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Posts Tagged ‘Spiritual Tests’

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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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)

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When Nothing Goes Right

Have you ever experienced a period of time where nothing goes right for you?  We all probably have at some point, or will.  I seem to have had a rash of bad circumstances lately.  Some of them are life altering.

My car breaks down and it is not a minor fix.  Then my computer crashes and it is not a minor fix either.  It takes a couple of overhauls to finally get my computer running right.

My car?  Let’s not talk about that.  One of my friends at church joking with me told me that he and his buddies knew what to get me to help me out.  A mountain bike and a note pad!  We both laughed.  We also both know that his day will come when nothing goes right for him too.

Health problems.  Relationship problems at home or work.  Child raising problems.  Broken cars and broken computers.  Did I mention an appliance to fix or repair?

At times like these one would like to limit trouble and hassles to one-a-day.  Unfortunately they usually come to us in bunches.  Sometimes BIG bunches.

When this happens, do you ask, “Why?” I do!  I want to fix it and stop it or get out of the pain as soon as possible.  I want an explanation for why this is happening to me.  I want to find the “cause” that brought the “effect” of all these bad things.  Is it just bad luck?  Bad karma?  Is God mad at me?  Is it just life and life sucks?

The optimist tells me that for every dark cloud there is a rainbow on the other side.  Or, when life hand me lemons that I am supposed to make lemonade.  Wonderful.  But I do not find too much comfort in that sentiment in the midst of my pain and frustration.  On the other hand, the pessimist tells me that life sucks and then we die.  Great.  Will someone put me out of my misery, please!?  Neither philosophical approach to life adequately answers the question “why?” in the midst of suffering.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to that simple question.  Sometimes it’s just life.  Life can be harsh.  We live in a world taken over by sin and wickedness.  Both good and bad happen to people all the time whether they themselves are good or bad.  So, it is not a reflection upon me.  It is a reflection upon the environment I live in.  People I don’t know, circumstances I can’t foresee or control can change my life forever.

At other times, I have to honestly look myself in the mirror and say, “It’s your own fault.”  Whether lack of experience, lack of wisdom, lack of knowledge, or just plain stupidity, I sometimes cause my own greatest pain.  I will freely admit it.  There are times when I am my own worst enemy.  However, I can learn from these experiences and go on while I reap the consequences of my own actions.

Or, you may have “Job’s Comforters” to help you dig yourself a hole of guilt and shame.  You’ve sinned and so God is judging you.  That’s why all these bad things are happening to you.  God is mad at you for your imperfections.

You ever hear that?  I’ve heard it.  Sometimes from my closest friends.  Then they stay away from me as if I had the plague and “God’s judgment” was contagious.

I see many people today loaded down with shame and guilt.  Our society seems to thrive on it.  Some people’s relationship with God is based upon a constant sense of shame and guilt.  They are never good enough.  God is always waiting to strike them with lightning if they don’t get it right.

This is a very faulty view of God, yet one that is so predominant in our world.  Thus, we are forced to paganistically try to appease the wrath of God.  Every bad thing that occurs in our life then just reinforces to us that we have not got it right yet.  And so we toil under the weight of shame, guilt, and condemnation trying to make “it” right with God.

Yes, sometimes we do suffer the consequences of our own sinful actions.  But that is not God hammering us.  It is reaping what we sowed.  Just like the laws of physics, there are laws of the human spirit, laws of human relationships, and laws of behavior.  We all violate them at our own risk.  And it doesn’t matter whether you know about the law or not.  It’s just the way life works.  Either you know and understand them, or life will be very difficult.

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

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

Many of our insurance policies make allowance for “An Act of God.”  When bad thing fall upon you, are you apt to look to heaven and ask, “What did I do to deserve that?”  You’re in company.  Most people do.  However, when things do not go right in life, it is not always “An Act of God.”  The Bible tells us a different story about God’s actions toward us, even in our rebellious and sinful state.

The Good News that is in Christ Jesus is that He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world.  The world is already under judgment and condemned.  He didn’t come to add to it.  He came to remove people out from underneath the guilt, shame, and condemnation.

In other words, God is on your side.  He wants to free you and me from the prison of shame and guilt.  He wants to remove the sense of condemnation that comes every time something bad happens in your life.  He wants to raise you above such circumstances with the assurance of his presence and power that will help you get through and overcome such demoralizing events.  They no long have to have power over you.  They no longer have to shape your life, how you feel about yourself or how you see God – even when it is your own doing.  Like a loving parent, he does not cast you out of his household.  Instead, he comes with reassurance to say, “Come here.  Let’s get you cleaned up so you can keep going.”

So, when trouble strikes, it is not God “out to get you.”  In our own doing, or just because we live in an imperfect world, things happen to us.  When they do happen, even at our own doing, we no longer need to look for guilt and shame from God but for help and power to overcome.  After all, he’s on our side now.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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