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Posts Tagged ‘Spring Photography’

Untamable God – Part 1

Most of us do not like the idea of serving a god we cannot somehow manipulate or control; that is if we are really honest with our selves.  No matter how “orthodox” our beliefs, we tend to want to invoke prayers, verses of Scripture and dubious faith promises to get our own way with our god.  Some believers will even use holy water, anointing oil, prayer clothes and other objects of faith like they were some type of medieval relic with a promise of power from this god to do what we want and think we need.  What if the real God of the universe looked at all of these efforts and said, “Meh.  Whatever.”  And then went on and did what He thought best for His plan and His creation.

That seems to be the picture we have of God in the Bible, though many evangelical believers, especially Charismatics and Pentecostals, will not like it.  Instead of an all-sovereign Being who serves His own purposes, we prefer a lesser god that can be manipulated with shaman-like faith chants and magical workings.  A careful reading of the Psalms, the book of Job, the Prophets (especially Daniel) gives us a completely different picture of God.  A portrait of God that seems to be missing from so much of our American Christian faith.

This failure to see the largeness of God – His majesty and sovereignty – has led many believers to a spiritually bankrupt faith.  When they enter into a difficult time, trial or test, they say all right prayers, quote all the right Scriptures and repeat the mantras of popular faith teachings.  They will seek prayer, the laying on of hands by other believers, anointing with oil and even send money to a popular faith preacher in hopes of getting their prayers answered – at least the way they want them answered.  If it works out the way they wanted, then their faith “works!”

However, if all of their efforts go by seemingly unnoticed by God, then they begin to question their faith and even God.  I cannot count how many times I have counseled with believers who think that they have done “all the right things” to get God’s attention and the answers they want only to discover “none of this works.”  I have been told by some seasoned believers who became embittered by such trials that “God has never done anything for me.  So, why should I believe in Him or serve Him?”  I have heard from others that “God has never answered my prayers or been there for me when I needed Him, therefore, I don’t believe He exists.”

God is reduced to a personal butler-deity or good-luck charm to get one’s wishes or at least protection from bad things.  What if God does not “play” by those rules?  Yes, sometimes out of mercy, grace or kindness He may act despite our ignorance.  However, what if in God’s Kingdom that is not the normal way in which the Sovereign of the universe acts or responds?  In fact, what if such approaches to His majesty is actually an affront to Him and offensive?

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010

Spring in the Palouse, Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One of the critiques of agnostics and atheists is If God really existed and was all-powerful, then why doesn’t He stop wars, famine, disease, etc from taking place?”  This, of course, is assuming that God would act in human history as…well, a human.  The bigness of God would, instead, require a God who is beyond human understanding and reasoning.  Since He knows His creation – especially the human ones – and sees all of history and all of future in total, He is not required to act for the benefit of anyone person or people group.

Others in the agnostic and atheist camp argueGod is morally responsible to do something about human suffering!”  The double edged-sword that 1) “God is responsible because He seems not to act,” and 2) “God is responsible because He seems not to care” is a powerful argument.  At least, it is if one assumes that God as God acts in the way a human agent would/should act in a particular space and time.  However, God is neither human nor bound by the limitations of knowledge or experience in our space and time.

Faith in an enormous, untamable God requires us to believe that He is not only all-powerful (omnipotent) but also all-knowing (omniscient).  Thus, He will act as He sees fit.  All creatures of the earth, the Bible tells us, must submit to His purposes.  When the Bible says that in the last day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) it is implying just that sentiment.  It does not mean just “Lord” as Savior, but also “Lord” as Master and Sovereign.  The uncomfortable fact of Scripture is that the One who sits over all His creation and all the nations of the earth is too big, too untamable.

To be continued…

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Rethinking Christian Unity and Diversity

In recent decades, it has become a constant cry of people inside the church and outside of it that the Church should show the world more unity. For hundreds of years before, segregation of belief and practice was celebrated with quite a bit of triumphalism.  Sadly, it also resulted in mean and demeaning attacks between Christian sects.  Now there is a desire to remove all barriers and eliminate most, if not all, diversity between the various streams of the Christian faith.

I used to be a part of that band wagon:We should all be together, under one roof, worshiping God.”  Recently, however, I have been seriously reconsidering that idea all together.  It is not the idea of the unity of the Church or the unity of all believers that I am opposed to in principal.  The idea is a grand one.  But how that is expressed and presented to the world  is something that I believe few have really thought through carefully.  I know that, up until recently, I had not considered all its ramifications.

This may rattle some people’s preconceived notions, but I have come to the conclusion that the idea of Christians from all different streams of practice and doctrinal emphases gathering under one roof is not a biblical one. Likewise, the idea that all our differences in faith and practices should be eliminated for the sole concern of uniting together in one place is not, I have also come to believe, a part of God’s plan for His world or His Kingdom.  The idea that unity is good and diversity is bad is a fallacy that too many well-meaning Christians have bought in to without really considering its implications.  I know that I was a part of that crowd.

The journey of rethinking the idea of diversity within the Christian faith and the desire for unity really began as I began to experience church practices and beliefs in different cultures; opportunity to experience a Korean Presbyterian worship service, church services for Vietnamese, and the church expressed through the African-American or Latino-American cultures as well as my travels overseas to such places as Albania and India.  The complexity that cultural expressions bring to the Christian experience and worship of God began to chip away at my idea of what it means to have the “unity of the faith” that the Apostle Paul talks about in the New Testament.

A number of years ago, the American church was denounced for its lack of unity in the faith becauseThe 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America!”  This is true.  However, what are the alternatives?  What would be the real cost to eliminate all diverse expressions of the Christian faith for the benefit of being in one place at one time?  I have come to think that it would be a colorless, culture-less and neutered Christian faith.

This idea became a more solid shape in my mind during a particular session of a missions course I took recently called, “Perspectives On the World Christian Movement.”  Miriam Adeney, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, spoke to our group about culture and mission.  She also had an article in the Perspectives Reader called, “Is God Colorblind or Colorful?  The Gospel, Globalization and Ethnicity,” which was adapted from her article in the book One World or Many?  The Impact of Globalisation and Mission (2003).

In her article, Dr. Adeney uses the Makah Indian culture as an example of cultural diversity and expression. She pointed to one particular Makah elder named Isabell Ides who passed away at the age of 101.  She was the Makah expert on basket weaving and also a Sunday school teacher in her local church.

Both of these facts captured my interest. First, my parents were living in Neah Bay, Washington, among the Makah Indians when I was born in 1961.  Second, my mother tells me that Isabell Ides attended the little Assembly of God church my father was pastoring and used to hold me during church.  The questions that Dr. Adeney pointedly asks her readers are, “Did Isabell’s basketry matter to God, as well as her Sunday school teaching?  How important was her ethnic heritage in the Kingdom’s big picture?

Dr. Adeney warns that ethnicity and culture can, in themselves, become idols. At the same time, Scripture affirms that diversity in culture is a part of God’s creative plan and purpose for humanity.  She observes that all cultures contain sin and must be judged.  However, pride in one’s ethnicity is not automatically sin.  Ethnicity and cultural diversity was created out of humanity’s God-instilled need for community.  The danger is to think that one’s cultural ways and ethnicity is the only way that God works and communicates in the world.

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

Hairy Catepillar, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

If cultural/ethnic diversity are rooted in the doctrine of creation, then perhaps it would behoove all Christians to not deny it but embrace it. By honoring one another’s cultural distinctiveness we honor God’s kaleidoscope creativity in and through humankind.  Each group of people, reflecting their God-given creativity, has developed their own culture.  They can offer complimentary views of what is beautiful and true as well as what is ugly and evil.  So, what does this mean for the local church?

As Dr. Miriam Adeney points out:

“Some people flourish in multicultural churches.  Others treasure their own tradition.  For them, culture remains important in worship.  They pray in their heart language, with meaningful gestures, ululations, and prostrations.  Their culture will affect the way they do evangelism, discipling, teaching, administration, counseling, finances, youth work, leader training, discipline, curriculum development, relief, development, and advocacy.  Their theologians complement other cultures’ understanding of the Bible.”

Perhaps the answer lies in what has long been embraced in the church:In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love” (Augustine, 354-430 AD).  Separate congregations, then, is not a bad thing.  To give place to our diversity in faith in practice and belief, we can honor each other’s differences.  The killer for church life is not our differences!  It is a lack of love.  This is true in a local church or across the board among all the various expression of the church universal.

God does not desire his Church – the Bride of Christ – to be dressed in beige. She is to be dressed in a coat of many colors, a mosaic, a kaleidoscope full of a whole spectrum of cultures.  If that can happen in one place at the same time, that would be good.  It is not required.  What is required and non-negotiable is the demand for love.  After all, it will be this spectrum of cultures with all their ethnic churches will enrich this world and color God’s Kingdom.  This, I believe, when we achieve it, will be a true foretaste of heaven:

I looked, and there in front of me was a huge crowd of people.  They stood in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb.  There was so many that no one could count them.  They came from every nation, tribe, people and language.  They were wearing white robes.  In their hands they were holding palm branches.  They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, Salvation also belongs to the Lamb’.” (Rev. 7:9, 10)

This is the same vision that God gave to Peter at Cornelius’ house when he was about to go present the news of Jesus the Messiah to non-Jews. This was the vision that drove the apostle Paul to travel the Roman empire to present the gospel to all the various sub-culture groups without demanding that they become either Jewish or like any of the other expressions of the faith being created among each people group.  The Galatian church was as different from the church in Illyricum as it was between the church in Corinth and the congregation meeting in Jerusalem.  Diversity in the Kingdom could be culturally expressed while unity in the faith kept vibrant and alive.

So, perhaps instead of bemoaning the various expressions of the Lord’s Body at work and at worship in the world, maybe we should celebrate them. The strongest expression of our unity in the faith may be our love for one another despite our difference.  Our allowance for brothers and sisters in the faith to worship in freedom as they see fit while not demeaning them or seeking to upstage them may be what the world needs to witness most; not us gathered in a circle wistfully singing, “We are one in the Spirit.  We are one in the Lord.”  When the Christian faith truly treasures ethnic and cultural expressions, without worshiping them as an idol, perhaps then the rest of the world will sit up and take notice.  God’s love is large enough to embrace everyone.  Let’s work on that first.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Snow in the Blue Mountains Over A Palouse Spring, April 2010

Snow in the Blue Mountains Over A Palouse Spring, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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It has become a part of American pop-theology that the Christian life is to be one that is safe for the believer.  We are told that “God will meet all your needs” and “He will never give you more than you can handle” or that “All things work together for good.”  The longer down this road of following Jesus I have gone the more convinced I am that such trite approaches to our faith, while comforting, should be jettisoned.

In fact, I appreciate more than ever John Bunyan‘s take on the Christ-follower’s journey in his allegorical story “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” He wrote it while in prison from 1660 to 1672.  (He later served another short six-month stint in 1675.)  He was put there because he dared to have religious services outside the auspices of the Church of England.  It turns out that he was a forerunner to John Wesley who got into the same trouble with the Church of England when he dared to preach the Gospel in the out-of-doors.

In John Bunyan’s story, the main character, Christian, embarks upon a journey from the “City of Destruction” (i.e. “this world”) to the “Celestial City” (i.e. “heaven”).  Part of Christian’s struggle on his journey is the burden he constantly carries, which represents his sin.  However, his largest problems come by the way of distractions and obstacles that meet him all along the way.  It’s a great story and I encourage you to read it in a modern translation.

I believe John Bunyan’s description of the Christ-followers life and journey is a lot more accurate than the 20th century version that many American evangelicals have grown up with in their generation.  My personal experience is that the Christian life and journey truly is a long-distance race or a Greco-style wrestling match as described by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.

In fact, I am convinced that following the way of Jesus is one of the most dangerous things a person can do.  It certainly does not fit into the mainstream of the rest of culture – or it should not anyway.  Following Christ means that he will lead you to a cross that you must pick up and carry just as he did (Luke 9:23).  This is called the cruciform life; a life formed after the crucified savior that dies to self and sin.  We want to celebrate the victorious resurrected life, but it turns out that the journey leads us to a cross before it leads us to a resurrection and glorification with Christ.

Jesus did not seem to be too greatly concerned with his follower’s safety.  In fact, he made it plain that if he was persecuted, so would his followers be persecuted.  If he was reviled and rejected, so his true followers would be reviled and rejected.  A servant is not greater than his master and should not expect better treatment he teaches us.  Still want to sign up to go on this journey?

Following Jesus is certainly not for the faint of heart or the second guesser.  You are either all in or all out.  You are following someone who kept moving, had no regular bed, no home and no promise of the next meal.  His journey with the Heavenly Father was one of faith and obedience too.  He expects no less from those who call him Master.

When Jesus prays his High Priestly prayer in the Gospel of John we should not be surprised then that he prays for his followers protection (17:11, 12).  Why?  Because just as the world hated Jesus so they are going to hate and abuse his followers (17:15).  However, in his prayer he specifically asks, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but protect them” (17:15).  This reminds me of the angel who came to the Apostle Paul in the middle of a fierce Mediterranean storm and told him, so he could tell the crew, “We’re going to shipwreck!  But it’ll be OK!” (Acts 27:23 – 26).  I would not know whether to be scared spit-less or relieved!

It seems to me that “the narrow way” is meant to be difficult precisely because it is, well, “narrow”. On the other hand, “the broad way that leads to destruction” would be smoothly paved with comfort and convenience.  If you have ever traveled a really narrow mountain road, you know what this is alluding to here.  If you have hiked the narrow inclines of a mountain peak, you know there is not a lot of room for error.  Still, he prays for our protection and offers his presence.  I am inclined to wonder sometimes, Why “this way”?  Could there not be an easier one?

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010

White Spring Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

When Jesus sent out his disciples to minister in villages he made no promise for their safety.  In fact, he told them, “Go!  I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3).  No wonder he assigned the journey and did not ask for volunteers.  It turns out that he was sending them to towns and places he was preparing to go to anyway.  Why not just hang back with him and go with him?  At least, that would have been my choice.  But no, he sends them ahead of him.

I think that this is his modus operandi and that it has not changed in two thousand years.  He is inviting all those who would follow him to take a dangerous journey.  It is not safe.  All your personal resources (“purse or bag or sandals” – v. 4), you are not to take along.  You are to completely rely upon him – his guidance and unseen presence and available power (Luke 10:9, 16).  When you get where you are going, you are to await his arrival by announcing to everyone who will hear, “The kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11).

So, I propose that we change the popular message of American evangelicalism to say, “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life that takes you to a cross and ends in a resurrection.”  In John Bunyan’s tale of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian and his friend, Hopeful, make it to the Celestial City.  However, it was a dangerous and adventurous journey.  It is the kind of dangerous journey that is more similar to what we get from the New Testament anyway.

When a person has a chance to visit other parts of the world where Christians live in hostile religious and civil environments, the pop-theology of the America evangelical culture does not fit.  A reading of a magazine such as The Voice of the Martyrs will clearly portray just how dangerous it is to live a Christian life and profess a Christian faith in many parts of the world.  The life and journey that Christ calls us to is not a safe one.  It is not an easy one.  It is a dangerous one.  His only guarantee is that you will lose your life; but doing so will allow him to save it.  It is a dangerous journey following him.  It is your decision:  all in or all out?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)


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Delicate Purple Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010

Delicate Purple Flowers, Deschutes River Trail, Oregon, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Protected in coveys during Winter,

the quail in pairs appear

to begin the rites of Spring.

Sounding to each the call,

chi-CAH-go, chi-CAH-go,

they seek shelter and nest.

Low lying brush provides cover

as mates prepare a shallow nest

to begin a new season of raising young.

Eggs laid in pine needles and dried leaves,

turns taken to care for the clutch

in hopes of young to guarantee a future.

Callipepla califonica walks proudly

in front of the young showing the world

a proud brood of offspring for a new year.

Father and mother alternate calls,

chi-CAH-go, chi-CAH-go,

for the chicks to follow.

Papa displays the larger topnotch,

a group of six small feathers arranged proudly,

allowing it to bob as he proudly struts.

Mother, with smaller plume,

antiphonally answers her mate

Chi-CAH-go, chi-CAH-go!

So, Spring has come to the shrub land

as the California quail arrives to

greet us with its rites of Spring.

(To hear the call of a California Quail, go to http://www.naturesongs.com/caqu1.wav)

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the things missing in the debate about immigration today is the view from the other side of the border – or fence in some places.  Americans seem to be myopically fixed upon their own ethno-centristic view of “the immigrant;” especially the illegal.  There is little regard or interest in how the rest of the world sees us, which explains a large part of the mess we have made in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world where we have attempted to interfere or intervene.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans live in a mono-cultural setting while the rest of the world lives in a multi-cultural setting.  People in the rest of the world are made, as a part of everyday living, to interact with two or three different cultures and speak in two or three different dialects or languages.  On the other hand, Americans are impatient with an immigrant working behind the counter at Burger King.

Traveling abroad opens up a whole new world for those needing to break out of their mono-cultural worldview and experience life like the majority of the rest of the world.  Probably no experience for me has shaped my view of different cultures as much as my experience in India.  At the same time, no experience has taught me more about culture and immigration than my interactions with people from different countries attempting to start life over in the USA.  They are the brave ones.  It gives me an appreciation for what my ancestors did when they first came to America from Sweden a century ago or from Germany more than two centuries ago.

Lizard On Burnt Stump, Deschutes River Trail, April 2010

Lizard On Burnt Stump, Deschutes River Trail, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

India is a study in contrasts.  In the major cities, there are people everywhere.  The bright colors of dress and Hindu temples, music blaring from loud speakers and non-stop sounds of automobile horns surround a person.  There is no escape.  At the same time, the smells of diesel, perfumes, foods, open sewers and dead animals constantly waft around you.

As one moves through the city and countryside, a person cannot escape the rotting garbage, open trenches of raw sewage, plastic bags everywhere, wandering cows dropping there excrement everywhere, dogs running lose and people walking in and amongst traffic.  For all the beauty, the filth and chaos is unavoidable!  Forget any American sense of the rules of the road.  Trucks, buses, tractors, cars, motor rickshaws, bicycles, tricycles, ox carts, cows, water buffalo and people all vie for the road with honking, waving and shouting.

This is how most Americans see India and its people.  How about their view of us?  I recently read an article taken from the Evangelical Missions Quarterly (44:1 January 2008) by Paul G. Hiebert entitled “Clean and Dirty: Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings in India.”  It was eye-opening and revealing.  I wish I had read it before I my trip to India.

I presently live in an apartment complex that has a number of Indian families living in it.  The smell of curry drifts from their apartments.  I love it.  I have a new appreciation for their attempt to live in an American culture that is so foreign to them.  They have a lot of work cut out for them just to navigate everyday life.  I – all of us – have a lot to learn from them.

One thing that Indians notice in stark contrast from where they came from is the public cleanliness.  Manicured lawns, prettily painted houses, clean streets, no open sewers all make the world seem neat and orderly.  And the traffic!  No one uses their horns!  People drive clean, dent-free cars.  They stay in the well-marked lanes and actually stop at stop-lights and stop-signs.  On top of that, they will actually wait their turn to go through an intersection!  It is all simply amazing to them.

In contrast, however, when Indians first come to America, they are shocked at our personal filthiness.  Paul Hiebert in his article points out that they see Americans going to school, buses and stores in torn jeans, very short shorts, unkempt T-shirts and gaudy footwear.  Women dress in the same drab attired as men or in sweat pants or, worse yet, pajamas.  From their cultural perspective, all these look like beggars’ clothes.  Obviously we can afford more respectful clothes.

It is puzzling to these new comers to America that we keep our shoes on when we enter a house.  This is really confusing to them when we enter a house of worship into the presence of God.  It seems that we care more for our cars, yards and streets than we do ourselves or our god.

When visiting India, if one looks past the surface of dirt and filth, one would see a culture that is very concerned with purity and pollution.  Hiebert points out that Indians are, in fact, obsessed with personal cleanliness.  When leaving their small huts, men will always come out with their best shirts, ties and trousers, washed and pressed, along with polished shoes.  Women will only appear in public in brightly colored feminine clothes.  Houses even with dirt floors and court yards are swept daily.  People brush their teeth and comb their hair almost obsessively.  Plus, they will do it outside, in public, so that people will see their concern for cleanliness and public dignity.

When Indians watch Americans eat, they do so with incredulity.  After all, Americans like to eat with utensils that have been in other people’s mouths.  They frequently do not wash their hands before eat – even if they touch food with their fingers!  They also use their right hands in toilets and use paper to clean themselves.  Hiebert also points out that Americans eat meat, particularly beef, which gives them a strong body odor that vegetarians can smell.

Since Indians are concerned with personal pollution, they are careful about the things they touch.  Only the left hand is used for dirty activities, such as toilet duties.  They only eat with the fingers of their right hand, after washing, which has not been in other people’s mouths.  They are careful about who and what they touch to prevent themselves from being defiled.

Perhaps Americans could use a lesson from about “cleanliness” and “purity” from our Indian friends.  Instead of being so concerned about outward cleanliness, we should focus on what defiles us.  It seems Jesus addressed the Pharisees of his day with the same concern.  They were more concerned about outward purity than inward defilement.  His advice to them was not to be so concerned with the outward cleanliness of the cup, but pay attention to what is inside it.  It is what comes out of us that defiles us.

I suspect there are other lessons world-citizens could teach us if we were willing to learn.  As more and more people come to America from around the world, we have a prime opportunity to allow them to teach us.  It might behoove us to not demand that they become “like us.”  In some instances, it may be better for everyone if we become more like them.  This will take getting a vision from the other side of the world.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Old Fuel Truck, April 2010

Old Union Oil Fuel Truck, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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