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Posts Tagged ‘The Apostle Paul’

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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It is part of the American ideal to think that “all men and women are created equal.” In terms of human value this is true.  In terms of human capacity it is not.  Every human person is unique in his or her talents and capacities.  Not everyone can be a LeBron James on the basketball court.  Not everyone can be a Warren Buffet in finances.  There was only one J.S. Bach.  There will only ever be one Albert Einstein.  There will only be one you or me.

Into human talent and capacity the good Lord put a lot of the right genetics into the right person at the right time. The famous runner Steve Prefontaine was made to run.  He had all the right biological equipment – heart, lungs, feet, legs.  A tragic death took him too soon from this world.  I ran cross-country in High School and did OK.  However, I never did as well as others even though I trained just as hard.  I played hours upon hours of basketball.  I never got as good as many of my peers.  I certainly was never going to be another Michael Jordan.  There is only one of him out of all the millions of kids of his generation who played basketball and the hundreds who even made it to the professional leagues.

We probably all have had an argument with our Creator at some point in our life where we wanted to know, “How come you didn’t make me like so-and-so?”  In our limited understanding, the world, or at least us, would be better off if we were like the one we idolize.  Almost all of us want to be Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” – superman or superwoman.  However, this mythical humanoid never existed and never will.  After all, human capacity is limited.  This is what reminds us that God is God and we are not.  There is no limit to God’s capacity.

So, in our minds and hearts we play to our fantasies instead of the realities with which we are dealt; at least for awhile. I have discovered that this is where maturity comes to bear in our lives.  It is the recognition and acceptance of our own limited human capacities.  This is no stoic acceptance of the death of dreams.  It is, instead, the embracing of our full potential and willingness to explore it to its very edges.

Granted, our cultural heroes can inspire us to greatness. But living vicariously through their achievements and accomplishments is not enough.  The “joie de vivre” is to attain to one’s own measure of greatness to whatever capacity that may be as an individual.  This is why so many of us are amazed at how some of the ordinary people in our lives become our “ubermensch” at the end of their life.  It is not until the sum of their life is put before us at the end of their life that we realize how truly great they were as a person.

Seagull Reflections, Long Beach Peninsula, Fall 2009

Seagull Reflections, Long Beach Peninsula, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus alluded to the human capacity in his parable of the talents. In the parable (Matt. 25:14 – 30), the master did not give everyone the same amount of talents.  Each was given what he or she could steward according to the wisdom of the master.  The only stipulation was that they take what they were given and use it to its full capacity so that when the master asked for an accounting of what he gave them they could show how it had been invested.  This is still applicable to us today.

The accounting of our human life is not going to be summed up in comparison with anyone else when we stand before our Creator. We will not be able to turn to anyone else and say to the Creator, “But I didn’t get as much capacity as her!”  We will not be able to complain, “Why didn’t you give me a chance with the capacity that he had?”  Instead, the Creator will look at us and ask, “I created you for this purpose in this place at this hour.  What have you done with what I gave to you to live and enjoy life to its fullest?”

The existential choice each one of us has is to determine to live life to the fullest within the measurements of the unique capacities we have or to spend our life decrying who we are not and what we do not have. This is why envy and jealousy is such a sin.  They not only attempt to second guess the Creator’s work and purpose, but it ruins the very one who harbors it.  Envy and jealousy paralyzes one’s ability to enjoy to the full extent what they have been given in life.  They destroy the full potential of the one who harbors them.  No wonder Paul warned Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).  Perhaps the apostle Paul in his old age knew by experience the damage envy and jealousy can do in one’s life.

I know that for my own spiritual journey, it has been liberating to come to the acceptance and contentment of what I have a capacity to do and what I do not have the capacity to do. This gives me permission to say “Yes” to the things that the wise Creator has created me for in this life.  It also gives me permission to say “No” without guilt to the things that the wise Creator has not given me the capacity to handle.

This is not to say that there are not times where He challenges me and stretches my capacity in order to enlarge my life.  However, these have been painful times and thankfully infrequent.  At other times, the Creator has placed me in challenging positions where I must depend upon the capacity of others – or completely alone upon Him – to see me through.  This makes me aware of my need for others in my life and my necessity to depend upon Him.  He did not create any of us with the capacity to travel the journey of life alone.

Joyfully living within the limits he has created me with allows me to enjoy life.  This kind of contentment with “life as it is handed to me” allows me the freedom to fully explore all that the Creator has created me with and for in this life.  Free from envy, jealousy, anxiety and perhaps even anger, I can discover what it means to be Ron Almberg “created in Christ Jesus to [do] good works” (Eph. 2:10).  In other words, it is accepting that “God planned for [Ron Almberg] to do good things and to live as he has always wanted [him] to live” (CEV, with my personalization).

So, you and I may not be the next sports all-star or the next American Idol. Neither of us may attain to international recognition for some scientific breakthrough, gaining the Nobel Peace Prize or appearing on the cover of Time magazine.  However, we are in the most important place in the universe – the heart and mind of God when He created us and set us in this world in our generation among the people we influence.  And He’s watching us.  Cheering us on.  Helping us when we ask.  Because more than anything, He wants us to reach our fullest potential/capacity.  Not only will it bring us the greatest joy – “joie de vivre” – but also bring Him the greatest glory.

©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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Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome, in short, is the psychological phenomenon in which people become enamored with those who enslave them and hold them captive.  Christian music artist Derek Webb made this a part of his new album by the same name.  In it he explores how people, particularly Christians, have fallen in love with things that ultimately destroy them.  This seems to be the reality of the human story throughout time.

This smart application of a psychological phenomenon to the human spiritual condition caught my attention.  Personally, I think Webb is on to something and has creatively pointed it out for us.  Of course, that is what artists are supposed to do, right?  I really appreciate artists that take us below the fluffy surface of life to get to the gritty reality of day-to-day living.  I like to think of them as prophetic artists.

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, it is easy to name the ways in which fallen humanity as a whole and our American society in particular has fallen in love and come to identify with those things that are destroying us.  It is quite another issue to look within each of our own hearts and find those places, people and things that we have become enamored with that are really destroying us spiritually albeit ever so slowly.  Our affinity to our self and our sin goes unnoticed most of the time.

Instead of keeping up an adversarial mentality towards our own spiritual enemies, we have learned to make peace with them.  Rather than staying in constant battle-mode, if we are honest with ourselves, we have taken off our armor, dropped our weapons and started enjoying the company of the enemy of our souls.  This goes against the message of the New Testament which is replete with pictures of saints as boxers training their bodies, athletes staying fit for the race and warriors constantly armored and at the ready to use their weapons.  We are to be always on our guard because our enemy, the devil, is always going around searching for an easy meal.

Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome is where American Christians in particular have become enamored with affluence, materialism, comfort, gluttony, convenience, pornography, anger, swearing, gambling, selfishness, personal rights, image and looks or the hundreds of others lures and sirens of our age calling us to our own destruction.  At best, these things merely make us spiritually impotent against the spiritual enemies of our age.  We are no longer poor and impoverished; but we no longer have spiritual authority or power when and where we need it either.  Collectively we have lost our prophetic voice and the right to speak to our culture because we have become just like the rest of our culture – enamored with the enemy.

What will it take for the evangelical churches in America to come out of their spiritual Stockholm Syndrome? I do not know.  We have experienced national crises and have soon afterward returned to what we were before.  Perhaps God in his goodness and grace will visit us by his Holy Spirit and awaken us from our slumber.

Meanwhile, there are many who, like bellwether sheep, are ringing the bell as loud as they can to call us back to where we belong.  I am not certain I agree with Derek Webb’s approach when in one song he chides those who “don’t give a s—” about thousands dying around the world daily.  Such shock treatments, reminiscent of Tony Compolo’s similar attempt more than two decades ago, rarely have the desired effect.  Nevertheless, I cannot denounce his attempt to do something to ring the alarm.  I just think there are more effective ways.

Treatment for spiritual Stockholm Syndrome will take time and commitment.  The Great Counselor is the only one who can give us the wisdom necessary to navigate out of this spiritual and moral dilemma.  The spiritual manual for living – the Scriptures – must be our map out of this spiritual wilderness.  Finally, recognition of our true spiritual condition must result in a cry for help from the Lord who is full of grace and mercy.  He will fulfill his promise to help when we cry out to him.  Only he has the power to break free those who are stuck in a spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Competing Orthodoxies

A simplified chart of historical developments ...

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s face it.  American Christians seem to be afraid of theological and philosophical competition in the market place.  Even among themselves, they demonize one another’s theological differences and trash each other’s denominations.  This is not a healthy environment for building the Kingdom of God.  Yet, when it comes to competing claims, they remain largely silent except in their huddles and clusters.

Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly afraid of competing against secularism.  Unrecognized by many of them, secularism itself has become a part of the American Christian thought and practice.  It is itself a type of dangerous syncretism that threatens the genuine message and power of the message of Jesus.

Except in missionary circles, the theological arenas of Bible schools or seminaries, or among expatriates overseas, any dialogue on American soil among Americans of different religious persuasions is almost nil.  This is due largely to American Christians buying into the secularist notion that religion is a personal and private matter and should not be discussed or carried into the market places.  It would seem that it is not a suitable topic for public discussion, we are taught.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the crowd on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, it was in a public place.  Frequently, the Apostle Paul used the market place to introduce and speak to the spiritual questions and needs of the people of the culture.  It will be necessary for Christians to regain that missionary zeal and practice if we are to transform our culture by being salt and light in it.

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There are many believers and leaders in America who are raising their voices and modeling this for the church.  One such person is Hunter Baker who is the Houston Baptist University political science professor.  He voices his concern about the dangers of secularism in society and the church in his recently published book, “The End of Secularism.”  Online editor for Christianity Today , Sarah Pulliam, had an interview with Hunter Baker in the October 2009 issue.

Francis Schaeffer

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Of course, the pioneer for this discussion was Francis A. Schaeffer.  His seminal book, “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” addresses much of the same issues but more in-depth and with historical background.  The fact that it is still an issue largely unaddressed by the average evangelical American Christian is alarming.  It registers just how deep secularism has dug into the expressions and practices of American Christianity.

Secularism teaches Americans from an early age that religion and spiritual discussions, particularly of certain subjects, should be private and not a part of public life at all.  The ideal is a social harmony that is absent of God-talk.  One is reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Imagine.”  The secularist likes to “imagine if there was no religion.”  For the true Christian, however, to act as if God does not exist in any part of our life is not just dishonest, it is hypocritical.  It is also worthy of some of the strongest words of Jesus against disowning him before others.

Hunter Baker, in his 0nline interview with Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today, also notes that to place this expectation upon Christians is unfair.  It is utterly mistaken to think that secularism is the center of our American culture, while the competing claims of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism et al all revolve around it.  Secularism is not the objective umpire attempting to control or regulate the debate.  Instead, it is a completing orthodoxy in the market place of ideas.

For Christians to buy into the idea that their spiritual life should be “private and purely devotional” is a mistake.  Instead, our faith in God should be vocal and visible in the market place of ideas.  It can be a voice against the ills and abuses of our society.  It can provide hope and answers to society’s ills.

As such, American Christians should not be afraid to speak up and speak out – with grace and love – concerning the answers their faith has for today’s issues.  Granted, this means that we will need to be well informed concerning those issues and just how Scripture and the ways and words of Jesus address them.  But when all is said and done, I am confident that the message of God’s Kingdom can stand on its own two feet and compete with any other ideology in the public square of American ideas.

American Christians should not hide or stay silent just because the answers they hold for our country are spiritual.  Let’s let them compete against the competing orthodoxies that are already out there.  I am confident that the truth of the gospel and the power of truth will prevail.  As Hunter Baker points out in the CT interview, “It’s not unfair to have a religious point of view, and a religious point of view is not an inferior point of view.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Old Abraham was a poor tailor whose shop was next door to a very upscale French restaurant.  Every day at lunch time, Abraham would go out the back of his shop and eat his black bread and herring while smelling the wonderful odors coming from the restaurant’s kitchen.  It was a wonderful addition to his unchanging daily lunch time meal.

One day, Abraham was surprised to receive an invoice from the restaurant for “enjoyment of food.” So he went to the restaurant to point out that he had not bought anything from them.  The manager said, “You’re enjoying the smell of our food, so you should pay us for it.”

Abraham refused to pay and the restaurant sued him.  At the hearing, the judge asked the restaurant manager to present his side of the case.

The manager said, “Every day, this man comes and sits outside our kitchen and smells our food while eating his.  It is clear that we are providing added value to his poor food and we deserve to be compensated for it.”

The judge turned to Abraham and said, “What do you have to say to that?”

Abraham didn’t say anything but stuck his hand in his pocket and rattled the few coins he had inside.

The judge asked him, “What is the meaning of that?”

Abraham replied, “I’m paying for the smell of his food with the sound of my money.”

Someone observed that “you can’t get something for nothing.” However, you can get nothing for nothing!  Many followers of Jesus seem to want to get spiritual maturity without investing anything into it.  Apart from salvation, growing in Christ takes the believer’s initiative and efforts.  Jesus’ parable of the talents implies that each believe is given something to invest in the Kingdom and will, in the end, be judged by him as to how they invested it (or did not) back into his Kingdom.

Likewise, the apostle Paul warned Christ’s followers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).  The MKJV version says “cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Each believer is responsible for his or her own spiritual growth and should attend to it as they would the vineyard of their Master.

When it comes to establishing God’s kingdom through the work of ministries in and through the local church, there is a cost. You can’t get ministry for nothing (though you can get no ministry for nothing).

  • Reaching in lost people in our community has a cost.
  • Preaching the gospel has a cost.
  • Discipling children and young people has a cost.
  • Ministering to broken lives has a cost.
  • Providing a safe, secure, and satisfying place of ministry to families and their children has a cost.
  • Reaching into the community to bring help and transformation has a cost.
  • Helping others to take the gospel around the world to people without the knowledge of what God offers through his son Jesus has a cost.

These and many more Kingdom efforts bear a cost in time, treasure and talents.  The question to the followers of Christ is, “Who is going to pay?”

These costs are covered by the many followers of Jesus who pay the price with their time, treasures and talents.  They choose to share equally sacrifice what they have towards the cost of doing Kingdom business by giving of their lives.  As a result, not only do they experience God’s blessings but also experience spiritual growth that the uninvolved will never experience.

It is a truly poor follower of Christ who does not join with others in bearing the cost of doing the work of the Lord’s Kingdom. In essence, they are hoping for a ‘free ride’ on someone else’s work.  They want to enjoy the fruit of the labors of others without sharing in the work in the Lord’s vineyard.  However, no one can grow by watching the efforts of another.  The Lord never planned for his Kingdom to be a spectator centered or focused work.  Yet, it seems that many of our churches and their ministries plan on just that expectation of their adherents.

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Martin Luther said it plainly, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” As a co-laborer in God’s kingdom, I am proud to share in the work and worth of doing the Lord’s Kingdom business.  Successful ministry that transforms lives and our community cannot happen without the many hours that people volunteer.  Kingdom efforts would be handicapped without the sacrificial giving of its family of faith.

Mobilized and motivated laborers in the harvest fields of the Lord are rewarded for their selfless sacrifices.  Yes, they receive a promised eternal reward.  Just as important, however, they receive the reward of growing in the knowledge and strength of the Lord, his Spirit and his Word, which a whole lot more than the smell of good food or the sound of money.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Marriage and Family: The Selfishness Eliminator

Following Biblical principles and precepts over our own feelings is a much needed message in our world today. This is especially true in marriage relationships.  A recent post by a friend, Cindy Holman, got me thinking about this whole issue.  I have witnessed too many couples break up because one or both “just want to be happy,” regardless of the instructions and commands of Scripture.  I often thought that this is what Jesus had in mind when he wondered aloud, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

When I mentored young couples preparing for the own marriages, I always emphasized the apostle Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 to them. I required nine sessions before I performed the wedding ceremony of a couple. The content of these sessions grew mostly out of the things I wish someone had discussed with me about before I got married! A big part it was starting with a theology of marriage and the marriage covenant.

A Christian’s marriage and the Christian marriage ceremony is more than just a pretty party put on by the bride and groom and their families (mostly the bride’s).  It is the act of making a covenant before and with God.  God is not just a spectator but a participator in the act of the covenant ceremony.  He is not simply another witness of a ceremony between two people.  He is an third agent in the covenant made before the human witnesses in the room.

Breaking up a marriage is more than just a dissolution of a contract.  It is the violation of a covenant persons have made with God.  Yet, how many couples break their covenant with only consideration of their own personal interests and not the interests of God in the relationship?  Marriage is treated more as a contract between two people than it is a tri-part covenant between the each of the individuals and God.  Thus, God enters into and has an active part and interest in the outcome of the covenant relationship.

Because every couple is unique and their relationship is unique, I don’t believe that there is a “cookie cutter” approach to healthy marriages. What works for one couple and their family may not work for another.  Every human relationship has a certain amount of dysfunction in it by fact that spiritually fallen human beings are involved.  I think every married couple has looked upon the relationship of another married couple with a certain amount of amazement at their ability to “make it work.”  This is why God’s covenantal involvement is so important.

Viewing the marriage as a covenant before and with God as a couple helps to solemnize and solidify the relationship, I think. Also, discovering how each individual in the relationship, and so each relationship, is unique is also important.  The uniqueness each person brings to the covenant will shape that relationship and make it a unique one.  This is not a bad thing.  I rather think it is a good thing and reflects the incredible creativity and diversity of God’s work in humanity.

For instance, my wife, Kelly, and I could not be more different as persons. It was soon after leaving college that we realized that the only thing we had in common was college!  This, of course, has led to an interesting journey together. Right now, what we have in common is our children!  Surely God has a sense of humor.  We often look at each other and ask ourselves, “How in the world did we ever get together?”

I like jazz and rock-n-roll. She likes classical and opera. I like comedy – admittedly sometimes twisted and weird. She likes the more serious and straightforward approach to life. I see a lot of grey in the world. She sees it as pretty much black and white. I like the rugged outdoors and to backpack and hike. She likes camping but prefers the convenience of a bathroom and shower. I like to be actively involved in sports. She does not care for rugged physical activities for the most part. I like reading histories and biographies.  She likes reading mysteries.  I like American history.  She likes European history.  I like modern art and decor. She likes early American and antique styles. My relationship with God has always been very personal yet dynamic. Her relationship with God has always been highly communal yet distant. I like discovering and playing with new technology.  She likes the stability of things remaining the same and struggles getting around the computer and internet.  Well, you get the picture. And, yet, we’ve worked hard on our relationship, through it’s ups and downs, getting off the “same page” and then back on the “same page,” through “thick and thin.” I am certain that we are not the only couple like this. Nevertheless, this year will be 27 for us in August.

Purple Starfish, June 2003

Purple Starfish, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Many couples like to promote a particular practice as THE  key to THE success of a lasting healthy relationship.  I am not certain there is one outside of a vibrant personal relationship with God that each person in the relationship must have for himself and herself.  For instance, I am not certain that “doing devotions together” is necessarily the magic bullet to a healthy marriage relationship. I am certain it can’t but help! Nevertheless, too many couples find themselves on different spiritual paths. Their approach to God and Scripture is too different to be able to come together reasonably.  The promotion of this idea as the ideal only ensures that couples who do not do this or are unable to do this are made to feel guilty and condemned.  It misses the point all together.

Having a vibrant personal relationship with God that is daily plugged into the Word and His Spirit is what is important. Kelly and I have devotions and private times but have rarely done them together. We have many interesting discussions. We will at times share and pray together. We often pray together as a family or lead our kids in prayer for specific family needs and concerns. One of our family practices is to include praying for missionaries when we prayer a prayer of thanksgiving before our meals.

It would be nice if we could share this together.  However, my approach to “daily devotions” is so much different than Kelly’s and vice versa. How we think spiritually, how we relate to God and His Word, how we process with another person present, and what is meaningful to each of us is so different that we found we get more out of our time separately than together!  Our attempts only led to feeling guilty, condemned and useless because we were trying to meet someone’s expectations of what we were supposed to be doing.

Someone once said that marriage is God’s way of beating the selfishness out of us. He puts two selfish people together and watches them beat it out of each other. Then he gives them kids! Marriage and family is a humbling endeavor to say the least. Yet, it is an important part of shaping us even into our adulthood. If we invite God into the process and humble ourselves before Him, our spouse and our children, He will use that very process to form in us his nature and character. That, afterall, is His ultimate goal.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr (2010)

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