Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Psalm 23 by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I have a confession to make - I don't know much about sheep!  The first time I ever saw a sheep was at the Del Mar Fair when I was a boy.  I was born and raised in San Diego over near Hoover High and we didn’t have many sheep around the house.  We did have dogs, snakes, lizards, rabbits, guinea pigs and goldfish but no sheep.  They were probably illegal anyway.

While sheep have not been a part of my life, sheep are an important commodity in the US and in many countries around the world.   Australia has ten times the number of sheep as people.  And New Zealand, with 3 million people and 20 million sheep, has twenty sheep to every one person.

I also don’t know much about shepherds, although I did meet a shepherd on our trip to Israel.  He was a Palestinian.  We talked to him through our Arab Christian guide and even entered his tent.  He lived a quiet solitary existence surrounded by hundreds of sheep.

But not to worry, not being qualified to discuss sheep and shepherds won’t stop me from delivering a message on the twenty-third psalm.  This poem, this song is one of the most familiar and loved pieces of literature in history.  It is read at funerals, in public worship and private devotions.  It has long been a source of comfort and assurance, and inspiration for Jews and Christians down through the ages.  Here David, a shepherd before he became the King of Israel, ponders the nature of God, the character of God.  David meditates deeply upon God’s goodness. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  What was David imagining here?  What does this image mean to you?  I believe it acknowledges that we are totally dependent upon God.  That God provides everything for our life.  Sheep are dependent upon the shepherd for food, water, direction, protection, and treatment in terms of disease. 

It is an admission that we need help and that God is our ultimate help.  It is saying God is absolutely trustworthy and that we can depend upon him.  God has never been known to harm one of his sheep.

This shepherd is so committed and dedicated to His sheep that he is even willing to put his life on the line for a single lamb – the sacrifice of Christ comes to mind.  To say God is my shepherd is a personal confession:  I belong to God. I am God’s. I am owned by God. I am under God’s power and protection and authority.  It is saying - you know God and you are known by God, you are loyal and committed to God and God is loyal and committed to you.  It means God leads my life, I am a follower and I am obliged to follow God’s leading.  God like a shepherd meets our basic needs.  I shall not want of the basic needs of life.

I understand from both my own reading and from what our guide in Israel told us, that sheep really do know their shepherds and vice versa.  They know and trust the shepherd’s voice.   Sheep will run from strangers, but they will come upon hearing the voice of their shepherd.    To say God is my shepherd means to live in a personal relationship with God.   It’s like a child who says: "That's my mom" or "There goes my dad"?  This is the kind of relationship to God pictured in this psalm.  It is a personal, intimate and close.  What is your relationship to God like?

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.  Picture in your mind a moment in which you just relaxed and enjoyed a moment of peace and quiet.  Maybe basking on the beach in Hawaii or lounging on a warm sunny day in your own backyard.  Like a shepherd God leads us on life’s journey to good places and good spaces.  God pours out gifts upon us in times of need – comfort, strength, rest when we are weary, peace when we are anxious or worried.  God sees our lives and at unexpected moments restores our soul.  Can I get an amen!   God bestows upon us a sense of serenity, a sense of well-being that it is well with my soul, even when things are swirling around us.  

I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message of these words – “You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.  True to your word, you let me catch my breath.”  Can you think of an instance when God led you to such a time and such a place and let you catch your breath? 

God leads us in paths of righteousness or in right paths for His name’s sake.   Yes isn’t this true about God?   God sometimes leads us in paths of righteousness, in paths of duty, in paths of justice or goodness toward others, in paths of the right unpleasant thing that must be done, in paths of service.   God sometimes leads us and calls us to do the right thing or to get involved, even though we resist and don’t want to.   Can you think of an example in your life?

It may be standing alongside someone who is being exploited or oppressed or abused.  It may be getting involved in a cause that you know in your heart needs to be taken on.  It may be sacrificing for someone who is in great need.  I have had friends say to me they felt called to go into the military – they knew it would be difficult but they felt it was the path God wanted them to follow.  I have had friends says they felt called to teach in poor rural communities, where salaries and benefits were low and community resources were lean, but that was the path they felt God was calling them.  I have had friends tell me they felt called to be missionaries in Muslim countries.  They knew it would be dangerous, but they felt it was the path God was calling them to walk.  God may call you to be a whistle-blower or to speak out for something that is wrong.  God may call you to go and do the right thing and apologize to someone you hurt and seek to reconcile that broken relationship.  When has God called you to walk the path of righteousness?   Why do we do it?  For our sake?  No, for His name’s sake.  We do it for Jesus Christ.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death or it can also be translated the darkest valley.   Death is the darkest valley through which we walk in this life.  Death has the darkest shadow of all.  Death, the death or pending death of a loved one or receiving news that you have a terminal illness, strikes the greatest fear.   And yet, by the grace and mercy of God, through prayer and the Spirit of God and the love of brothers and sisters of faith, we can find courage to face it, we can find courage in spite of our fears.

While death may be the darkest valley through which we walk, it is not the only valley in life.  Life has many other valleys and the Bible speaks of valleys as symbols of trials and hardships.  A marriage that crumbles and leads to divorce, alienation from your children and grandchildren, chronic illness, being the victim of a crime, loss of a job, a natural disaster where you lose your home and the list goes on.  All of these are valleys that we fear.   We are frightened that life's happiness might be snatched away from us, never to be regained.

And it’s then that faith brings light to our darkness.  This is what I have found.  Our faith assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  God is with us.  God never lets go of us.  God guides us, God leads us, God brings the right people to us, God surprises us, God brings miracles, small or great, God comforts us.   God is your shepherd.

I think of church members who were grieving, who have told me that without their faith and the grace and power of God, and the love and support of church members and neighbors and friends, they would not have made it through.    I have had people tell me they were contemplating suicide.  But then God reached out to them in a surprising way, in a way which instilled hope, and they changed their mind.

Dark valleys are never God’s destination. They are places that we walk through along the journey.  No we can’t avoid them or escape from them.  But God does not intend for us to live in valleys as our normal way of life.   And when we do walk through such valleys, God goes with us.  God’s goal is to lead us through the valley to the other side.  And I suspect that many of you could say: "That's right! That's right, I've been there, and I’ve experienced that myself."

I will not fear.  Is it that we are never afraid?  Wouldn't it be grand to be fearless in the face of all of the dangers of life?   Is it possible to live without fear in a world where there is evil?  I see a difference between never having any fear and, finding courage in the face of fear, finding courage in spite of fear, overcoming fear by the courage which comes with faith and trust in God.

But God where are you?  Harry Emerson Fosdick was a national radio personality, a teacher and preacher in the 20th century. He once preached a sermon entitled, "Why I Am A Theist.”  In other words why I believe in God.  He said that when he was a boy, he would look out the window and watch the branches and leaves on the tree move.  He would sense the wind blowing and concluded that it was the moving of the branches, that he could see, that caused the movement of the wind, that he could not see.   When he grew to adulthood, he understood it differently, discovering that it was the wind he could not see, that moved the branches, that he could see.  

We also might think of gravity.  No one has ever seen gravity and yet it is a force in our world that is operating constantly and effectively and efficiently in our lives.   Scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight.  Biblically we declare that that which we cannot see rules the world, is in charge of all creation, and moves in powerful and mysterious ways in the life that we can see.

The Bible claims that God is as real as anything else we count as reality. The difference biblically between natural forces like the wind and gravity is that they are impersonal and God is personal.  The invisible God is like a Shepherd, who cares and comforts and leads and protects.  Invisibility makes God no less real, no less powerful, and no less present.  God is close; God is not distant.  God can be trusted to lead us even through the valleys of the shadow of death.  And I truly believe if we are open we can learn something about God and about ourselves when we find ourselves in the valleys of life.

God is more powerful than evil.  God keeps his promises in even the deepest and darkest of valleys.   Can I trust a God I can't even see?   That is the challenge of faith.  Scripture says: “Fix your eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 

You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Here the psalmist suddenly changes his image about God’s goodness.  The mind of the psalmist switches from thinking of God as a shepherd to conceiving of God as a host who offers hospitality to His people.  Even when we are surrounded by enemies, literally or figuratively, in terms of problems, or adversity, or setbacks or crises, God is with us; God is present and offers to us moments of both physical and spiritual renewal and refreshment.    God is an abundant host.

References to oil and to an overflowing cup reinforce this idea of God as a host.  Oil is not something which means much to us today, but in the ancient Near East it was a means of refreshment to weary travelers.  Healing oils were rubbed on the forehead to ease the pain and stress of travel and to help one relax.  The overflowing cup refers to a cup of cool water or a cup of wine.  These were gifts of hospitality to weary pilgrims on their travels.   Eugene Peterson translates this in The Message:  “You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies, you revive my drooping head, my cup brims with blessing.”   Can you think of an example of God offering hospitality to you?

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.     God’s goodness follows us all our lives.  God’s love is constant.  God’s mercy is steadfast.  In these closing words, the psalmist is thinking on two levels – on one level he pictures the great temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and the joy of joining with others together in worshipping God.  “Praise the Lord, praise God in His holy temple.”   But in his mind is even a greater promise, the wonderful promise that one day one would live with God in God’s eternal temple.  It is the vision of heaven.

Here Jesus’ promise in John 14 of the Father’s House with many rooms comes to mind.  Jesus says he is going to the eternal house of God to prepare a place for us.  For you, and for me, and after he prepares such a place, he will come back to take us to this home of God to live forever.  May this familiar psalm on God’s goodness bring comfort and peace to you, as you meditate upon it, both now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Worthy Man (Luke 7:1-10) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A teenage boy had just gotten his driving permit.  He asked his father if they could discuss his use of the family car.  His father took him into his study and said, "I'll make a deal with you. You bring your grades up, study the Bible a little, get your hair cut, and then we'll talk about it."   After about a month, the boy came back and again asked his father if they could discuss his use of the car. The father said, "Son, I've been very proud of you. You have brought your grades up, you've studied the Bible diligently, but you didn't get your hair cut."  The young man replied, "You know, Dad, I've been thinking about that. Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair."  "True son," his father said, "and everywhere they went, they walked."

A study from Penn State researchers published in the journal Child Development tracked nearly 200 families over a seven year period.  Not surprisingly, the study found that time with mom and dad starts to drop when teenagers hit about the age of 15.  The study noted that, generally speaking, the more time teens spend with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, social competence, and sense of well-being.  Teens with involved fathers "may develop higher general self-worth because their fathers go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them."

Today, we remember and honor and pray not merely for the ideal of fatherhood, but for real flesh and blood fathers.  Fathers who take fatherhood seriously and strive to be the best fathers they can be.   For fathers who treat their wives with love and respect as an example to their children.  We remember single fathers, married fathers, young and old fathers, foster fathers, step fathers and adoptive fathers.   For fathers who make promises and keep them, who stand by and support their families emotionally, spiritually and financially. 

Today we pray for fathers who are separated from their children because of military service or alienated from their children because of problems in the family.  We pray for fathers who are grieving the death of a child, and for fathers who have a passionate desire to pass on spiritual and moral values to their children, and who give, not just material things - but their time, their love, their energy, their knowledge, themselves.  

We also pray for fathers who have come to be called “deadbeat dads,” who do not support their children – emotionally or financially.  We pray for a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of attitude, that they will turn to God in repentance, that they will see the light and by God’s power and grace, mend their ways, and become the father’s God wants them to be and the father’s they are capable of becoming. 

Our story from the Gospel of Luke is about a Roman centurion.  He was a professional soldier, a battle hardened man, in charge of 100 soldiers with over which he had absolute authority.  He was a leader, proven in battle, a strong and tough man, a man’s man, a man not to be trifled with, a man who commanded complete respect and trust.  And yet, the story brings out some surprising antitheses, some interesting contrasts in this man’s make up.  I believe he is an example for Father’s Day.

The Centurion was a strong man with a tender heart.   He cared dearly for his servant; there was a close emotional bond between them.  The servant lay critically ill and the Centurion worried that he was on the verge of death, requests Jesus to heal him.  Some fathers are aloof and uncommunicative.  They are uncomfortable when it comes to expressing their feelings or showing affection.  Setting boundaries with children is of course important, but so is expressing concern and affirmation: complimenting them, encouraging them, praising them, being empathetic and involved in their children’s lives.

In a recent interview with New Jersey rock legend Bruce Springsteen, he said that his broken relationship with his father lives on in his songs.   The songs were a way of talking to his silent and distant father.   Springsteen says:  “My dad was very nonverbal—you couldn't really have a conversation with him.   I had to make my peace with that, but I had to have a conversation with him, because I needed to have one. It ain't the best way to go about it, but that was the only way I could, so I did, and eventually he did respond.”  The past, though, is anything but past.  Bruce Springsteen admitted his yearning for what he calls "Daaaddy!"  “My parents' struggles, it's the subject of my life.  It's the thing that eats at me and always will Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.”

The centurion was a strong man with a tender heart!  Such is the Christ-like mark that is possible for any man, and any father.

Further, the Centurion was authoritative and supremely confident and yet a man of humility.   He sends Jewish elder friends to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his slave.  When Jesus was near his house, the Centurion says: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” Can you believe this?  He acknowledges Jesus’ authority by referring to Jesus as Lord.   The centurion had an unusual attitude toward the Jews.  “I am not worthy to have a Jew enter my house.”

From the conquest of Jerusalem, by the Roman General Pompey in 63 B.C., the Jews had lost their independence and Judea was incorporated into the Roman Republic.  The Jews were a conquered people and subject to Caesar and the power of Rome.   And this Roman Centurion with the power of an empire behind him says he is unworthy to have Jesus enter his home.  He respectfully requests Jesus to heal his slave; he doesn’t order Jesus.  He turns to Jesus for help.

Humility, asking for help, admitting that one needs help, acknowledging one’s limitations, is a big pill for some men to swallow.     Being self-reliant, in control, in charge; showing others you are decisive and assertive is the norm for most men.  Pride is a major obstacle.  I have seen marriages flounder or sometimes end up in divorce, because the husband lacks the humility to recognize that a problem exists and that the marriage and the family are in trouble and need help.  “There’s no problem” or “I can handle it.”  But alone, he can’t.

Recognizing one’s own weaknesses as well as one’s strengths, admitting times of being unsure or confused, confessing that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness, having the strength to say “I’m sorry”, or “I was wrong,” or “I need help” or “We need guidance for our family or our marriage - are all signs of humility.    Such is the Christ-like mark that is possible for any man, and any father.

The Centurion also was a man of faith who respected the faith of others.  Here was a Gentile Roman soldier, loyal to Caesar who worshipped Caesar as a god, sending Jewish elders to a Jewish Rabbi.  What an incredible gesture of respect and honor.  What an example of faith.  The Jewish elders give the Centurion an enthusiastic endorsement:  “Jesus, he is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, he built us our synagogue.”   He was a man of faith who respected the faith of others.   He trusted Jesus.  He had complete confidence in Jesus.  He clearly saw Jesus as far more than a Jewish rabbi: “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  Jesus says, “I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”     

The Bible recognizes that fathers too are sinners in need of grace.  Being a father takes time, it is a role that must be learned, it is a maturing process.  It is humbling, challenging rewarding and a great opportunity.   Ephesians 6:4 says: “Fathers, Do not provoke your children, instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”     
How do we bring them up in the Lord?   Fathers, pray for and with them.   There are many examples in scripture of fathers praying on behalf of their children.  Jairus prayed that Jesus would heal his daughter.   King David prayed: “Lord, give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, requirements and decree.”   Abraham prayed for his son Isaac.

Pray for their protection, their strength, their faith, their needs, and their character.  Ask God to help them be good, strong, responsible, to lead productive lives, and to glorify God in all they do.  When a man prays for his children he creates a bond that becomes stronger with each day. 

How? Fathers, give them a sense of identity.    There are family traditions and values; there is a rich heritage in your family that you can pass on to your children.  We are a family with a history and heritage and stories to tell.  Tell the stories.  We are a family where Christ is the center that worships God and prays and reads the Bible.  We are patriotic family and love our country.   We are a family that enjoys adventures together.  We are a family that discusses politics.  We are a family where learning is important.  We are a family which challenges one another and is accountable to one another and yet is always ready to forgive.   Identity is essential.

How?  Fathers, give them responsibility.  Children need to know that you trust them to handle things.  It is instilling in them a sense of competence.  If we give them responsibility when they are young, they will handle it better when they are older.  Teaching our children responsibility takes patience.  Most fathers, myself included, need a lot more work in the patience department.   You have to let go of the reins and let them try.  It is giving them freedom to succeed or fail, both of which provide important lessons in life.  

As I reflect upon being a father and the years Nancy and I spent in raising our sons Matt and Eric, and now in subsequent years of interacting with them as adults, I realize fatherhood is an adventure and a gift of grace, even with its challenges and uncertainties and the trials of adolescence.  Being a father brings meaning and purpose, gratitude, joy and pride, in the best sense of that word, to one’s life. 

The centurion sent Jesus a message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but say the word, and let my servant be healed.”  I personally believe that Jesus on that day and the others on that day felt that this Centurion was a worthy man. 

Jesus declared to the crowd:  “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  And the good news is that when we follow Jesus and embody such qualities in our lives, Jesus will find us worthy as well.     Happy Father’s Day.   Amen! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Burning Bush (Exodus 3) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In the movie Bruce Almighty, actor Jim Carrey plays Bruce, an angry, down-on-his-luck television newsman.  After tiring of the newsman's complaints, God offers him the chance to take over the Almighty's job.  But something totally unexpected happened after the movie hit the theaters.  The movie showed God's phone number on Bruce’s pager, and although movies usually use a phony telephone number, this time the seven-digit number shown in the movie was real for certain area codes.  So soon after all over the country, people started dialing their area code and then that number, leading to some fascinating conversations.

In San Diego, Cathy Romano, president of a company that manages the practices of doctors, was getting as many as 40 calls a day from Bruce Almighty watchers.  One day she decided to play along. "Hello, this is God," she answered on a whim.  The woman caller gushed, "I can't believe it; it's God, and it's a woman!"  Question – does God speak to us or is that idea something make-believe that we only see in the movies?

From the time that I was a child in Sunday school I have enjoyed the story of Moses and the burning bush.  It’s a memorable story that captures the imagination of children, but at the same time conveys an important message for adults.

Moses is tending sheep for his father-in-law Jethro in the wilderness and comes to Mt. Horeb.   Suddenly a bush erupts into a blaze in front of him.  Moses sees that the bush is burning, but is not consumed.  He thinks:  “Check this out, how weird, this bush is burning, but it’s not burned up” or something like that.  Moses doesn’t have a clue that it’s a sign from God.  He misses it completely.  It’s more of a curiosity of nature, an unexpected distraction from working in the heat of the day.   But burning bushes are important.  They symbolize God’s modes of revelation – of reaching out to us, guiding us, directing us and calling us.

I think this story says something about people in the Bible.  It reminds us that though we often think the people of the Bible were so much more spiritual and holy than us, we discover that it’s not true.  They were human and fallible like we are.  When Moses saw the burning bush, do you think he immediately thought: “Verily yonder a bush burneth, God must want to speaketh to me.”  Not at all.

God first had to get Moses’s attention.  God used a burning bush.  God might use a different means today. A burning bush would quickly bring the Fire Department.  Like in Moses day God has to do something in our day to first get our attention.  Why?   We can get so caught up in things, so wrapped up, so distracted, so immersed, that we aren’t in a frame of mind to hear God speaking or see God guiding us.  

How has God gotten your attention?  Can you think of any burning bushes in your life?   Do you ever think that sometimes we too miss God’s initial signs in our lives as well?    I mean if a burning bush doesn’t get your attention and if a voice speaking from a burning bush still doesn’t get your attention, then you are really in trouble.

Then God’s voice sounds forth from the Bush.   “Moses, Moses.”  This gets his undivided attention.   Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look directly at God.

God says to Moses – “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt, I have heard their cries and have come down to deliver them from slavery and bring them to the promised land.”   The oppression of the Israelites has moved God’s heart.  God’s words shock him:  “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  God doesn’t say this is your mission if you should choose to accept it, God simply says I will send you on this mission.  Does Moses reply:  “God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, on ruler of the universe, You have selected the right man for the job, I’m ready to go.”  Does he say, “God I couldn’t think of anyone better suited for such a mission?”   No, quite the contrary. 

And then follows a series of classic excuses.  “But God, who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  I'm a nobody.  When we say to God "I'm a nobody," God's response is always "I know."  God is not looking for extraordinary people; God is looking for ordinary people who will trust an extraordinary God.  Does God leave Moses hanging?  No God says: “Moses I will be with you, I will go with you.

But God, If I come to the Israelites and say, The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, What is his name, what shall I say?   I don't know what to say.”   What does God say to Moses?  “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what to say."

But God, what if they say:  “The Lord didn’t appear to you!  What if they don't believe me or listen to me?”  God's answers: "It's not your job Moses.  Your job is not to try to convince someone or twist their arm, or fix everything or solve the problem or have all the answers, your job is only to be obedient to me,  to obey my call, the rest is my job.

But God, I’ve never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.   I'm not good enough. I’m not a good public speaker.”  God's response to that is "Who made you?  I know you better than you know yourself, I know what you’re capable of.  I will be there with you.”

David Ring, an evangelist with cerebral palsy, says "I can't even pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus, but I'm going to brag about Jesus until the day I die, so what's your excuse?"

Now just when you think Moses has run out of excuses and that God has convinced him, he turns to that age old fallback position “Please send someone else.”  And God says: “Nope, I’m sending you.”   Now as we know, after all was said and done, Moses ultimately obeyed God.  But God also heard Moses, and told Moses to recruit Aaron, Moses’ brother, to assist him in this great mission of deliverance. 

When God gets your attention, pay attention, I hear the story saying that.   When God lays something upon your heart, the hurt of a friend, the hurt of a community, the hurt or struggle of someone in your family, then listen.  God may even specifically give you the name of an individual to pray for or to call or to reach out to.  God will lay it clearly upon your heart, not as a requirement for the grace that is ours in Christ, but as an opportunity for someone else to experience God’s grace through your forgiveness, through your act of mercy, through your investment of time and love, through your witness, through your courage.

I think of times when out of the blue, I have thought of someone and decided to call or contact them and they say:  “You know I was thinking about you, so glad you called, or you know I have been dealing with a difficult time in my life, thanks for calling.”  Was that a call from God?  Was God prompting me?  I believe it was.

To have a personal relationship with God means you must be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God will prompt you, guide you, direct you, call you.   True, we are not infallible about whether or not we are hearing from God.   Can I prove that thought was from God?  No.  So it helps to understand God’s will is always in sync with the truths and principles that we know from Scripture. That God’s promptings, God’s call, is always in line with the scripture, in line with the gifts and abilities God has blessed us with, in line with a call to service, in line with a call to repentance and confession.    Often the Spirit will prompt us with thoughts: a thought to write somebody, to serve somebody, to get involved, to make a commitment, to do something, to confront somebody.   

When those thoughts come, the point is to listen, to pay attention, and to obey God’s prompting.  I recall the story of Christian author, political and social critic Os Guinness.  He was convinced early on in his life, that now that he was a Christian, he needed to meet everyone’s expectations by becoming a pastor.   So, urged on by his spiritual mentors, he became a pastor and worked for a well-known church, but he was miserable.  He was extremely unhappy.

One day God opened his mind through a random encounter at a gas station.  He had enjoyed a conversation with the mechanic at the station.  He writes:  “As I turned on the key to start the car, a thought suddenly hit me with the force of an avalanche.  Ten minutes of conversation with a friendly man at a gas station and I knew once and for all I was not cut out to work in the church as a pastor.  Through that conversation God released me from what I was not supposed to do, and I found the freedom to pursue God's true calling for my life.”  Was God speaking to Os through this mechanic?

You never know in what circumstances you might hear the call from God.   God called Millard Fuller during a time of crisis in his marriage.  At 29 years of age, Millard walked away from his life as a wealthy and successful businessman to devote himself to the poor, eventually starting Habitat for Humanity in 1976, which spread what he called “the theology of the hammer” by building more than 300,000 homes worldwide.  He died in 2009 at 74.

Mr. Fuller’s life changed completely after his wife Linda, whom he had married in 1959, threatened to leave him.  She was frustrated that her busy husband was never around, and their marriage and family was falling apart.  They spent time soul-searching. After a time of prayer in a motel room, they heard God’s call to totally change their life.  The two agreed to start their life anew on Christian principles.  Eschewing material things was the first step. Gone were the speedboat, the lakeside cabin, and the fancy cars.  Today, more than a million people in 100 countries live in the homes built by Habitat for Humanity.  All because God called out to them in the midst of a marital crisis and both Millard and Linda listened and obeyed the call.

It’s strange.  The Israelites were suffering under the yoke of slavery.  And Moses turned out to be God’s answer to that situation.  Yes, know this, in certain situations you are God’s answer.  No not someone else, you are.  God is calling you to a task or mission. God wants to use you to accomplish his purpose.  Yes, you may initially come up with excuses like Moses, but also like Moses, trust that God will be with you in that call.  God will always grant you the grace, power and guidance to accomplish what God sends you to do.

I close with a story by Garrison Keillor titled - Your Forgiven Already.  "Larry the Sad Boy ... was saved 12 times in the Lutheran church, an all-time record.  In nearly 10 years he threw himself weeping and contrite on God's throne of grace on 12 separate occasions--and this in a Lutheran church that wasn't evangelical, had no altar call, no organist playing "Just as I Am Without One Plea" while a choir hummed and a guy with shiny hair took hold of your heartstrings and played you like a cheap guitar. This is the Lutheran church, not a bunch of hillbillies. These are Scandinavians, and they repent in the same way that they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time. ...

Twelve times!  Even the fundamentalists got tired of him. ... God did not mean for us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee or start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and ... make church coffee and be of use to God."   Yes, pay attention.  You never know when God might speak in a burning bush to you.  Amen!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Celebration of Life (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes:  “My five year old daughter Jennifer just loves her grandmother.  My mother likes to talk about God with my daughter.   For example she asked Jennifer: “Honey, who made the trees?" "Who made the sun?" "Who made you?”  “God did,” Jennifer answered.   They were having so much fun I decided to go for a walk and left my daughter with her grandmother.   When I returned, I asked how things went.  My mother said: “Fine.  I walked into the living room to find toys scattered everywhere.  I asked Jennifer, "Who made this mess?"  Looking at me with those big beautiful eyes, Jennifer said, "God did!"
Today we reflect upon the celebration of life.   I want to thank Pam Powell for helping us today to recognize the 22 members of PBPC who have reached the exceptional age of 90 or older.   They have been on life’s journey just a little longer than the rest of us.   But keep breathing, keep moving, we will be happy to recognize you when you reach ninety. 
The so called graying of America continues. The number of senior citizens in the United States is rapidly increasing.  The number of seniors grew from 3.1 million in 1900 to 33.2 million in 1994.  By the year 2030, one out of every five Americans will be a senior citizen.   Life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was about 47.  Today, the average lifespan for men is 75 and for women about 80.  By 2040 its projected that the life expectancy for men will be 86 and for women 91.
Life.  We value it.  We cherish it.  We celebrate it.  We try to extend it as long as possible.  Pharmaceutical companies are producing drugs to enhance longevity.  Some researchers claim that red wine has been found to lengthen the human lifespan.  Our lifespan is of course dependent upon a variety of factors like genetics, which we can’t do anything about to social and environmental factors, which we can do something about, such as having access to adequate health care, positive social relationships, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, exercising, getting an adequate amount of rest, eating a balanced diet, coping with stress, and having a positive outlook.  Studies also clearly point out the significant role that religious faith and prayer and worship play in our journey of life.
We gain wisdom about the celebration of life from modern psychology.  Erik Erickson, the noted 20th century American developmental psychologist constructed the classic theory of the Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development.  It ranges from the first stage of - birth to 18 months to the eighth stage of - maturity to death.    Each stage faces 4 tasks - a psychosocial conflict, a major question, a basic virtue and an important event.
In the eighth and final stage, which occurs during adulthood from age 65 through the end of life, the Psychosocial conflict is - Integrity versus despair, the Major question is - Did I live a meaningful life, the Basic virtue is - Wisdom and the Important event is Reflecting back on life.    
He writes:  “Older adults need to look back on life and come away with a sense of fulfillment.  Success at this stage leads to feelings of satisfaction and wisdom and the reassurance that they lived a meaningful life, while failure results in having many regrets and feelings of bitterness and despair over a life misspent and wasted.  Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.”
Now let us turn to the scripture for some biblical insights about life’s journey?  What truths do we learn from the scriptures from a theological perspective?   The Bible declares that human life is a gift from God.  Human life is an expression of God’s grace.  We didn’t create ourselves.  Human beings are created by the design of another.  “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female God created them.   Your life is unique, inimitable, irreplaceable, incomparable, matchless; there is no one else in the universe exactly like you.  
The Bible portrays life as transitory.  We are mortal   Our lives have a beginning and an end.  Our lives are fleeting, swiftly passing by.  The days and years seem to fly by faster and faster.  Is that your experience as well?  Nancy and I can hardly believe that we are now grandparents.  We were married at such a young age.  The psalmist writes:  “O God, we are like a dream, like grass which grows up, that in the morning is fresh and flourishing, and in the evening fades and withers.” 
The Bible declares that suffering, pain, and disappointment are part of life’s journey.  Because of human sin and evil life is not always fair and not always just.  The scriptures look at life realistically.   Take Ecclesiastes for example.  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.  What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?  A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  All things are wearisome, more than one can express, the eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing.”  
The Bible declares that we were created for relationships and friendships, with God and one another.  The role of the family and the faith community is crucial along the journey.  We read inspiring stories about Ruth and Naomi, about Esther and Mordecai, about Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, about Jacob and Rachael.   The psalmists say: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing God’s praise in the assembly of his faithful people.  Worship the Lord with gladness.  For the Lord takes pleasure in his people.”
Recall Jesus’ poignant words on the cross, just before his death, when he spoke to his mother Mary: “Woman, here is your son.”  Then Jesus said to a disciple: “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”  God didn’t intend your life or mine to be lived alone or in isolation from other people.
The Bible declares that life has seasons.  We need to be aware of them, to grow in them and learn from them, to be patient in them, to persevere in them, to maintain courage and a positive outlook in them, and to trust in God and God’s guidance in each of those seasons.  We consider for instance the years spent in school, seasons of joy and seasons of grief, the season of marriage, the season of pregnancy and birth, the season of parenthood, seasons of success and seasons of failure, seasons of moving to new communities, seasons of spiritual or health crises, seasons of becoming empty nesters and retirement. 
Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”  God establishes seasons or special times in our lives.  We need to seek to understand God’s timing, God’s lessons, God’s moment, God’s purposes and plans in the seasons of our lives.
The Bible declares that life is to be treasured.  Do you treasure life?  I love the sentiment expressed in Genesis 25:7: “This is the length of Abraham’s life, 175 years.  Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man, full of years, and was gathered to his people.”  There is a distinct note of completion and fulfillment in these words.
The Bible speaks of the importance of a positive and hopeful attitude.  “I Thessalonians says:  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you.”    Life is to be lived in thankfulness and hope and gratitude for God’s grace and mercy.   It is to be lived with a sense of appreciation for one’s blessings and gifts.  Do you have an appreciation for life?
God wants to use us for His glory and purpose at all stages of life.  God is not finished with us when we grow older.   Yes, there is social security I am told and retirement in life, but there is no retirement in the Kingdom of God, or in other words, in God’s plans and purposes and will for our lives.
Regardless of our age, God calls us to be his hands and feet and voice and servants in this world.  Remember when the angels told Sarah, whom by the way we would have honored today that she would give birth to a son.  What was Sarah’s reaction?  Sarah laughed and said:  “Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?”  God’s plans will not be denied.  Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. 
Yes, God has created us in His image in such a way that our creative energies still flow as we grow older:  Tennyson was 83 when he wrote “Crossing the Bar;” Verdi was 74 when he produced Othello; Lawrence Welk was 89, when he stopped leading the band; Lucille Ball was 77, when she concluded her brilliant comedic career; Jack LaLanne celebrated his 70th birthday by towing 70 boats across the Long Beach Harbor by holding a rope in his teeth, while handcuffed and wearing leg shackles.  That gives me something to shoot for when I turn 70.  Mother Teresa was in her mid- 80’s and still ministering to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta and sportscaster and Padre’s baseball announcer Dick Enberg is still going strong at 78. 
I think of people I’ve known over the years, like Bob, who started a prison ministry at 65, Katherine who was visiting Alzheimer’s patients in her eighties, Jan who in her nineties was writing letters to church visitors, and Virginia who in her nineties was active on the church prayer chain.  Such people are an inspiration.
Yes, we know that our heath plays a major part in our ability to get involved and use our talents as we age.  That is true.   But so does attitude, and so does faith, and our desire to serve God and please God and praise God and obey God. 
I think of older members of our congregation at PBPC who serve God effectively with dedication and enthusiasm and are active in Christ’s ministry in the church and community.  Each of us has been given gifts and talents that God calls us to use at different ages.   Volunteer opportunities in the church or in the community are endless.  No, God is not finished with us quite yet. 
God wants us to gain wisdom in this life.  An unexamined life is contrary to the will of God.   In psalm 90:12 we read: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”   The book of Proverbs says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the awareness of the Holy is insight.”   Fear of the Lord in the Hebrew sense means having a sense of awe about God, deference for God, respect for God, and reverence for God.   Wisdom begins with acknowledging deep in our being that we belong to God and are to glorify God with every fiber of our being rather than our seeking self-glorification.  So the days and years spent and how you spend them count, they matter to God.  The late Norman Cousins wrote: “Death is not the greatest tragedy which can befall a person; rather, the tragedy is in what dies in a person, while he or she is alive.”   An examined life means striving to live wisely.    
As you celebrate life are you gaining wisdom?  I hope I am.  I truly hope so.  Knowing that our days are numbered should cause us to ask questions like: “What is God’s purpose for my life and am I fulfilling it?”  “What do I want to accomplish before I die?”  “Am I going to use my God given talents or let them lie dormant?”   “Am I going to serve and care for others or expect others to serve and care for me?”  “Am I going to be a generous?”  “How can I be a good brother or sister, nephew or niece, wife or husband, or father or mother, uncle or aunt, grandfather or grandmother, great-grand father or great-grandmother or friend or neighbor?”
 I close with the words from this poem by William Courtenay:  “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Let us truly celebrate life’s journey in light of the one who is our dwelling place in all generations, from everlasting to everlasting.   Amen!