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Posts Tagged ‘Spiritual Disciplines’

Some lessons in life can only be learned by personal experience. Others can tell you about them, teach you them, help you study to be prepared for them and even explain them.  However, the only way for a person to learn to ride a bike is to one day get on it and try to ride it.  The only way a person is going to learn to drive a car is actually get behind the wheel of one and take it around town.  Nothing prepares one for these lessons but personal experience.

Sometimes it is that way with our spiritual journeys too. There are some things about our relationship with the Creator that can only be learned by personal engagement and interaction.  We will never learn them vicariously through someone else’s experiences.  No Bible study or theological lesson can fully prepare us or help us appreciate certain aspects of the journey unless we experience them for ourselves.

One of the benefits of certain renewal movements within the Church has been an emphasis upon personal experience. While it should never trump Scriptural revelation, there is something certainly powerful about personal revelation into the nature and character of God.  After all, someone can go on all they want about the power and beauty of standing on a mountain peak.  But personally standing there and experiencing the exhilaration is something quite different all together.

Some of us have to trust the pictures, stories, and experiences shared by others. On the other hand, some of us get to experience it for ourselves.  We become a part of sharing the story.

I grew up with a Christian religious background that cherished personal experiences with God. It was one thing to have personal knowledge of God.  Our sect took, and continues to take in most circles, great pride in personal experiences.  So, it has been no surprise to me when God in certain seasons of my life has “showed up” in ways that surprised and delighted me.

In my early spiritual formation, I attended a Bible College in Kirkland, Washington, now called Northwest University, after High School. There I shaped and honed spiritual disciplines that still guide me today.  Aside from the general education courses and Bible or theology courses, the opportunity to discover my own spiritual stride for my journey greatly informed my future.

The Winter quarter of my freshman year, I learned from the College’s financial aide office that I would not be allowed to return for the Spring quarter because of my outstanding bills. I owed more than $1,200.  I would need to pay that balance before I could continue to attend.

At the time, I was working at an Exxon gas station in Totem Lake, Washington. The owners were two brothers who were really nice.  They were not Christians but nevertheless hired guys from the Bible College because we all were honest and had a good work ethic.  I appreciated the job, but it just was not enough to keep ahead of my school bills.  I was going to have to inform them that I would have to quit my job as well as school and return home to where my parents lived near Sea-Tac.

The school had given me notice at mid-quarter, so I figured I had a couple of weeks ‘to see what would happen.’ I am not sure what I was expecting would happen, but I have always tried to keep an optimistic outlook.  So, I continued classes determined that I would at least finish that quarter.  If worse came to worse, then I would find work from home and possibly come back for the Fall quarter.

In the mean time, I had started the practice of scheduling one of my class-time slots on my schedule for a time of prayer and reflection in the Men’s Dorm Prayer Chapel. I found it helped me keep a regular schedule for prayer.  I also found the quiet time in the Chapel refreshing.  So, during this time, I added my dilemma about school, paying my school bill and what to do about my job to my list of prayer needs.

As the quarter wound down, my prayer times grew a little more desperate. I may have been the uncertainty of my future, but I found myself praying more intense and intentional prayers.  After all, I needed direction.  I needed answers.  I needed help!

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It finally came to the point where I needed to do the right thing by my employers and give them my “two weeks notice.” This is a kindness of employees to employers that allows them time to find another employee to replace them and so not disrupt the work place.  I planned on giving notice on a Friday.  At the beginning of the week, on a Monday morning in the Men’s Dormitory Prayer Chapel, I offered God another chance to throw out a rope and rescue me.  Otherwise, I was determined to see it as a closed door.  I was even strongly considering not coming back to college.  I was second guessing everything.

I was perhaps exhausted from struggling with the whole situation in my mind. The stress of the unknown and uncertain weighed heavily down upon me like a 110 lb. sack of sand.  It was in this state that I dumped everything upon the prayer bench in the prayer chapel.  I had no answers, no direction, and seemingly no help.

After expending all my words and thoughts, I fell silent. The room echoed my silence back to me.  My head rested on the prayer bench as I sat upon the floor with my eyes closed tight.

There was nothing. Nothing came to mind.  No brilliant idea.  No flash of inspiration.

Suddenly, I heard a voice speak audibly, “You’ll be here next quarter.”

I opened my eyes started and looked around because I thought that I was alone.  There was no one in the room with me.  Yet, the voice was clear and unmistakable.  I blinked in the dimly lit room.

The words bounced around in my head:You’ll be here next quarter.”  With those words, an unexplained settledness sent upon me.  A certainty about my future filled my heart.  Someway, somehow, I knew without a shadow of any doubt that I would most definitely be at school next quarter.  I took the words only I heard and the feeling only I felt as a gift from God.

I got up and went to get ready for my next class. I had to go to my room to gather a couple of books.  When I entered my room, my roommate was there.  Do I tell him what I just experienced?

As if on cue he asked, “Hey, have you figured out what you’re going to do for next quarter?”

Shaken, I replied, “I’m not sure yet.  Why?”

He looked a little anxious, “Well, I may have another roommate lined up.  That’s all.  If you’re not going to be here that is.”

With as determined a look as I could give him I said emphatically, “I will be here next quarter.  You can count on it.”

You are?” he looked surprised.  “How do you know?”

God told me,” I said and turned and left the room.  I didn’t want to chance seeing him laugh at me.  We were at a Bible College to learn about God, after all, not actually believe God.

As the week continued, I held on to that experience in the Men’s Dorm Chapel. It became an anchor.  However, the question of what to do with my job at the Exxon station came to a conclusion that Friday.  Friday came and I still had no way to pay for school.  The settled assurance that I was still going to be in school next quarter had not left me.  I came to my own conclusion that however God provided for me to be there it was not going to be through the brothers who owned the Exxon gas station.

As soon as I got to the station that Friday afternoon, I called one of the brothers aside and explained my problem. I told him that I really appreciated the job and really like working there.  However, since I was not going to be able to continue at school, I was going to have to move back home with my parents.  Therefore, I would have to quit my job.  He still had two weeks before finals and I would have to move out.

Working with college students, I am certain that both of those brothers had heard the same story over and over before. He thanked me for letting him know.  He said he liked my work and was going to miss me.

He shook my hand and said, “I’ll let my brother know.  If you know anyone who wants a job, let them know to come and talk to us.”  And with that, we went our separate ways doing our own jobs at the station.

Later that day, he and his brother announced that they were going to catch dinner and would be back. They had a back-log of cars to work on and wanted to use part of the evening to catch up.  I busied myself with pumping gas for customers and repairing tires.  Soon they returned.

As I was walking through one of the bays, the brother I approached earlier in the day came up to me and handed out an envelope.

My brother and I were talking over dinner and decided we wanted to help you pay for college.  We’ve never done this,” he explained.  “But he and I just felt we needed to do this for you.”

I was dumbfounded.  “You guys don’t have to do that.  If I can’t pay back college, how am I going to pay you guys back?”

You don’t worry about that,” he said.  “Whatever you are able to pay, you pay back.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

I was humbled by their generosity.  “Thank you so much,” I offered.

Well,” he muttered half to himself as much as to me, “we do expect you to stick around and work with us.  And don’t tell the other guys.  We don’t want anyone to start thinking that we are a charity or college loan fund.”  He smiled and winked at me.

I understand,” I said.  “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.  Thanks.

When I got back to my dormitory room late that night, I took the envelope out and opened it. The check that was written out to me was enough to settle my past school bill as well as get me well on the way paying for the next quarter’s tuition and books.  It dawned upon me that I never told them how much I owed on my bill.

I sat on the side of my bed amazed that God would not only personally give me reassurance about where my future lie, but that he would also use to non-Christian employers to help meet the need. It all defies explanation.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But most certainly divinely ordered ones.  I still think of those two brothers often and pray for them.

Now, I could have studied many Scriptures on God’s provision; even memorized many of them. I could also have read many personal experiences of others about how God provided for them.  None of that could or would have the impact upon my life in the same way as God surprising me by speaking to me in a chapel, reassuring me in my heart and then working out the details in the most surprising way.  It has helped to keep my eyes open to other ways God wants to surprise me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the tragedies of being young or going to school for too long is that one knows all the answers.  It seems that when I was in high school and college that I had an answer or solution for everything.  Now that I have teenagers and children college age, I have that they are the ones with all the answers.

Of course, six years of college, two Bachelor degrees, three years of graduate school, and a master’s degree only compounds the problem.  In my related fields of study – theology, biblical studies, philosophy, pastoral ministry – I have a lot of answers for a lot of things.  My library of over 3,000 volumes helps me find one, along with the internet now, if I am unsure or need to shore up my thinking.

Alas, all of this has done me little good.  I have discovered as I have aged in years and grown somewhat wiser (using that term frugally) that having the answers and knowing the solutions are not the same as solving the problem(s).  This is true for my own life as well as those that I have counseled and coached over the years.  I can stare at the obvious answer in front of me.  I can clearly point out the solution to the person(s) needing an answer in times of trouble.  This, however, rarely, in my case or theirs, solves the problem.

What is the problem with the problem? Well, it is not enough to know answers or solutions.  You have to work the problem to get to the answer.  One must prove the solution to be true by working out the problem.  This is somewhat of a applying a scientific approach to problem solving.  The answer or solution is only the hypothesis.  The working out of the problem in reality either proves or disproves hypothesis.

Granted, this pragmatic approach to life does not always work.  Some answers or solutions are true whether they work out for us or not.  Their failure in our case may only reveal a defect in our method, approach or application and not in the answer or solution itself.  Thus, pragmatism is a poor philosophy to live life by.

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I wish that I had learned this lesson earlier on.  It would have made me less arrogant and cock-sure in my younger years.  Perhaps patience with myself and for others would have had a more fruitful result in my life.  In any case, it turns out that my math teacher in my Junior High and High School years was on to something.  Her name was Mrs. Durkin.  She was a stickler for working the problems and showing your work.  She taught in Curlew, Washington.

I spent some of my most important formative years growing up in Curlew, Washington.  It is located in Northeastern Washington State near the Canadian border, right across from Grand Forks, British Columbia.  I have so many fond memories of that place and the people there.  I have revisited it a few times over the years, but it’s been a long while since I have had a chance to return there.

The school was a two story brick school that housed all the grades.  A number of years ago they built a new building.  The old brick building was recently destroyed in a fire.  Mrs. Durkin’s room was at the top of the stairs, left down the hall (not a long distance) and the last classroom on the right.  The office was next door at the head of the hall.

When you stepped into Mrs. Durkin’s room, there was no question as to who was in charge.  There was also no question that she loved math and loved teaching.  But she was impervious to the pleas of students, like myself, who had the right answers on their papers but had not shown their work or whose math work was wrong even if the solution was right.  In either case, it was marked wrong!  How unfair.

How like life.  Life is a rugged classroom to learn in.  Wisdom is a ruthless teacher.  Wisdom does not care if you know the answers or have the solution.  It mocks your arrogance to just fill in the answer and think you can get by with that approach.  Wisdom will demand that you work the problem of life to “show your work” or prove your answer.

The demands of life and learning wisdom have turned out to be a lot tougher than Mrs. Durkin’s algebra classes.  She would often challenge us, “Students, you must show your work!”  She would remind us, “Unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer!”  This probably explains why she always assigned the even-numbered problems in the book when the odd-numbered ones had the answers in the back!

Even if she did on a rare occasion assign one or several odd-numbered problems, the only point was so that you could show or prove to her that you could come up with the same answer.  (Very tricky, Mrs. Durkin.  Very tricky!)  And it better be the right way to arrive at the answer or it was still wrong!  Creativity may count in art class but not in Mrs. Durkin’s math classes!  (You were so mean, Mrs. Durkin.  So mean.)  Yet, life can be like this – “assigning” to us problems we know the answers to but requiring us to work out the problem to get to the same solution.

It turns out that life’s classroom has been a lot more relentless than Mrs. Durkin ever was in her’s.  It turns out that Wisdom has been a much harsher teacher than her also.  Someone repeated the much worn contemporary mantra of American evangelicalism the other day that say, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”  Baloney.

Maybe I am unique in this, I do not think so, but God has frequently given me things way too big for me to handle.  It is not enough for me to point to an answer in the Bible and claim some truth or promise.  Neither does it work to simply spout some theological dogma I have been taught about life and its trials.  I find I am no better off by finding where to find the answers in the “back of the book;” even though I do appreciate a good concordance.  The little “Our Daily Bread” Scripture promise box on the table or a quote from the most recent pop-Christian author falls empty into the dirt of my work-a-day life.

Perhaps I hear the voice of the Lord in Mrs. Durkin’s classroom demands.  “Son, you must show your work.  ‘Study to show yourself… a worker…correctly handling truth‘ ” (2 Tim. 2:15).  “Son, unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer.  ‘Apply your heart to understanding…then you will understand…every good answer‘ ” (Proverbs 2:2, 9).  Turns out that math class taught me more than math.  I was a stinker of a student in Mrs. Durkin’s class.  Here’s hoping I will become a better student at solving problems in the future.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Restructuring Discipleship

I am a bibliophile.  I’ll freely admit it.  I am a reader and collector of books.  My wife, Kelly, would say too many books.  Alright, I probably have a couple thousand too many.  However, each one is special to me.  I have a connection with each one.  That is why when I went to “weed-out” my library a couple years ago I could only part with a box full of books out of my whole library.  And some of those in that box were painful to part with as I donated them to the local library for their book sale.

Out of all of the books I have read over the years, while I have received enjoyment and learned a great many things from them, only a handful of them have truly been life changing and transforming.  Those special books along with their authors still provoke my thinking and reflection to this day – no matter how long ago I read them.  Some of those authors include Richard Foster, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Phillip Yancey, Leslie Newbigin, Thomas Merton, Detrich Bonhoeffer, and few others.

One recent book I have read that is having a lasting impact is “The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives” by Peter Scazzero with Warren Bird and Foreword by Leighton Ford (Zondervan, 2003).  The whole premise of the book is to propose a restructuring of the way discipleship is done in the local church.  It takes you on a spiritual journey with pastor Scazzero as he discovers what was missing in his own spiritual formation and how he led his church into what he discovered every Christian needs to grow and mature.

While the book is written for Christian leaders, most specifically pastors, it addresses issues that affect everyone in the local congregation.  The church that I attend, Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington, just went through it church-wide in its small groups.  Many people benefited from the study and found some of the truths discussed in the book transforming.  The issues discussed throughout the book are universal and apply to every walk of life so that they could be applied in the corporate world or individual lives who are looking to grow and mature as persons beyond where they are presently.

The emotional part of our humanness is rarely dealt with in our society.  Most of us were taught to “stuff it” and hide our emotions.  Peter Scazzero points out how this has had an ill affect upon all of us and especially upon spiritual formation with the church.  The tendency is to think that if we are having troubles that what we need to do is apply the right doctrine or spiritual truth; or put more effort into a spiritual disciple like prayer, fasting, worship, prayer in the Spirit or Bible reading; or search our hearts and souls for hidden sins and unforgiveness; or look intently in the Bible for a Scriptural promise that will give us hope.  While all of these are good things they are not always the answer.  There may be deeper issues that we need to address.

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003

Washington Coastal Island at Low Tide, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The author then takes his readers on a journey of considering the hidden emotional components of our lives that may be interfering with our growth as spiritual and emotional beings.  He suggests five steps that he devotes a chapter to each.  They are, briefly,

  1. Look Beneath the Surface.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches take the time to look inside their hearts and ask, “What is going on that Jesus Christ is trying to change?”  The author uses the picture of an iceberg to portray how a person’s life show’s very little of what is really going on upon the surface.  The vast majority of who we are lies deep beneath the surface.  So, the first step is to invite God to bring an awareness of what those “beneath-the surface” issues are and transform them so that we will become more like Jesus.
  2. Break the Power of the Past.  Emotionally healthy people and their churches recognize how their past – individually and collectively – affects their present ability to love Christ and love others.  There are complex ties to the past and the present.  All of these pull at us and shape us.  For instance, the family we grew up in is our primary and most powerful system that shapes and influences us – for good or for bad.  Recognizing what those and who those are and dealing with them so their negative power over us is broken is important to moving on and growing up.
  3. Live in Brokenness and Vulnerability.  Contrary to our societal model that teaches us to “lead from your strengths,” Peter Scazzero asserts that the Jesus model is to live and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability.  Emotionally healthy people and churches understand that leadership in the Kingdom of God is from the bottom up – a place of service.  It is the ability to lead out of failure and pain, question and struggles, and letting go of the need to control that empowers individuals and churches to grow and mature.  By far, I found this chapter the most challenging and, at the same time, the most freeing.
  4. Receive the Gift of Limits.  This truth directly coincides with the previous one.  Emotionally healthy individuals and their churches accept the limits God has given them.  Whatever and however many talents they have been given by God – one, two, five, or ten – they joyfully accept them.  This sets them free from the frenzy of a covetous life of trying to be like someone else or another church.  Such individuals and churches are marked by a contentment and joy about how God has made them and purposes to use them in his Kingdom.
  5. Embrace Grieving and Loss.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches embrace grief as part of the journey to become more like Jesus.  There is an important discipleship component in learning to grieve our losses – dreams, relationship, tragedy, death – because it is the only path to becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Covering over our losses only disfigures us and stunts our growth toward becoming whole and healthy individuals.  It shapes all of our future relationships and the way we lead others.  We are often too quick to try and ease the pain when God is attempting to use it to shape our souls.
  6. Make Incarnation Your Model for Loving Well.  This simply means intentionally following the lifestyle of Jesus.  Peter Scazzero asserts that there are three dynamics to Jesus’ model for us: entering another’s world, holding on to your self, and hanging between two worlds.  Emotionally healthy individuals and churches will learn how to fold all three of these dynamics into their lives.  God changes us as we engage others and learn through them.  This keeps our feet in the real world spiritually.

As with all life-transforming books, when I put them down I always ask, “Where was this 20 years ago?” I could have used this book a long time ago!  I look back over the years and see how I have frustrated my own growth as a person – spiritually and emotionally.  I am thankful for it now.  Although I finished reading it some months back, I find myself constantly going back to it and “chewing” on some of the points that have really impacted me.

Like many formational books of its kind, it rubs against the contemporary approach to success and wealth and health.  I doubt that you will hear Oprah Winfrey or Doctor Phil using this book in any of their approaches to life.  Nevertheless, there are life-changing truths that can shape our lives and spiritual journeys from here until the end.  It will affect not only us but our world.  As Richard Foster notes, “…the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Celebration of Discipline).  True that.  And so perhaps it is time some of us consider restructuring how we do spiritual formation.  I know I am in.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healthy Holistic Spirituality

Since Jesus’ departure from earth his disciples have attempted to follow his path of teaching and practice.  Unfortunately, he left behind ideas and concepts about a Kingdom.  He did not leave behind a lot of details about how this spiritual life should work – organizing the church, spiritual disciplines, and a myriad of other details that constantly change with times and cultures.  We are left to work that out as we commune with him through his Holy Spirit and the fellowship of the saints.

Surprisingly, for the most part, the church has performed fairly well.  It has its black moments in history.  It has suffered backsliding and experienced renewal and revival. It has been mixed with earthly governments and rule to its own demise and suffered through the revolutions of breaking free from them.  It has fallen prey to wolves in sheep’s clothing and expelled or rejected their rule and authority.

Nevertheless, the message and work of the Kingdom continues on and changes lives.  The message is that God has sent Jesus, his son, to restore the broken Creator-creation relationship with people everywhere and the work is that he is present in and among his people through his Holy Spirit to undo the works of evil and the Evil One.  As such, the church has been a major force throughout history in serving the poor, the hungry, the widows, the sick and the orphans.  Today, there is much work being done through its services to provide clean water, free health clinics to villages, free education for children, and working to eliminate preventable diseases.

Still, most of this type of work goes unnoticed by the world’s skeptics, cynics, agnostics and atheists.  This is not to suggest that the effort is to have some kind of global balance sheet of “good things” versus “bad things” done by Christians.  Nothing will satisfy those who look with anger and prejudice against others for whatever reasons.  The point simply is this:  The Kingdom of God has always been about a message accompanied by a work.

When Jesus ministered on earth, his sermons most often followed his work among the sick, demon possessed, oppressed, poor and outcasts of society.  He was not satisfied with staying in the local synagogue preaching and teaching.  Neither was he content with staying where he was most popular and most successful according to statistics.  He was always about his Heavenly Father‘s business.  There was work to be done.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many early sermons.  Almost all of them followed some work by miracle or powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit.  James expects this pattern to be continued and chides his readers through his letters for having faith without works.  As such, their faith was dead and worthless.  Faith not only has a message but it has a work that it must do.

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003

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

I am wondering if believers in any given congregation in our area can identify these two things in their local church.   What is the message of the church?  Can they summarize it precisely and succinctly so that their neighbor or co-worker could understand it?  Just as importantly, what is the work of the church?  What work does their local fellowship of believers do to undo the work of evil and the Evil One around them?  What activities are their congregation engaged in to affect the lives of the least, last and lost of the community they live in?

The church’s credibility is not just in the integrity of its message – something we in the Evangelical churches like to focus upon.  The real credibility of the church is in the work it does that aligns with its message:  God has come to restore humankind and creation to himself by inviting everyone into relationship with him and work with him to undo the work of evil and the Evil One.  While we work on getting the message out, it might be time to also roll up our sleeves and get to work in the world around us.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Among Christians today, particularly Evangelical Christians, there is a great deal of discussion of authenticity and transparency.  Some believe this is a result of a reaction against a previous generation’s social guardedness and efforts to “keep up appearances.”  This very well may be true.  I cannot verify that assessment of our culture.  Nevertheless, my experience has told me that there does seem to be a desire among younger generations, beginning with the Boomers, for authenticity and transparency in the faith journeys.

This desire produced the ensuing development of small group ministries with local churches.  The idea is that authenticity and transparency cannot be expressed in a large congregational meeting except by perhaps the preacher or speaker.  Only in relationship connections within a small group setting can one really open up and share the spiritual journey they are on with all its ups and downs.  What began as a unique ministry idea 25+ years ago has become pretty much standard ministry practice in almost every church of any size; except if the congregation already is small enough to be a small group that offers spiritual authenticity and transparency.

The move away from spiritual posturing and the Sunday facade is a good one and a healthy one for most churches, I believe.  I will grant that in some cases, like any good thing taken to extremes, there have been abuses (e.g. “the shepherding movement”).  However, for the most part, this spiritual movement within the Evangelical Church has produced good results in the life of individuals and the larger faith communities.

However, like many things that start out with good purposes and intentions, this too can lose its purpose and focus.  The result will be small groups meeting to accomplish little more than sustaining already dysfunctional relationships and meandering spiritual journeys.  It is important to keep these small groups “on mission.”  Missional drift is something that every organization, including the Church, must guard against.  (I address this problem in an earlier Blog – “On Mission.”)  It can be a problem for small groups as well.

Interestingly, small groups of believers meeting together to help one another grow spiritually is not a new phenomenon.  It has been around as long as the Church.  A great example in recent Church history is The Methodist Bands of believers that John Wesley started.  To get into a “band” of believers meeting, you had to pass a scrutinizing test to ensure that you were serious about growing in faith.  It also served to give focus to the mission and purpose of the band of believers meeting together.

World War I Stonehenge Memorial, Washington State, Spring 2010

World War I Stonehenge Memorial, Washington State, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

How would the small group you are meeting in right now work if you implemented the practices that John Wesley established for his fellow Methodists?  Try this out for size:

“The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, ‘confess you faults one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed’. (James 5:16).  To this end, we intend:

  1. To meet once a week, at the least.
  2. To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason.
  3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing and prayer.
  4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.
  5. To end every meeting with prayer suited to the state of each person present.
  6. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins and temptations.

“Some of the questions proposed to every one before he is admitted among us may be to this effect:

  1. Have you the forgiveness of your sins?
  2. Have you peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?
  3. Have you the witness of god’s Spirit with your spirit that you are a child of God?
  4. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?
  5. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?
  6. Do you desire to be told of your faults?
  7. Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plane and home [to the point]?
  8. Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?
  9. Consider!  Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear concerning you?
  10. Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible; that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?
  11. Is it your desire and design to be, on this and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?

“Any of these questions may be asked as often as occasion offer; these first five at every meeting:

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
  5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?”

(From “Of the Methodist Bands” by John Wesley, 1744)

I do not know about you, but that kind of authenticity and transparency scares me – and challenges me!  Do you have anyone or any small group of people that knows you that deeply?  I know I do not.  I suspect that most Christians do not.  An over emphasis upon our “personal” relationship with God makes us believe that we are relieve of the responsibility of that kind of accountability.  And, perhaps because of it, we are much, much poorer spiritually.

So, perhaps we need to ask ourselves:

  • What level of authenticity and transparency are we really talking about?
  • How deep do we really want to go with authenticity and transparency?
  • Could it be that we like to hear it from our leaders and others but not practice it ourselves?
  • How much do I want people to look into my life and challenge me and help me to grow?
  • Is my small group a fellowship that glosses over relationship dysfunction and spiritual wandering or is it a group that challenges each one of us toward healing and wholeness?

We must face the challenge of growing spiritually within community.  However that is done, it will take a certain amount of authenticity and transparency.  We are already such before God.  We cannot hide anything from him.

Our temptation is to try and hide behind Sunday masks to “keep up appearance” before one another, in which case we really have not come much farther in the spiritual journey than the generation behind us that we criticize.  And, according to James, that may be the very reason we are not healed.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There are two powerful mental and spiritual weapons used to ensure the continued decay of our world and culture.  They are resignation and despair.  One teaches us to believe that it is no use attempting to change things the way they are, let alone hope for any change.  The other teaches us that the world is beyond hope and we will do good just to get ourselves out alive and unscathed.  These trap us into a world of hopeless worry and chilled inactivity.

Jesus introduced a different way to view the world.  It is a world that is under siege by evil spiritual forces and human wickedness.  It is a world which he invaded with his Kingdom to “undo the works of evil.”  When Jesus came to earth, he did not arrive to just check on conditions and then report back to heaven what he witnessed.  He came to change the human and world condition.  Everything about his life was a divine rebellion against the status quo.

The divine rebellion Jesus started was meant to bring everything on earth under the dominion of his Kingdom.  In fact, he promised not to come back “until the gospel of this Kingdom is preached to all the peoples of the earth.”  In other words, he fully expects his followers to continue this divine rebellion until every tribe, language, and people group has had an opportunity to join the rebellion.

While on earth, wherever Jesus went he proclaimed “freedom for the captives” and set people free from demonic oppression, sickness, and disease.  He rebelled against the wicked corruption of the religious leaders of the day.  The Son of Man refused to accept things as he saw them on earth.  His mission was to bring the Kingdom of God to earth to rescue it and redeem it from the stranglehold of its satanic ruler.  The all powerful weapon wielded against Satan’s rule was his death and resurrection.  He broke the back of Satan’s power in death.  He liberated death’s captives by his resurrection.  Through his complete submission to the Heavenly Father, he gained “all authority in heaven and on earth.”  One day, everyone and everything will declare that he is absolute Lord and God.

Until then, he has left the work of this divine rebellion against the status quo to his followers.  We continue his work of undoing the works of evil and setting spiritual captives free through his authority and the power of his Spirit at work in us.  We bring people into the Kingdom of God by baptizing them into this new world order and allegiance to its King.  We teach them the Way and how to observe what Jesus taught.  Then, we train them to join this divine rebellion and to not accept resignation or despair.

Most of the world’s philosophies would get us to accept things “as they are.” They push their followers toward quiet acceptance of the status quo.  Stoics claim that any unwillingness to accept the existing world is useless and vain.  They would get us to believe that “the way things are” is an expression of God’s will.  So, trying to change the world or pray that God would make changes is bad.  Buddhists tell us that the way to true spiritual enlightenment is to embrace the way things are in the world.  Even secularists hold a view that sees an inevitability to life and the world as it is.  It is better, they teach us, to accept life the way it is and deal with the reality of it than to attempt to hope for change; especially change through any spiritual means or belief in a god.

However, Jesus taught and modeled a different way.  Probably the most significant for his followers is prayer.  Whenever believers pray, it is by its nature a rebellion against the status quo – the state of the world as it is.  In particularly, petitionary prayer expresses a faith in God’s willingness and ability to bring change to our world.  David Wells, in an article in Christianity Today (Vol. 17, No. 6), states,

It is the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is completely abnormal.  It is the rejection of every agenda, every scheme, every opinion that clashes with the norms that God originally established.  Our petitionary prayers are an expression of the unbridgeable chasm that separates Good from Evil, a declaration that Evil is not a variation on Good but its very opposite.”

Jesus told his followers that “At all times we should pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  So, if we succumb to resignation or despair, we surrender a biblical view of God that says God is present and has the ultimate authority and power to change things.  In essence, we say that it is useless to pray as Jesus taught us, “your kingdom come, your will be done.”  Why even exert ourselves to pray if God is not present nor able to change the status quo?  Thus, we end up striking a truce with all that is wrong in the world instead of being angry enough to call upon God and his justice, mercy, grace, and redeeming love.

When we pray, we are openly declaring that God and this world are at cross-purposes.  To not pray is to act as though they are not.  Unfortunately, most of us have gotten too used to talking about the world’s problems than praying about them.  It is easier for me to point my finger and shake my head at the world’s wickedness and evil than to engage it in petitionary or intercessory prayer.  I allow the resignation of “the way things are” and the growing despair over what appears to be hopeless situations to rob me of my most potent and powerful influence in the worlds as it is:  Prayer.

When I pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done,” it is more than a blanket prayer to cover all situations.  It is specifically asking the Lord of lords and King of kings to bring his authority and dominion to bear in a particular circumstance in my life or my world.  When I pray, “on earth as it is in heaven,” I am asking for that same supreme and absolute authority and dominion that God Almighty has in heaven to be displayed in a particular place and time here on earth.  It is to cry out as the psalmist did, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

Rose in Full Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Summer 2009

Rose in Full Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus’ life was filled with prayer.  He refused to live in the world or do the Father’s business on any other terms than the Father’s.  If he, the Son of God, required so much time in prayer to discern, discover, and disclose the will and mission of God in his life every day, how much more is required of us who follow him?  Or, do we think we are more capable than he?  Of course not.  More likely, like his disciples in a storm tossed boat in the middle of a dark night, we have surrendered to resignation and despair.  However, Jesus’ life and discipline in prayer was a divine rebellion against the world in its perverse and fallen abnormality.

If you are like me, the objection to this is on a very practical level, “But I have prayed and nothing seems to change!”  This is perhaps why “prayer” and “do not give up” or “persistence” is always coupled in the Bible.  Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow before an unjust judge.  He was determined not to hear her case.  However, because of her persistence, she won her day in court and received the justice due her.

God is not an unjust judge.  In fact, Jesus’ comparison is to point out how much better God is than a corrupt and unjust earthly judge.  The main truths, however, do not concern the character of the judge but of the widow.  First, she refused to accept her unjust situation.  In her world during the time of Jesus, her unjust and unresolved situation would have been the status quo for widows who do not have an elder male to plead their case.  Jesus is making the point that his followers, also, should not accept or resign themselves to evil and wickedness in this world.  The other example we find in the character of the widow is that, despite her discouragements and setbacks, she refused to resign or despair.  She persisted in her cause; so should we.

The problem does not necessarily lie in our practice of prayer.  We are persistent.  Most of us would get an “A” on our heavenly report card for persistence and effort.  Where we are most challenged is in our understanding the nature of prayer.  Too often, we consider it a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in the great “Cosmos Monopoly” game.  Instead, prayer is my service and my part in the Kingdom of God’s warfare against the devil and his works upon the earth.

Prayer goes way beyond my private concerns, though it includes them, to include Kingdom wide concerns around the whole world.  It is more than just a religious experience or spiritual discipline then.  It is to stand in the courtroom of the world and plead “the case” against what is wrong and for what is right.  It is about my participation in the divine rebellion against the status quo until “all things are placed under his feet.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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A leading food manufacturing company developed a new cake mix that required only water to be added.  Tests were run, surveys were made, and the cake mix was found to be of superior quality to the other mixes available on the market.  It tasted good, it was easy to use, and it made a moist, tender cake.

The company spent large sums of money on an advertising campaign and then released the cake mix to the general market.  But few people bought the new cake mix.  This surprised the company executives.

So, the company then spent more money on a survey to find out why the cake mix did not sell.  Based on the results of the survey, the company recalled the cake mix, reworked the formula, and released the revised cake mix.

The new cake mix required that one add not only water, but also an egg.  It sold like hot cakes and is now a leading product in the field.  You see, the first cake mix was just too simple to be believable.  People would not accept it.  It was too good to be true or believable it turns out.  Let the consumer add something of their own, however, and suddenly it becomes believable.  Amazing.

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

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

The same is true of salvation by grace.  The Bible teaches us that everyone has sinned.  No one is perfect enough to stand before divine perfection.  In one way or another, we all have deeply offended God with our rebellious independence.  None of us measure up to what he desired us to become as his creation.  We all fall short of the glory he designed for us at creation’s beginning.

However, despite our gross offense to God, salvation from sin and judgment and peace with God are found freely by his grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To everyone who simply believes in his Son and what he did on the cross to remove our sin and its judgment from us, and what he did in his resurrection to give us the hope of heaven, God grants His righteousness and eternal life.

Unlike the aforementioned cake mix, no other ingredient is needed.  There is nothing that you can add to what Jesus did to make his sacrifice more acceptable or your life more worthy of salvation.  In fact, any attempt to add something to qualify yourself is an insult to God and the gift he offers you.  His salvation is a free gift.  Nothing else is needed.  Too simple to be true?  Amazing.  But true!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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