who call our selves his children.  I often chide my children with saying, “I can’t wait until you grow up and get old enough so I can get smart again.”  For, in almost every case, the child in later life will look back over the years and say to him/her self, “You know, my parents sure knew what they were talking about.”  This is every parent’s reward and justification.

Until that time, it will remain the duty of every parent of a teenager to be the unmovable rock in the changing tide. This stability will be seen as unreasonable, demanding and unjustified.  However, it is exactly what is needed at this time in a teenager’s life.  It is also exactly what we need from our heavenly Father:  stability in an ocean of changing values.  So, let us caution our selves when our vision of God becomes twisted by the fortunes or misfortunes of life.  Let us untwist our perspective into the right one:  God does not change; we do.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Our Divine Therapist Who Art In Heaven

It turns out that the secularization of America may unwittingly be the work of the Church itself.  Its abandonment of doctrine that comes with strong exegetical Biblical teaching and preaching has developed a religious population in American churches that know little if anything about the most basic tenets of the orthodox Christian faith.  This is the sad report given to us by the Barna Research Group in April 10, 2009, entitled “Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist.”

For several years now, the dominant religious “Christian” belief system in America has been identified as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.*  The fact of the matter is that it only on a very limited level can it be identified with orthodox Christian beliefs.  Nevertheless, it remains the predominant belief system of most American Christians, especially among its youth.  They cannot be faulted for this as one only needs to examine what has been taught in many American churches for the past 30 years.  The fault must lie at the feet of those responsible for the discipleship and education of their congregations.

The simplest way to break down what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes is that it asserts “God as Creator and Law Giver but largely uninvolved in daily life and presumes that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of religious beliefs.”  The authors identify a five-part “de-facto creed” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The authors of the book go on to say, “Moralistic Therapeutic Design is about inculcating a moralistic approach to lifeIt teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.  That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health and doing one’s best to be successful.”

As such, then, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera…It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems and getting along amiably with other people.”

In this system of belief God is present in life like a life-coach or therapist.  He is there to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others.  According to Bill White in his article, “Descent Into Darkness,” the belief statement that sums up this religion is: God helps those who help themselves.  “In fact, 75% of Americans are convinced that quote comes from the Bible.  It was actually Ben Franklin who said that, and he publicly acknowledged that he was a Deist.”

Why call it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Well, when one considers its central tenets as expressed above, it is very evident that it is moralistic because the primary teaching is to “be nice.”  And, it is therapeutic because, by focusing on pop psychology and self-help, the goal is to bring us comfort.  Finally, it is deism because the core belief is that there is a God who made the world, but he does n0t require much of us; he is generally nice but not too involved.

Some of the trouble lies in our attempts to make the Gospel “user friendly.” Most attempts only emasculate the Gospel so that it makes no demands.  Following Jesus is not supposed to be hard.  “The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding,” say Smith and Denton. “Actually, he can’t be because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.  In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”  (Chanon Ross addresses this issue in youth ministry in his article “Jesus Isn’t Cool: Challenging youth ministry.”)

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This insipid form of Christian belief has been adequately addressed by more brilliant people than me.  For instance, Lane Chaplin handles it very well in his blog.  He identifies this system of belief of classical Pelagianism, which teaches that man is basically good apart from God’s grace.  That is an oversimplification of Pelagianism but makes its point.  Gene Edward Veith of World Magazine has an excellent critique of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as well.  It is a part of the “Christless christianity” that Michael Horton fears is preached in most American pulpits today.  As Brian Kiley points out in his blog, Live Generously, no where do we hear the theology of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than at funerals, especially funerals of famous individuals like Michael Jackson.*

The remedy for this creeping spiritually destructive teaching, of course, is strong, exegetical teaching and preaching from the Bible.  A return to focusing upon the central doctrines of the Church in the education of our children and young people will help them develop a robust faith in God.  This does not demand dry, irrelevant teaching and preaching.  Application of beliefs to daily living is always important.

On the other hand, it may be just as easy to rework the Lord’s Pray a bit to accommodate our view of God:

Our Divine Therapist
Who art in heaven
Hallowed are our plans and convenience.
Thy goodness come,
Thy morality be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our peace and happiness.
Forgive us our mess-ups
And help us to overlook the mess-ups of others.
And lead us to become better people
By delivering us from our inner demons
For your distant watchfulness means our peace and contentment and joy forever.  Amen.

Now that God has been reduced to serving my need for comfort and convenience, I have a few things I need to let him know about that is really bugging me.  Where do I find his therapy couch?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

*CAUTION:  Here is one example where the Wikipedia information is mis-information.  First, it only identifies one of the authors in the study, Christian Smith.  The other author was Melinda Lundquist Denton.  Second, it has the wrong school!  It was not University of Notre Dame but instead University of North Carolina.  The study was a report to the National Study of Youth and Religion.  It was the basis for their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
*CAUTION:  Apparently Brian Kiley followed the Wikipedia article and provides the same misinformation.  Be careful of using Wikipedia!

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Bleeding on the Altar of Self-sacrifice

Humanity’s relationship with the divine has always been a miserable one.  In the Judeo-Christian system of belief, the fault is laid at the feet of the first couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  The shattering of an idyllic relationship with humankind’s Creator and surrounding creation was the result of their disobedience and rebellion.  Their offspring, right down to us who are alive today, still refers to that episode as “The Fall.”  A clear indication that something was lost.

Efforts by humanity to regain that privileged position with their Creator and with creation has resulted in a myriad of convoluted religious beliefs systems.  Of course, in the modern era, the idea that one can completely opt out of any and all religious belief systems is now an option.  Thus, atheism has become a religion and religious expression all its own.  However, for the majority of the world, some type of belief in a deity(ies) still exists.  It affects how life is conducted on every level of human existence.

One thing they seem to bear in common is some sort of system for sacrifice to appease their god(s) or spiritual beings (if they are animists).  There appears to be a human universal need to “pay for one’s sins” to gain approval from these divines.  A predominant idea throughout all religious systems is that reality involves more than just what can be seen.  There is a larger reality in the unseen world that affects what is going on in the seen world.

Where the Christian faith diverges from these other world religions is the view that a sacrifice is no longer needed (at least in the Protestant stream).  It begins with God’s revelation to the children of Israel, the Jews.  God, by his revelation through the ancient patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – then later Moses and then reaffirmed through the Prophets, set up a better sacrificial system.  More important, meaning and explanation accompanied the revelation for the sacrificial system that pointed to a time when sacrifices would no longer be needed.

The sacrifices of grains and animals really do not change the heart of humanity.  They only bear witness to the cost of our continued rebellion and disobedience to our Maker.  Thus, in God’s timing, He sent His son, Yeshua = Joshua/Jesus.  According to His divine plan, this God-man who lived a perfect life became a sacrifice for all of humanity and all of human sin.  Ironically, we killed him.

Our Jewish and Gentile fore-bearers unrighteously judged him, unjustly condemned him and then put him to death in a cruel fashion by crucifixion.  Nevertheless, because of the Son’s willing obedience to take all of humanity’s punishment, God raised him from the dead and restored him to his heavenly place of rule and authority.  A few hundred people testified to seeing him after dying and being buried.  We have their testimonies written down for us to digest, accept and believe or disbelieve.

One would think that this would be the end of the story – at least in the Christian realm.  But, no.  The story continues to unfold in human history.  There are many who reject the idea that one person, no matter how perfect, could die for another and that it would be enough to satisfy God’s demand for justice and judgment against human sin.  Still, there are many others who believe the story and accept the sacrifice of God’s son for their own sin.  They continually remind themselves of this by partaking in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Nevertheless, even among those who accept the story witnessed to by so many, believe upon it and choose to live their lives by it, there is a creeping attitude or idea that something more must be required.  So, Christians create their own altars for their own sacrifices hoping to add to what Christ already did upon the cross, in the grave and through the resurrection.  Even those who are children of the Protestant Reformation and think of themselves as holding to “evangelical” beliefs struggle with this issue.

This struggle is more particularly acute when Christians go through troubling times and hardships.  A whole “Christian” nation can take on this attitude in turbulent times.  We want to find a reason for our suffering – or bad turn of luck.  We too quickly turn back to a pagan view of God that determines we must have done something – sinned – to anger the deity and now he is poised against us.  So, we search for ways to satisfy the deity’s anger, appease it and regain its approval and blessing – or at least neutrality so as not to oppose us in our plans and desires for a peaceful and happy existence.

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010 Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I was reminded of this troubling trend in our Christian history when I came across how many responded to the Black Death Plague – also called the Bubonic Plague – in Europe during the middle ages.  I have just finished reading John Man‘s book, “Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words.  He highlights in one chapter the actions of “the flagellants.”

The popular idea then, much as it is now, is that the God of the Bible promised not only salvation in the next life but also constant support in this one.  However, in the face of the troubling Black Death (Bubonic Plague) epidemic He seemed impotent, if not hostile towards humanity through the disease.  The explanation?  God must be angry and was clearly out to punish all of Europe and the Church – either actively or by neglect and indifference.  So, God must be somehow mollified.  This took many forms, of course, but one of the radical forms were the crazed devotees who marched from city to city through Europe lashing themselves with iron-tipped whips while crying out for God’s mercy.  Fellow devotees would then follow them moaning and dabbing themselves with the blood of the flagellants.

Another radical form was to find blame in someone else and make them pay the price.  While today the Church likes to look outside itself and blame homosexuals, pornography, gambling, liquor, liberal politicians and other spiritual “enemies”, the Church then chose to blame the Jews.  Already labeled as Christ-torturers and child-murders, all across Germany the rumor spread that they were also “well-poisoners.”  Thus, one series of many Jewish persecutions took place all across Europe.

Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the churchyard in Strasbourg.  This was replicated in almost all of the cities along the Rhine river.  In Antwerp and Brussels, entire Jewish communities were slain.  In Erfurt, 3,000 perished as sacrifices for the cause of the Black Plague.  In Worms and Frankfurt, instead of facing the same fate, the Jews chose to go out in Masada-like fashion and committed mass suicide.  In Mainz, Germany, 100 were burned outside of St. Quentin’s Church on St. Bartholomew’s day.  All were ultimately sacrifices to attempt to appease “God’s” anger and restore deserved blessing and peace to Europe.

While reading about these sad episodes in human history, I could not help but think that we really have not come that far in the Christian faith.  There is still a propensity to want to “pay back” God for our sin.  When bad things happen, Christian too often look for a cause-and-effect.  We want an explanation; preferably an understandable one.  The fact remains that there often is not one.  God remains God and does not need to explain his actions or non-actions to us.  His goodness comes to those who deserve it and those who do not.  Likewise, bad things visit humanity indiscriminately – to good people and bad people.

Christians often think that their faith in God somehow gives them a “Club Membership” to a trouble-free life.  So, when disease, tragedy, disaster or unexpected death visit us, we think that our “Membership Dues” must not be paid up.  We think we must “sacrifice” something to get back in to the “Club” of God’s favor.  How wrong!

As a spiritual leader in churches, I have witnessed good Christian people go through all kinds of agony trying to find an explanation for why bad things happen to them.  Early on in my spiritual journey, I always thought that I owed them and explanation.  After all, I am the one who went to Bible School and Seminary.  I should have the answers, right?  What a relief to finally come to the conclusion that I do not.  And I do not have to have “the answer(s).”  The fact is that most of the time, there is no answer.

And perhaps that is just the point.  When God remains distant and in the shadows of human tragedy and suffering, it may be that He is there to witness our faith in action when it is needed most.  After all, no one really knows what they truly believe until they are put under the stress of a trial or spiritual test.  It is then that what we truly believe in our hearts – our souls – really comes out and is evident to us and all those around us.  It is then that we discover the real bankruptcy of our “faith” or when we realize how very vibrant and real our faith truly is for us.

At any rate, faith in what God accomplished through the Messiah should be sufficient for us.  There is nothing more that we can add to his sacrificial death or resurrection.  We cannot create another altar and offer our own sacrifices upon it.  There is no other altar, no other sacrifice and no other payment necessary to appease God’s wrath.  He only accepts his son, Jesus the Messiah.  No other.  Only those who come to him through what his son did are received by him.  There is no other way.

So, the next time you feel the tug to “offer a sacrifice” to please God, remember that He has already made one for you.  There is nothing more that you can offer.  There is no trophy, no price, no sacrifice anyone can offer to God where they will be able to say to Him, “Look what I have offered to you!  Are you not pleased with me?  Don’t you owe it to me to bless me and always keep me happy now?”  Such an approach is a bankrupt one.  It fails to recognize the cost of His son’s sacrifice and is an affront to Him.

If you are finding yourself bleeding on the altar of self-sacrifice because you thought you could earn God’s favor, it is time to get off of it and be set free.  No amount of guilt, hand-wringing, praying, fasting, giving, worrying, church attendance or any other spiritual flagellation will earn you any credits in His account book until you learn to accept and live in the forgiveness and grace freely given to you through Christ.  Like so many before me, I too have often “beat myself up” mentally and spiritually thinking that everything that went wrong was my fault and that I must have done something to displease God.  I have learned to recognize that as a subtle spiritual lie of the enemy of my soul, the devil.  He would have me do anything but accept and live freely in what Christ accomplished.

After all, self-sacrifice is just another form of self-worship.  Self-worship is what caused Satan’s downfall in the first place.  By attempting to make our own sacrifices and meet God on our terms, we are only attempting to do what Satan did before His fall from heaven.  Only God dictates the terms for the satisfaction of divine judgment and justice.  Otherwise, He would not be God.  So, He has provided the answer or solution.  He has already established the altar and received the sacrifice.  It is time for us to stop bleeding on the altar of our self-sacrifices and worship at the throne of grace and mercy.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Something that atheists cannot explain adequately is the presence of evil.  Their paradigm lacks an explanation for why good people suffer.  The materialistic determinism that guides most atheists’ belief system is an inadequate philosophical system when it comes to instructing us about the unexplainable, the mysterious or metaphysical. Our supposed evolutionary progress has not produced a more enlightened species; just the same bent toward evil only now loaded down with better technology.

Materialistic determinism in its most basic form says that reality is only what can be explained by our senses and measured according to mathematical and scientific theories.  On top of this, since we are bound by physical laws, our existence is predetermined and there is no use attempting to explain it, reason it or make meaning of it; especially with any sort of spiritual language.  There is no real hope for any kind of salvation per se.  Existence is a meaningless mix of biological material thrown in to a heartless universe established and maintained by a matrix of physical laws.

Unfortunately, the popular theology of many contemporary Christians is also inadequate in explain the presence of evil in the world.  It is often oversimplified or too personalized to be of any meaning to those who are really suffering.  Either everything evil is blamed on Satan and personal demons or it is denied all together and ignored.  Neither approach is healthy, helpful nor biblical.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The biblical story of human disobedience and rebellion in Genesis gives us the best framework for understanding the presence of evil and its effect upon humanity, creation and all the relationships between the two.  The Bible acknowledges the presence of evil as a product of humanity’s own fallen nature; that is fallen from what God originally intended.  It also acknowledges the genesis of evil in a particular being who has spread his deception, lies and rebellion throughout all of humanity.

However, unlike most world religions, the biblical view of good versus evil does not put God and Satan on equal terms.  God and Satan are not the universal ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ of existence.  In other words, no absolute dualism between God and Satan exists within Scripture.  This is made particularly clear in the story of the Messiah.  When God’s son comes to earth he confronts evil and its effects, each time winning the battle.  The ultimate battle is won when he defeats death and the grave itself by returning to life to rule and reign over his creation once again.  He is now crowned as the victor!

But wait.  Then why does sin and evil still exist in the world?  A helpful illustration of this may be found in one offered by Ken Blue, a contributor The Perspectives Reader:  Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.  I came across his article while taking the Perspectives course a short while ago.  I found it a helpful illustration.

There is a great example in our recent human history that illustrates for us how a war already won could continue to be fought.  During World War II, the allied invasion called “D-Day” saw hundreds of thousands of allied troops landing at Normandy beach.  Their purpose and the goal of that effort was to establish and secure a beachhead on the European mainland.  When this was successfully accomplished, military experts understood that ultimate victory was established for the allies.  Nevertheless, many more bloody battles, some of them very costly, would be fought before the celebration of final victory could be realized: “V-E Day” (Victory in Europe Day).

For the purposes of Ken Blue’s illustration, “D-Day” in God’s war with evil and against the Evil One occurred with the death and resurrection of Christ.  This assured his final victory.  However, there are still battles being waged until “V-E Day” when the celebration of ultimate victory will begin with the return of the conquering Messiah.

Until that time, it is up to his true followers to be engaged in undoing the work of evil and the Evil One.  Many of these battles will be costly.  In some places, blood will be shed.  However, it is the mission of the Church to take the war to the enemy’s soil, establish beachheads and continue the fight until there is ultimate victory – liberation for all the captives.  Our enemy knows that the war is lost.  However, the Evil One with all his devices and deceptions will fight to take as much of God’s creation with him as possible.

So, while there are two Kingdom’s at war, one is already declared the ultimate victor.  The other already knows its time will come to an end.  The mission of every follower of the Conquering King is to be engaged in the battle through pray and sacrifice until the day of celebration.  More than anyone, they should understand why evil is present in the world.  More than anyone, they should be engaged in the mission of doing something about it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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