Birthday Blog

One year ago I started this blog. On my About this Blog page, I describe my intention to explore off the map if need be, in search of God sightings and venues where the Spirit is operating. Today I want to share a little of what I have found.

But let me back up for a minute. The bulk of my church and religious history includes a somewhat dispensational idea that this world is in a spiritual freefall; a spiral that can only end in a well-earned damnation of eternal, never ending lake of fire future for those who didn’t make the choice to serve God.

I won’t argue the merits or deficiencies in God’s strategy for dealing with his unbelievers. Quite frankly, I don’t plan to be in a place like that anyway so I’m not forced to deliberate the Fahrenheit of Hell.

Of course, for the faithful, a quick snatch away from the jaws of certain roasting-without-being-burned brings a sigh of relief. Again, I am not enticed into the debate about pre, mid, post or whenever deliverance will come. Do you know how many churches have blown up, how many believers have gone to the dark side of a life sans faith, how many sincere people have been mortally wounded because of polarization on the last two paragraphs?

My determined position is that I will invest my hungry heart in searching for how I can join with the activity of God and see His Kingdom Come in my lifetime. For me, a way to identify what that looks and feels like is the Hebrew term, Shalom. As I have researched the meaning it seems to include the concept of a peaceful, orderly environment where the will of Yahweh is not questioned but lived by all joyfully.

In short, our long-lasting tenure in that previous church culture concluded implicitly and explicitly that although we should preach the Gospel, not many would be converted. In fact, the “not fifty righteous” evaluation from God to Abraham about Sodom was juxtaposed over our culture and evil times to result in a resigned sigh that “maybe we were the only ones who would make it, and I’m not so sure about you” kind of mentality.

“The world is going to hell in a handbasket loaded on the bullet train. So why try to de-rail that certainty? Just get more holy and be sure you are ready” is the conclusion I came to. So why try? Why entertain the possibility that there may be an amazing move of God in this era of history?

Well, when I read “I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh,” it bothers me. When I read the Great Co-mission housing the command that I, one of his disciples, should be making other disciples, casting out devils and healing the sick, it bothers me. When I look at most church structures and communities today and I don’t see all five of the leadership gifts operating in concert like St. Paul insisted in his letter to the Ephesians, it bothers me. When I see that the problems in our world today and the slippery slope this nation is on, it bothers me. It bothers me because I believe it is because the church as a whole has no power.

We have powerful, moving entertainment. We have powerful moving, charismatic speakers. We have powerful, high quality coffee bars. What we lack is the power of God.

I firmly believe, and this is an adamant statement, that the reason we are so polarized as a nation, so divided on issues of rights, entitlements, and so full of hate is due to a lack of power in the church and out of the church. That bothers me. And when something is bothersome, like a sliver, we tend to do something about it.

So now, returning to my opening statement, how and where have I seen God activity? Some of what I am seeing is awareness in other folks of their own rising hunger. As I engage with others and build new relationships I am more sensitized to God activity in our conversation. At the core, material stuff and frivolous pursuits have lost color because of (as we know) that insatiable vacuum that only a connection with God can satisfy.

The second place I have seen God activity is in me. It has been very hard for God, I’m sure. In the last several months, as I have prayed for direction and clarity I have only heard his words of counsel to have faith. I have searched my memory archives for that one huge Word of promise that He would bring me into my place of destiny and it would look like . . . whatever, but I can’t recall that earth-shattering, bolt of lightning, undeniable, black and white Word that can never be doubted, kind of communication.

However, there is a faithful, steady stream of small words of favor, snippets of reassuring hymns, a sentence in scripture, a quick scene from a dream, a paragraph from a book, a gentle “Atta-boy” from a friend that has been my story and my journey.

Do I see the Spirit moving? Is there a moving in my spirit? Is there a shaking of the leaves on the trees in my social circles? Yes. Am I encouraged? Yes. Do I believe I can be a power tool moved by His Spirit? I must be. It is time to do my part and step into the position of authority that He has planned for me.

So when I read these words this morning, they resonated with my thirsty spirit. I can only post a short segment but this aptly and succinctly described my 40 year desert wandering.

“There are many of you who have received a word from the Father. Perhaps the heavens didn’t open up, but the Lord has spoken to you, called you His beloved, and His Spirit has alighted upon you. Many of you have received a word from God, but your life has never changed. You have felt God release you to set sail, but you remain moored at the dock—stuck in a particular phase of your life.” Faisal Malick: Positioned to Bless

For you and I, this is a pregnant moment. How will you; will I, move into the next thing God is doing? Friends, we are on the leading edge of an incredible shift that will usher us into a Kingdom reality like we have not seen in our lifetime. I am preparing my heart with a determination to not look back. Are you with me?

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A Song I Can Sing

Music has always been my go to touchstone with God. Sometimes when the requisite reading of scripture doesn’t serve up the desired comfort/blessing/encouragement or (insert the current felt need here), worship music can usually connect with my spirit and bring a satisfactory satiation of that longing for contact with God.

That’s why the following experience rocked me in a way that caused me to evaluate my dependence on a song to make me feel good; to meet my needs.

It is so hard to face the fact that it’s not about me. It never has been but I act like it is. But can I go through the withdrawals and dependencies on a predictable formula for relationship with God without the hard work of investing time and honoring Him just because He is worthy. It is all about Him.


 

Church was nearly over. The pastor handed me songbook and asked me to find one to sing before dismissing the meeting. I opened the hymnal and proceeded to look for an appropriate closing song.

As I leafed through the pages I noticed that none of them were familiar to me. I didn’t know any of them! There were lots of songs. Many were old, old obscure hymns extolling the virtues of the faith. Some were deep theological truths set to music.

Others seemed to concentrate on the beauties of nature; how the robin’s song echoes the glories of God and creation shows His handiwork. But I couldn’t sing any of them because I didn’t know them.

By this time the pastor had slid onto the piano bench to accompany the singing. I turned to him. “I don’t know any of these songs; I can’t sing them,” I said.

“Oh, I know lots of songs from that book. There are some good ones,” he said.

“But I can’t sing them because I don’t know them,” I insisted. I looked again, but it was no use. Nothing was familiar;

I had no song that I could sing.

I woke up. A song that I knew well had been in my mind and heart for about a week. I found it on YouTube and played it.

Tears came quickly. This, this was a song I could sing. “To Him Who Sits on the Throne and Unto the Lamb, Be Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power Forever!”

My ability to find a song in life has usually been a process but never lost for long. With the ups and downs of typical spiritual struggles and victories, there have been those high, joyous experiences with God of emotional exuberance.

There have been times of wrestling with self and the dark night of the soul. In time though, the sun would break through and a song would lift me out of seeming despair.

Now here, at the ending of the service; perhaps a metaphor of the late summer of my life, I found myself unable to find a song. Except that the only song I can sing is one extolling His praises.

It is not one found in a codified hymnal disconnected from the realities of life. Not a song about God but a song to God.

It turns the attention away from me and the facts of what I know, or don’t know, and in spite of that gives praise to Him Who sits on the Throne.

Storied Past – 19

“What’s that supposed to mean, sir? Here you are right now telling me something I know nothing about and asking me to own up. I’m not owning up to anything until I talk to that girl—your daughter I guess, and find out what’s going on.”

Mr. Beckett backed off for a minute. Realizing his confrontational approach was making Paul mad and wouldn’t get the information he wanted, he figured he would try a different tack.

“OK, I guess I came off a little intense, Paul. Suppose I start over.” Beckett breathed out slowly. “Ramona’s mother and I raised her to be a Christian, to go to church. We were very careful to make sure her friends were church friends. She wasn’t allowed to go to movies or wear pants and makeup. But she started rebelling against our rules and several months ago she quit coming to church.”

“Her mother, Sarah, passed away a couple years before and she must have blamed God or something. She started hanging out with kids I didn’t know and she got to dancing and partying and . . . and I’m guessing that’s when she met you.”

Paul thought for a moment before he spoke.

“I’m sorry but that sounds kinda weird to me, Mr. Beckett. I mean, you told her what to wear and stuff? Sounds a bit strong. It’s no wonder she kicked at that. I would have, too.” He started to say something about being glad his parents weren’t like that but thought better of it. After all, they weren’t really model parents anyway.

“Well, Paul, I know you’ll be talking to her very soon. I’m sure she has a lot to say to you. And, you can be sure the law will be involved at some point soon.”

Paul groaned.

 

Ramona walked toward the hospital very slowly after her chat with Becky. So much was going through her mind. Maybe she was wrong about church. Well, no, maybe not so much about church but about her understanding and experience with church.

Could it be that in walking away from the church she also walked away from God, throwing both in the same wastebasket.

Becky’s story intrigued her. She tried to imagine what it might be like to have faith in God without being forced to experience Him only through the eyes of a church and its demands on her. What did God demand? What did He really want from her? If what He wanted was to look like everyone else, sing the same kind of music, marry whoever the Pastor okayed and not enjoy life, then that would never work for her.

IF, however, and this was a big IF. If God could love her for the way she was created, the way she seemed to be wired; if God was more concerned about people simply loving Him and loving other people and doing the right things for the right reasons, then . . . then she was in.

 

The afternoon was cool but sunny. Spring was coming. She thought again about the baby’s due date. October seemed so far away. In Maple Valley, that time of year would start bringing the rainy, cold, blustery winter days. Brrrrrr! Summer would be a really different life this year. No stylish swimsuits for her.

She thought as she approached the front doors that she should stop at the desk and get a referral for a pediatrician. Now that she had mostly decided to keep the baby it was time to get that piece in place.

She also told herself that she wanted to come see her dad. But she hoped Paul would be awake. Now this might be awkward with her dad in the next bed but she figured he would be on her side and in spite of the situation, he would protect her.

 

The two men had conversed little since Beckett’s threat about bringing the Law around. Paul’s depression was not improved with the conversation anyway. He considered the morphine drip again.

“Hello Dad, how are you feeling this afternoon?”

Ramona tried to be cheerful, thinking she needed to contrast her attitude with her dad with the one she intended to use with Paul.

“Hi, pumpkin. Your day going alright?

“Ok so far, I think.”

Paul groaned again. Now, he figured; now he would face the music and he didn’t know what kind of tune Ramona would play. He braced himself.

“Looks like you are awake, too, Paul. Guess what? You are a father.”

“Ramona, I . . . I am so sorry I . . . I’m really embarrassed. I had no idea that . . .”

His voice trailed off.

“Do you know what kind of trouble you are in, mister? Do you know? Did you realize how long you could go to jail if you got caught in your little con game?”

Her voice had become strong and she clenched her teeth so that it caused her to literally quiver with anger.

“Did you even think about it before you . . . before you raped me? Before you charmed me and drugged me and raped me? Did you even think with your brain instead of . . . instead of . . .

She stopped abruptly, remembering her dad was in the room.

“. . . instead of thinking about your victim? Huh? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”

“No; no I didn’t. Is that what you want me to say? I totally was thinking about myself; about what I wanted. I have always thought that; what I want in life. I never cared about anyone else but myself.”

Paul’s voice broke.

“Ramona, this, this baby is just way over the edge for me. I actually think I may know how you feel because I have had so much crap happen to me I think this must just be some kind of payback for the life I have lived. I have always been able to control my life and other people but now . . . now I think I’m in over my head. I don’t know what to do.

Paul looked at Ramona with a face that revealed he had met his match. “Can we just talk about stuff? Maybe; maybe you can help me, if you wanted to.”

That last comment disarmed her and partially diffused her anger. Why would he ask her for help? Did he mean it? What kind of help?

She turned so her back faced Paul.

“I . . . I have to think, Paul. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do with that. I need to think.”

Walking past her dad, who was also taken aback by Paul’s request, she went out into the hall. This was not how she imagined the conversation would go. She intended to exert emotional pressure on him and demand some answers, but this . . . this idea of helping him get straightened out; this she didn’t expect.

“Oh God,” she prayed, “I don’t want to be manipulated. Please help me wrap my brain around this. I don’t want to help this man. He hurt me so badly.”

Storied Past – 17

The pain had slowly stolen back into Paul’s consciousness. He remembered the morphine drip and he pushed the button a couple of times.

Then he thought, “Maybe I could push it about twenty times; might solve a few other problems, too.”

That line of thinking caused him recall the confrontation with Ramona. She was right, he supposed. He had been a jerk, though that was so hard to admit for a man with an ego as big as his. He hoped that she would agree to listen to his . . . well; he didn’t quite know what to call it; confession was just too humbling a word.

The next morning, Ed Hammberg, the truck driver, was sitting in court waiting to talk to the judge about his version of the accident. He had “fortified” his courage with an adult beverage prior to arriving, contrary to his lawyer’s advice, but with his record, he figured was going to need all the help he could get.

Ed was Pastor Marlowe’s son-in-law and a long-time church attendee. Of course, there was a time when he was a Sunday school boy and knew all the Bible stories. He was fascinated by the flannel graph cutouts and loved the songs. Nobody else could sing I’m in the Lord’s Army and do all the motions as vigorously as he. But, like Ramona, he had rebelled against the pastor’s strong directives and his constant intervention in the smallest details of the lives of his congregation.

He was deeply struck by Marlowe’s daughter, however, and he played along with the whole system just so he could win Mary Elizabeth’s heart. Though a very pretty girl, no one ever suspected she had any thoughts of her own. She dressed very conservatively and tended to be introverted. With a strongly opinionated father, how else could she be?

Not very long after they were married, Ed started to miss church and within a year he had joined his work buddies at the nightly bar stop before going home. Mary Elizabeth, on the advice of her father, left him and moved back in with her parents. That only served to give Ed permission to engage in whatever he wanted. After a DUI last January, he slowed down for a while but resumed the plunge into self-destruction soon after probation.

Now, as his name was called, he moved to the front of the courtroom.

“Edward Hammberg?” The bailiff called out.

“Yes sir.”

“Well young man, you look familiar. When were you before me last?” the judge inquired.

“Uh, last January, sir,” Ed stated.

“Yes, I believe that’s right, and my record states that we had a conversation about alcohol abuse. How have you been doing with that? Are you attending those classes I sent you to?”

“Oh yes, sir. I went to all of them, sir. All ten weeks.”

Ed was a bit nervous about the question but had attended the AA classes faithfully through the probationary time.

“So then, tell me what happened on the 25th; last Wednesday evening.” Judge Parker prompted.

 

Becky and Ramona stood next to each other serving in the meal line at City Reach. As each person passed in front of her she placed a generous portion of scrambled eggs on their plate and gave them a smile. She also noticed that as the morning flew by she recognized the feeling of joy at participating in this act of kindness and that it energized her. In fact, it became a genuine, fulfilling activity that affirmed her in ways that little else had for a long time. This must be what Becky had referred to last night about becoming who she was wired to be.

She was also to be something else. Morning sickness seemed to be passing more easily but now she had noticed her body starting to exhibit physical signs of pregnancy. Standing that morning in front of Becky’s mirror she could see her profile was changing. The idea of motherhood was settling in to a certain degree and unlike her initial rejection, acceptance of this idea was truly a miracle.

“I don’t know Becky, but I’m thinking I might be able to do this mothering thing; that is, I think I might want to try.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Ramona. I’ll help but I believe you have the self-confidence inside you to raise a child once you’ve made that decision. You are a strong person, you know. Just look at how your conversation went with Paul. You showed your strong side!”

“Yeah, I kind of surprised myself there. But I was ticked and he needed to hear the truth. Of course, I guess I need to hear the truth about my own actions, too.”

Marona; I mean Ra-mo-na,” Marcy had just moved into view. “How’s your Dad doin’ today; how’s he doin’ I mean?”

“Good morning, Marcy! Well, I saw him last night and he fell asleep on me so I plan to get back after I’m done here. Thank you for asking.”

“Awright, that sounds good. Tell him I’m prayin’ for him, OK, I’m prayin’.”

Then Ramona said something she wouldn’t have dreamed of proposing six months ago.

“Would you like to go with me, Marcy, to see my Dad?”

“Yup, I would. Then I can pray for him myself! I’ll be waitin’; whenever you’re ready! I’m goin’ to the hospital to pray for her dad,” she told the man in line next to her. “He’s real sick!”

 

Ed finished his rehearsal of the night of the accident. The responding officer that night gave his report, which largely matched what Ed said. To the judge, the facts were pretty clear that Ed really was not at fault. However, since the judge knew Ed and his propensity for alcohol addiction, he decided an additional rehabilitation effort might be helpful. The judge knew Pastor Marlowe and a little of the home life situation of the Hammbergs and in his wisdom he had a brilliant idea.

“Mr. Hammberg,” he started, “your story and the officer’s story are close enough that I feel like this Mr. Paul Wieser, the victim in this incident, was primarily at fault here, even though you should have maintained control of your vehicle. I also believe that with your record and tendency to want to drive when you have had more alcohol than you should, you need a little accountability in your life. I will call your employer and have a conversation with him but I am assigning you some community service.”

Ed shifted on his feet.

“I am going to have you show up three days a week for three hours a day for a total of six weeks at the service organization, City Reach, down on Main. You can find it. Report back to me in six weeks and we will debrief. Understood?”

“Yes sir, your honor!” Ed replied.

“Next?” the judge queried.

Ed paused for a minute before shuffling off. What was this place? Six weeks? Talk to his boss? Little did he know what was in store for his and Mary Elizabeth’s future.

Storied Past – 16

“Do you know him?” Ramona whispered, not wanting the other bed to eavesdrop.

“Well he, I, I mean he was in the shop a few weeks ago and was hitting on me.”

“On you? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure it was him. Wait, do you know him too?”

“Honestly, I wish I didn’t, but he,” she lowered her voice to where she was only mouthing the words. “He’s the one who attacked me that night, Becky!”

Becky’s face lost color as the news sunk in. “Yikes! That changes a few things.”

Ramona took Becky’s arm and led her out of the room.

“I have not seen this guy since that night, Becky, and I’m not going to let him get away again until I’ve straightened out a few things. I mean it. I feel like pushing his gurney back out into the street and letting that truck have another try!”

“I’m sure you do, Ramona, but look at it this way. Maybe God allowed this to happen to him so he could stop and think about life for a change.”

“I don’t know. What he’s been doing might be pretty hard to change. I mean, look, he charms all these women, has his way and then disappears. He gets what he wants and escapes any consequences. Pretty good gig, from his perspective.”

“Ramona, I know you will remember that there are rules about life; rules that say whatever you sow, you will reap. In other words, at some point, you can’t escape those consequences. It may be that now is that time.”

“Are you saying that because I left church looking to have fun; because I wanted to enjoy my friends and party that I deserved what I got? I didn’t deserve getting pregnant the first time I was with a guy and it wasn’t even my own choice! I was raped, Becky and he needs to pay for that, not me!”

The girl slowed down for a minute to let a nurse pass. Becky spoke up first.

“I’m just saying that along with pursuing justice there is also a bigger picture here. None of this took God by surprise. Not your legalistic background, not the early death of your mother, not your exploring the fun side of life and not the rape. The fact is He still and always has loved you, Ramona. You have been handed a challenging situation now and how you work through it will set the tone for the rest of your life.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, this guy hurt you deeply, I know. Even though your choices put you in a vulnerable place, his actions were very wrong. The facts at this point are that you are pregnant and whether you choose to have the baby or not, it will change your life from what you probably thought it would be.”

“That’s for sure!” Ramona sighed.

“So when I said it didn’t take God by surprise I mean He can accommodate any detours you may take on the way to becoming who you already are.”

“I’m sorry. That sounded pretty confusing, Becky. Becoming who I am? If I already am then why do I need to become that?”

“Ramona, you were born with gifts, a calling and a destiny. You are a unique, one-of-a-kind creation. You have dreams, passions and needs like we all do. But it takes time and opportunity to realize that calling and actually become who we were wired to be.”

“OK,” Ramona replied. “I think I am starting to get that. But how do you know all this stuff? I never heard it in church. I think we mostly were taught we had to become holy, stay holy and then . . . and then, well I don’t know what because I never made it that far. To be a Pastor or a Pastor’s wife was the highest achievement anyone could hope for.”

“That is a calling, but it is not the calling for everyone. There are so many places to serve God and each other and none is better or worse than another. The key is to find that calling you are passionate about and do it with excellence.”

“I guess I did an excellent job of screwing up my life. I wonder if I can ever undo the mess.”

“Ramona, there are some things that can’t be undone. The good news is that there is hope. Hope that despite the mess we may have made, God doesn’t throw up his hands in despair and say something like, ‘There you’ve gone and done something even I can’t fix, Ramona. Good luck, you’re on your own!’ He wants to be in your life and help you become who He created you to be.”

Ramona stared at the still life print on the wall behind Becky. It was faded from so many years hanging in this one spot. At one time the colors were brilliant and happy, but now they were all some varying shade of lavender, bleached yellow and faded red. It struck her that what she had become was a still life image without vibrancy.

Just a few months ago she thought the church couldn’t stop her and the whole world was waiting to show her a rocking good time. Filled with excitement to open each prettily wrapped “Box of Chocolates,” she quickly admitted naivete when one of the first boxes she opened contained a snake; which bit her badly.

She closed her eyes. A tear stole out from one side. Becky noted this and immediately asked God for direction in her response.

“Let’s go home, Ramona. We both need some rest.”

 

Driven by the wind, a steady rain started hitting the window by Paul’s bed rather hard. Along with the darkness, it accentuated the isolation that Paul was feeling. Here he was in this hospital bed; no one he knew was anywhere close and not really able to call anyone just yet.

His parents were divorced and his father moved to the east coast with a new bride. Within a few months, he passed away leaving his mother still in the small town 30 miles away. Paul’s job in sales brought him through Maple Valley every few weeks, which is why he ran into Ramona that night in the roadhouse.

He had few friends since leaving high school due partly to an itinerant work schedule. Craving the popularity he once enjoyed, he replaced the hard work of building quality relationships with manipulative encounters. His inattention to a proper work ethic and several bouts with too much alcohol had resulted in dismissal from his job a few days before the accident.

Truth be known, he had slipped into a depression. That foray into church a few nights before, though he didn’t realize it, was a desperate cry for some kind of help. He had heard about Jesus somewhere in the past but really had hoped to talk to some friendly face. If only he had seen one!

– To Be Continued –