Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Spiritual Experiences’

God Surprises

Olympic National Park, Hoh Rain Forest - Trail...

Image via Wikipedia

Some people prefer to call them coincidences of life. Others just chalk them up to luck.  The cynical see only random odds at work.  Spiritual people refer to them as God moments, answers to prayer and even miracles.  I like to think of them as God surprises; moments when the deepest prayers and desires of the heart are met with unexpected and unexplainable answers.

When my family was younger and fewer by two children, I was pastoring a small country church on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State that did its best to provide for us.  With two young children, school bills from college and regular living expenses, it was never quite enough.  So, besides pastoring, I found work at the local family owned hardware store, cutting fired wood, picking clams and oysters, and coaching at the school.

After having been there a couple of years, my wife and I had a strong longing to vacation out on the ocean beach of the Washington coast.  The problem was we had no means to do it.  I shared our dream with a few people.  It seemed like a great idea but not a very practical one.  Nevertheless, we sighed and dreamed.  Maybe someday.

Then, one day, a surprise came our way.  There was someone who had an old 1961 14′ travel trail that they wanted to get rid of right away.  Would we be interested in it?  Sure!  Though, at the time, I was not sure what we would do with it since I did not have a vehicle to pull it anywhere.  But, living in a logging community, I thought that perhaps someone would be willing to loan us their truck for a couple of days.

The trailer was delivered. My wife and I discovered that the previous owner had actually lived in it.  He had been a heavy smoker and drinker.  It would need a lot of tender care and heavy cleaning to make it acceptable to my wife and kids.  So, we cleaned, painted, scraped and washed.  It would never look like a 1990 model.  But even a clean 1961 model was better than nothing and better than a family tent on the rainy Washington coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

What seemed like an impossibility at one point suddenly took on the looks of a possibility. A friend came through with the offer of his truck.  We would just exchange vehicles when the time came.  So, my wife and I began to make plans to take our two children to coast camping at Kalaloch Beach south of Forks, Washington.

As the time approached we grew excited. But I also grew anxious.  I planned a budget for the trip: gas and groceries.  Since we lived from payday to payday, there was no extra left over.  It seemed like an extravagance we could not afford, especially since I would also be taking a few days off of work.  How would I replace that missed income?  We may as well have been planning a trip to the Caribbean.  I figured that to replace my income and pay for gas and groceries would take about $500.  That was about 1/3 of my month’s income.

We went ahead and made plans and prayed. God had answered prayer before and perhaps he would once again smile upon us.  However, our finances did not change as the week of our planned vacation approached.  What would we do if we ended up not having the money?  Simple.  Stay home.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world.  Still, I could not help but feel that it sure would be nice to get away for a short time with my family.

Finally, the week approached. We were planned to leave on a Monday.  The weekend before came and still no financial means to even pull out of the driveway.  I resolved myself to the idea that it just would not happen.  On that Sunday morning, as I prepared early for the beginning of the Lord’s Day, I made one final appeal to the Lord as I wandered around the church building completing last minute preparations.

Dear Lord, it sure would be nice if I and my family could take this vacation.”

You know, Lord, in your economy, $500 is not very much money.  Isn’t there a way for you to make that happen?”

(Sigh)  “I know that it is not the end of the world if we do not go to the beach as a family…sure would be nice, though.

Did I happen to mention that it’s only $500?”

Thanks for the trailer anyway.  I’m sure it will come in handy some day.  Just maybe not this week, huh?”

Finally, I dropped it. There was no use getting worked up or anxious over it, I thought.  There were a lot bigger issues in the world than whether the Almberg family took a vacation to a beach.  So, I continued my preparations and spent some time in prayer for the people about to arrive that morning.  Some of them had a lot larger problems than I was facing.

People began to slowly arrive for Sunday School. I greeted them at the front doors.  It was always fun to see people arriving.  I especially enjoyed interacting with the kids coming through the doors.  Soon, laughter and light conversation were filling the halls and rooms of the building of that little congregation.  I’ve always imagined that God enjoyed those sounds as much as he ever did the singing of hymns and choruses.

In the middle of a conversation, the church phone rang. I did not worry about it as I always had people who could not stand the idea of an unanswered phone and would always be there before me.  So, I left the phone to be answered by whoever got there firsts.  Usually, it was Nancy, one of the pleasant ladies who volunteered in our office during the week, or Bill, a vigilant usher and deacon of the church.

Classic Corvette, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Corvette, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

We were minutes from starting our Sunday morning opening exercises when I was called to the office. The phone call was for me.  I dislike last minute phone calls right before church starts.  Usually, I make sure people understand that unless it’s an emergency they are to offer the help the caller needs or I can return the call after lunch.  However, this caller insisted on talking to “the pastor.”

Hello?” I answered a little impatient because of the timing.

Hi Ron.  This is Pastor Jim,” the caller identified himself.  I worked with Pastor Jim as an associate/youth pastor on his staff in Bremerton, Washington.  I wondered what was important that he would call me since he must also be preparing for his own busy Sunday morning.

Hi, Jim!” I replied, truly happy to speak to a good friend.  “What can I do for you?”

Sorry to call you so late, right before church,” he apologized.  “But I needed to talk to you and figured this would be a good time to guarantee I would catch you.  Aren’t you and your family planning on going on vacation this next week?

Yes,” I replied.  “We were hoping to leave tomorrow.”

Well, you came up in conversation in our church board meeting this last week.  The board here wanted to bless you and your family.  So, I was going to put a check in the mail for you.  I was hoping to catch you before you left, but could remember when you planned on leaving for vacation.  So, shall I put it in the mail this week or hold off until you get back next week.

Now I am surprised and somewhat taken aback.  We will not be able to leave with what we have but is the amount they are planning to send us enough to cover our expenses?  It seems we are not going anywhere this week anyway.  So, I decide…

“Go ahead and put it in this week,” I told Jim.  “We may have to postpone our plans.  We’re a little short in finances.  Your check may help us get on the road though.  Please make sure you let the guys on the board know how much we appreciate this and how thankful we are for their generosity.

Jim paused on the other end for a moment.  “Why do you need to postpone your plans?”

We’re a little short of funds,” I understated the situation.

“Oh,” Jim commiserated as a pastor of a small church himself.  “Well, I hope what we are sending you will help out.  How does $500 sound?”

I almost started laughing out loud.  “You know,” I told Jim, “that would be great.  That is exactly the amount of money I have been asking the Lord to provide so that we could go.”

Well, then, praise the Lord,” Jim encouraged.  “Maybe you don’t need to cancel your vacation indefinitely.  Just wait a couple of days for the check to get to you.  I’ll put it in the mail the first thing in the morning!

Wow,” I replied still somewhat stunned and surprised.  “Uh, yeah, we can wait a couple of days.  I don’t think that will be a problem at all.”

Great!  Well, you have a great Sunday and greet your wife for me,” Jim finished.

I will.  And you have a great Sunday, too, Jim.  Again, thanks so much,” I stammered still in shock of what had just transpired.

The rest of the Sunday was somewhat of a blur. I told the congregation that we would be gone for a few days on vacation, though we were leaving a few days later than originally planned.  Everyone was happy for us and wished us a great time at the ocean beaches.

When I arrived home after closing up the church, my wife asked me, “You sounded pretty confident that we are really leaving this week.”

Yes,” I said.  Then I shared with her my conversation on the phone with Pastor Jim just before church started.

Coincidence?  Luck of the draw?  A special alignment of the stars for the Almberg family? Let the skeptic and the cynic decide for him or her self.  I think that too much took place for all of that, which would require a greater amount of faith than simply believing that the Creator really does interact with his creation.  I wish that it happened more often than I have experienced it.  On the other hand, I think that the Creator enjoys showing up with God surprises just to let us know that he is here and he knows.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Distant and Silent God

American popular theology likes to focus on the joys of a relationship with God; and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, it has left many Christians with an anemic theology that does not adequately grapple with pain, suffering, death and times when God seems to be distant and silent.  We like to talk about the nearness of God, but not his farness or otherness.  We like to express the beauty of his revealed Word and share times when the real presence of God broke upon us in a difficult time.

My limited experience among American Christians has been that we avoid looking into the times that God appears silent and distant toward us.  We squirm in awkward silence when someone shares such an experience.  It seems to us to walk the edge of doubt and unbelief in the goodness of God and the rewards of following him; and we are afraid of falling off that edge.  Particularly among Pentecostals and Charismatics, who relish the personal experience of God’s presence and power, admitting to such a struggle almost comes across as a complete abandonment of the faith.

I have known the distance and silence of God.  Some spiritual fathers and mothers of the faith have called it “the wilderness.”  They have likened it to the wilderness experiences of others in the Bible; most notably Elijah and Jesus.  Elijah fled to the wilderness.  Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit.  For both, God does not appear, speak, or comfort until the end of the wilderness experience.  The “desert fathers” of the early Christian faith sought out the wilderness experience and what it could teach them.  Me?  I would rather avoid it.

Nevertheless, I have had my experiences in the spiritual wilderness where God is silent and distant.  One such instance marked me for life because of what I both experienced and learned through the ordeal.  A number of years ago, during my first pastorate at Quilcene Assembly of God, the Lord allowed me to go through a dark and terrible time where he seemed silent and distant.  Nothing I seemed to do appeared to help – no spiritual discipline, no trumped up spiritual fervor, nor any amount of crying out in prayer.  I felt abandoned.

I was warned of the coming wilderness event, however, by a good friend.  Ron Frantz and I had begun a close spiritual relationship and began speaking into each others life.  Ron had displayed great love for me and was interested in helping me grow spiritually as well as a leader of that small congregation of believers.  We both had a passion to see God glorified in the small logging community.  I not only knew that Ron prayed, but I also knew that he heard from the Lord.  One day, on his way to work for a few months in the Eastern United States, he stopped by the office to pray for me and say good-bye.

Before he left, he told me that the Lord had given him a word of encouragement for me.  I was excited to hear what the Lord might possibly say to encourage me and our small congregation.  With a small grin on his face and a look of compassion that expressed a genuineness that those who know Ron will know well, he told me,

The Lord wants you to know that in the days ahead you are going to go through a very dark time.  While it may seem like the Lord is not present, the Lord wants you to know that he will be with you and not leave you.

I was stunned.  “THAT’S the ‘encouraging word’!?  I’m going to go through a dark time?

No,” Ron said.  “That the Lord is going to be there in the midst of it.”

And you’re leaving town,” I noted.  “Thanks for the warning...and encouragement.  I think.”

Well, I’ll be praying for you while I’m away.  I’m sure the Lord has something special for you through it because He loves you so much.”

That is a typical Ron Frantz’ response.  He always focuses upon the goodness and love of God in all circumstances.  It is what makes him so endearing, such a great friend, and wonderful spiritual companion on life’s road.  I am sure that even as a child, when his mother or father spanked him, he must have turned around afterward and said something like, “Thanks for that.  I know you did it because you love me so much.”

We prayed and parted our ways.  Ron headed east and I headed went back to pastoring the folks of Quilcene and raising a young family.  Soon, I would forget about what Ron shared with me as time and activity erased the memory of it.  It would take being in the middle of a spiritual wilderness to jog it loose.

It was only a few months later that I found myself entering into unfamiliar spiritual waters.  It was a time of a spiritual wilderness that brought uncertainty about my call to ministry, my worth, and my relationship with God.  I slowly slipped into a period of time where God seemed remote and distant.  Prayers did not seem to go any farther than the ceiling.

The heavens seemed closed.  Studying God’s Word for personal devotions or for sermon preparation felt lifeless.  Preaching and teaching God’s Word was drier than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found no joy or satisfaction in any of it.  But the worse of it was how distant I felt from God and how silent he seemed to become.  Yet, despite all of this; strangely enough, the church congregation grew and prospered.

This brought about a real crisis of faith and torment of the soul.  Did I do something to displease God?  Did I sin and alienate God?  No amount of soul-searching brought any answers.  I doubted my call to ministry.  I doubted my ability to lead a congregation.  I wrestled with giving up and throwing in the towel.  Then, one day, Ron’s encouraging word before he left came back to me.  I had been forewarned about this experience!  This is what Ron must have been talking about and encouraged me to remember that God was present despite what I felt.

For a few months, the words Ron spoke into my life were the only thing I had to hold on to.  Sure, I had the promises of God’s Word.  But whenever I read God’s Word, there seemed to be no life in them.  Sure, I had personal communication with God, but fellowship through prayer seemed dead and to be only one-way.  I would often repeat to myself, “Lord, you promised your presence at all times.  You even sent Ron to personally tell me.  I choose to believe that you are here even though it seems that you are not.”

Soon, however, that personal confirmation did not seem to be enough.  I could not talk myself out of the dark despair of what seemed to me to be God’s absence and silence.  My prayer became singular and focused upon only one request, “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  For many weeks, that was my only prayer.  I shared it with no one.  Few people knew the cry of my heart.

Mount Rainier, 2002

Mount Rainier, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Months later, Ron Frantz returned from working out east.  He was anxious to go to a conference in Moses Lake, WA. with me and a mutual friend of ours, Ray Canterbury.  I was not as excited about the conference as much as I was looking forward to time away with two good friends.  The Lord had knitted our lives together spiritually and we were learning a lot from each other.

The last meeting of the conference, we sat up front and were anticipating the return trip home.  The speakers and worship had been good.  However, for myself, I did not enjoy them as much as others appeared to be around me.  My soul was in anguish.  God seemed to be distant and silent.  I sat in my chair and prayed only one prayer.  I went to the pre-service prayer times and prayed only one prayer:  “God, I am human.  I need to know you are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  I had no other prayer.  I could pray no other prayer.

As the meeting was wrapping up, and we began to look at each other to check on whether it was the right time to exit, one of the speakers came over to us and said, “Do you guys all know each other?”

Yes,” we replied.

I believe that Lord has a word for each of you.  Why don’t you come up here for a moment,” he offered.

At this, I have to admit I was not spiritually minded at all.  My first thought was, “Great!  This is all I need.”  Truthfully, I just wanted to head home and was anxious about getting back on the road.  We had a long drive ahead of us.  Plus, the fellowship and discussion in the car would be much more invigorating than whatever this guy had to say to us.  I am more than a little skeptical of strangers who do not know me, and whom I do not know, giving me “words from the Lord.”  My experience has been that more often than not, they are good intentions that completely miss the mark.

As the guest speaker was talking to each of my friends, I felt my spirit shrink.  “All right, Lord,” I prayed.  “If you want to speak through this person to me, then I will receive it.  But the only thing I am really interested in is what I have already been asking you for these past months.  God, I am only human.  I really need to know you that are here and that you are pleased with me.  If I know that, I can keep going.”  Then, I waited.

Soon, this spiritual stranger was standing in front of me.  I shifted me feet nervously, wondering what the outcome of this chance meeting was going to bring.  My main worry was that it was not going to be too embarrassing.  I was suspecting that “the word from the Lord” was going to be some meaningless, generic pabulum spoken over countless lives before me.  My expectations could not have been any lower.

He stood in silence a few moments before me as if to examine me.  “You are the pastor of this group, aren’t you?

Good guess,” I thought.  I was dressed very unpastoral, but something must have given him a clue, I thought.

Well, the Lord wants you to know that he is with you.  That he has never left you.  And that he is pleased with you.”

I was shocked.  These were the only words that he could have spoken that would have meant anything to me.  It was as if he read my mail.  Of course, he did not, but the Holy Spirit at work through him did.  He said a few things after this but I heard nothing else.  I broke into tears and weeping as the realization of what I had just heard hit me.  God had heard my hearts cry, spanned the distance I felt, and broke the silence by speaking directly into my life and situation in a way that was unmistakable.  Ron was right.  The Lord did have something special for me in it all.  He does love me very much.

As you can imagine, the ride home was very lively as we all shared our impressions and experiences of the conference.  It went much faster than we wanted.  I shared with Ray and Ron my experiences over the past months and the impact of my experience as the speaker at the conference spoke into my life something no one else could have possibly known.  From that time on, there was a freshness to my spiritual journey I had never experienced before.

I cannot explain to anyone why God sends us through periods where he seems to be distant and silent towards us.  I know some who have had an experience like this last years instead of months.  I know some who came through these times scarred instead of healed.  I know others who have come through wilderness times more spiritually empowered than ever before.  God does not seem to need to explain himself.  He is God – even when distant and silent.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: