Monday, August 18, 2014

Oh, the Stress (II Timothy 4:6-18) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A photographer was snapping pictures of first graders at an elementary school and making small talk to put his subjects at ease.  "What are you going to be when you grow up?" he asked one little girl.  The little girl paused and then replied:  “Tired."

Here are some humorous comments about stress.   “Reality is a leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.”   “I used to have a handle on life, but mine broke.”  “I'm not stressed out.  I've just been in a very bad mood for 30 years.”  “I'm not saying I'm stressed, but I've been seriously thinking about billing my doctor for the time I spend in the waiting room.”  “You know you're really stressed when you start getting on your own nerves.”  I'm not saying I'm stressed at work, but I've been taping pictures of my boss on water melons and lauching them from high places.”

Anyone here know anything about stress?  Stress is a normal and inevitable part of life, everyone faces it.  You are not alone.   Stress influences how we interact with others and how we feel about ourselves and our future.   We generally use the word "stress" when we feel that everything has become too much - we are overloaded and question if we can cope with the demands and pressures placed upon us. 

When demands are felt to greatly exceed our ability to cope with or deal with them, we are stressed out.  Stress includes feelings of tension and anxiety.  It's the wear and tear our minds and bodies experience as we adjust to our continually changing environment.     One definition is that stress is the combination of a stressor and the body’s reaction to it.  Stress is the body's response to changes that create taxing demands.  Stressors are triggers that cause us to experience stress. They can be major life events or small daily hassles.  Being stressed can be a temporary condition or chronic.

Stress must be taken seriously.  It has been linked - directly or indirectly to hypertension, cancer, depression, ulcers, and heart disease.  

Surprisingly, stress can be a positive in your life.  Yes, I said positive.  Sometimes stress get's you going and is good for you.  Positive stress provides mental alertness and efficiency.   Positive stress feels exciting, generates energy and improves performance.  It can increase self-esteem.  Without any stress wouldn't our lives be boring?  Wouldn't they feel pointless?  Stress can help to motivate you, to help you focus, and drive you to meet your deadlines.  It can give an extra burst of adrenaline to help you meet your goals. 
Positive examples of stressors, which may seem daunting at times are planning a wedding, having a baby, moving to a new community, buying your first home, graduating from college or getting a new job or being promoted at work.

But when the stress undermines both our mental and physical health it is negative. Negative stress feels overwhelming and out of your control.  It threatens our equilibrium and well-being.  Examples are the loss of a job, divorce, a car accident or illness.   Physical signs of distress include: changes in eating or sleeping patterns, weakness, dizziness, frequent headaches, neck and back pain, and frequent colds and infections.  Emotional signs include: persistent hostile or angry feelings, increased frustration with minor annoyances, nervousness, lack of concentration, anxiety, and depression.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical danger.   Symptons, like recurring flashbacks, continue to occur.  The mind and body reacts as if you are still in immediate danger.  PTSD is common to war veterans, the VA deals with this regularly, but it can also result from other traumatic incidents, such as a mugging, rape, child abuse, car accidents, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.  

I think of the stress President O'bama and his cabinet is under given the state of the world today.  He knows Americans generally don't support more involvement or sending more ground troops to Iraq.  On the other hand, an evil terrorist group, Isis, is rolling over northern Iraq, killing and displacing innocent people.  They are threatening genocide against Christian minorities in Iraq.  They have committed attrocities against Muslims and Christians.  Obama, as we have heard, has decided to send humanitarian aid and to authorize military air strikes to attempt to stop this terrorist group from commiting genocide.  Our prayers are with the president and his cabinet, the brave pilots conducting the strikes and the innocent people of Iraq.  

In our passage from II Timothy, the apostle Paul is under stress.  He is in prison in Rome.  I’ve personally been in a number of prisons in CA, not as an inmate, let me be clear, but when I was a Criminal Justice major at SDSU, and just being in a prison raises one’s anxiety level.   

The apostle Paul is writing to his close friend and associate Timothy from prison.  Paul knows that his death is near at hand. “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  In his time of deepest need, Paul’s friends had deserted him. “Demas has deserted me, Crescens has gone, Titus has left. Alexander, the metal worker did me a great deal of harm.  In speaking of being in court and defending himself against charges, no one came to my support, and everyone deserted me.” 

The Apostle Paul openly and honestly shares his feelings in that situation.  Have you ever been stressed out?   What are some antidotes to stress?  How can we better cope with and reduce stress in our lives?  Certainly we know that getting regular exercise, learning to meditate and relax, getting rest, taking a break, and other things are important antidotes.  But I offer some insights based upon this lesson. 

First, know who you are and whom you are called to serve!   Paul opens this letter with the testimony: “Paul, an apostle (that is, one who is sent) of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.”  Paul knew who he was.    

The 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher Socrates said:  “Know thyself!”  What does this mean? I think it means know your capabilites, your limitations and your strengths, know your heart and your mind.  Know who created you and who called you.  Know the one whom you ultimately serve and are accountable to.   If you don’t know who you are, you are vulnerable to allowing others to define you and you are susceptible to collasping in despair when challenges face you.  

Our faith says: ”I know who I am because I know whose I am.  I am made in God’s image.  I am a forgiven sinner.  I am a child of God.  I am a servant of God.  I am a friend of Christ.  I am loved by God.  I am accepted by God.  Christ is with me.”

Second, know your purpose, what you’re trying to accomplish!   Paul’s mission was clear:  God had called him as an apostle to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.  He writes: “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all of the Gentiles might hear it.”  Seek a clear sense of your purpose in every situation of your life.  Sometimes we find ourselves asking – “What in the world am I doing, why am I here, what am I trying to accomplish?”  Seek clarity in your purpose and persevere.   This may be a situation in the church or in a relationship or at work or in the community or in your family.   Know why you are doing what you're doing.

Having a plan, setting priorities and goals is critical, because otherwise you’ll be pressured to follow or conform to other people’s ideas and expectations about what you should be doing. You’ll feel pressured to do things which you may not feel in your heart is right for you.

Certainly we listen to others, I'm not saying that.  For sometimes they are right and other times they are wrong.   Don't assume others advice must be right or must be wrong.  Filter it through your sense of your own purpose and priotities.

Third, seek out support from others.   Paul writes: “Do your best to come to me quickly.”  There is an urgency here.  He doesn't say “hey, give me a buzz when you have a moment, text me when you get a chance.”  But rather - come quickly.   Reach out to others.  Communicate with others, don't let your pride stand in the way.  Talk to others you trust about your situation and the overwhelming pressures you are feeling.  Shun the Superman/Wonderwoman urge, “I can handle it by myself.”   God will work through others to sustain you.   You need other people for spiritual and emotional support.  

When something is stressing you out, don't bottle it up; share it with a trusted friend.  Paul, virtually alone in prison, further writes: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.  Only Luke is with me.”    Reach out for help from others.  It is amazing how most people are ready to listen, pray with you and give support.   God will speak and reveal himself through others.

Fourth, keep your focus on God!  Keep God at the center, maintain your daily walk with the Lord, know whom you truly worship and depend on and rely on.   Look at your schedule for the day or week and pray: “God, out of all the things I could do, how do you want me to spend the time you have given me.”  “Or God these are the things I must do, I pray for strength and guidance and peace.”  Spending time in prayer for God’s guidance will reduce anxiety and stress and bring you peace. 

Sometimes in the midst of life’s burdens, stress and pressures we lose our focus and turn away from God, the source of life.  We take a detour from nourishing our soul, our spiritual life and try to solve the problems alone.   When we lose our spiritual focus, stress quickly builds.  Recall Paul’s words in Philippians:  “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Make a commitment to maintaining a regular pattern of worship and personal prayer and time in the word. 

The apostle Paul makes the following request: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.”  These would have included the O.T., perhaps the Gospel of Mark, a scroll of the teachings of Jesus, copies of his own letters and other important documents.   Paul knew these resources would inspire him.  

I love his closing words: “Everyone deserted me, but the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.”  “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly Kingdom.  To him be glory for ever and ever.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

For Just Such a Time (Esther 4:9-17) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On February 27, 2012, 17-year-old T. J. Lane from Chardon, Ohio, burst into his school's cafeteria and started shooting classmates.   He shot and killed three students.  Had it not been for the courage of Coach Frank Hall, many more students could have died that day.  Coach Hall doesn't consider himself a hero.  The 6'1", 350-pound football coach admits that he has plenty of fears.  He hates confrontations.  He's afraid of heights, roller coasters, and scary movies; and he jumps through the ceiling when his kids sneak up on him.  On one level, Coach Hall is more of a teddy bear than a fighter.  He loves kids.  He says: "Every kid is someone's pride and joy or wants to be someone's pride and joy …. I keep thinking, How would I want my kid to be treated?—and then I treat them that way."

As a father of four adopted children, coach Hall also sees himself as a protector of kids.  So as the shots rang out in the High School cafeteria, coach Hall knew what he had to do.  He said as a Christian, he felt the hand of God through the ordeal, and responded with courage in the face of danger.  

As students cringed under desks, coach Hall charged at the gunman, his voice booming, "Stop! Stop!"  The 17-year-old shooter was thrown off-guard by Hall's charge.  He shot and missed.  And the coach continued to charge at Lane, who turned and started running.  Police finally found Lane on a wooded road, shivering and wearing a t-shirt with the word KILLER on it.  When they asked him why he'd run away, he said, "Because Coach Hall was chasing me."

In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her bus seat to a white man.  In her book Quiet Strength she writes:  "When I sat down on the bus that day, I had no idea history was being made—I was only thinking of getting home. But I had made up my mind. After so many years of being a victim of the mistreatment my people suffered, not giving up my seat—and whatever I had to face afterwards—was not important. I did not feel any fear sitting there. I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face. It was time for someone to stand up—or in my case, sit down. So I refused to move.

These stories have one thing in common, they are about the right people, in the right place, at the right time, who did something noble, who took a stand, who acted with courage.   Each one had a God-given opportunity to make a difference and they seized it. 

What is an opportunity?  An English Proverb says: “Make hay while the sun shines.”  Samuel Johnson wrote: “To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life.”   John Flavel wrote:  “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” 

Someone said opportunity is like an open window.  But a window of opportunity won't open itself - You must seize it.   An opportunity is made great or poor in direct ration to the quality of the character you bring to it.  An opportunity is seized or missed, in relation to our being prepared to make the most of it.  There is a call to duty and responsibility in opportunities.   If we bring our faith to it, it can be used for the good of others and for the glory of God.   God gives us opportunities.

Can you look back and think of opportunities you missed, that you let slip through your fingers?  An opportunity you had to speak, but you remained silent.  Can you think of opportunities you seized and made the most of?   God will offer you and me new opportunities in our lives.  Are you ready?

In our story from the Old Testament, Esther comes face to face with an opportunity in the form of a pending crisis.  The environment is extremely hostile.   The Jews are living in exile in Persia, modern day Iran.  Though Esther is the queen of Persia, she had been forced to marry the king and her power was limited.  The King's power is absolute.  Esther, a Jew, was faced with an opportunity fraught with peril, to save her people from annihilation by the Persians.  

Haman, the king's second in command, had deceived the king into issuing an edict to exterminate all Jews in the realm.   Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and Esther, could have tried to escape and save themselves.  But instead, they saw it in a radically different light, that God had placed them in that position for His higher purpose.  They saw it as an opportunity to be used by God for a good and glorious deed.  Hear again Mordecai’s famous reply to Esther:

Do not think that because you are in the king’s house, you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.  And who knows, but that you have come to Royal position for just such a time as this?”

Esther realizes that she has a chance to save her fellow Jews in her privileged position as queen.  But even more, she begins to sense her divine destiny – here was a chance to be used to deliver her people from annihilation  for the glory of God.  It's a decisive moment.  And so, without being officially summoned before the king, and knowing full well the law of death, for such impertenance, Esther approaches the king and tells him of the deception behind the edict to kill the Jews.  A miracle occurs.  The king listens and Esther and the Jews are spared.

There are insights we can gain from Esther's story.   Her eyes were open and she saw the opportunity.  She believed God would act at the right time.   She trusted God to be with her.  She prayed for the courage to act.  She commited herself to be used as God's agent to save the Jews even at the risk of her own life.  She seized the moment and took action, rather than procrastinating.   It was a moment that could not be put off.  She prayed and fasted and thereby asked for and relied upon God’s help on her dangerous mission.   She didn’t over-analyze the situation, realizing the urgency and need to act. 

Are you faced with a difficult situation that requires action?  Maybe its a situation at work or in the community.  You may realize its time to talk with a spouse or friend on a delicate subject, or talk to your family about changes which you believe need to be made.  You too may see a situation where you alone have the opportunity to make a difference.  Rather than turning away from such challenges or putting them off, pray to God for the courage to take action and trust in God to use you in that situation.  Be inspired by Esther’s courage and example.

I close with the story of Sandra McBrayer, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Children's Initiative and an internationally known advocate for children, youth and families. The Children's Initiative is a San Diego based child advocacy agency dedicated to assisting children, youth and families to help them thrive and prosper. 

In 1987, Ms. McBrayer saw the plight of homeless children in San Diego.  She saw how they were not going to school and receiving an education. She saw an opportunity and acted.  She founded and developed the first successful school in the United States for homeless and unattended youth, serving as head teacher for Monarch High School.  It began as a drop-in center before being transformed, like a butterfly, into the Monarch school of today.  

McBrayer had been teaching juvenile offenders in the court school system, when she came up with the idea of a school specifically for homeless children.  She said: "I realized that part of our responsibility is to take school to the students and not just wait for them to come to us."  

You never know when God will call you to fulfill his will at a particular time and place.  You never know when God will call you to act in a decisive moment, to change lives or to save one life, to act righteously and courageously on behalf of family, friends, even strangers or for a cause.  It can come at anytime, because you are the right person, in the right place and at the right time. 

As followers of Christ, God calls us be channels of his will, agents of his kingdom, lights in the darkness.  God brings sacred opportunities to serve Him and His kingdom and he calls us to seize them.  For remember these words, “Who knows, perhaps you are in this position for just such a time as this.”  Amen!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Celebrate the Journey (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

An elderly man had some serious hearing problems.  His family tried repeatedly to convince him to get a hearing aid.  Finally he went to the doctor and was fitted for a set of hearing aids that dramatically improved his hearing.  A month later he went back to the doctor for a checkup. The doctor said with a smile, "Your hearing is perfect. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again."  The old man replied, "Who said anybody told them?   It’s been fascinating just listening to their conversations.” 

Today we celebrate the journey of life, a journey which represents the plan of God.  Today we recognize those who are 90 years old or above.  Why?  Because birthdays say you are valued, you are special, you are unique, your life is priceless.  The Bible and our Christian Faith, unlike our culture which glorifies youth only, affirms that every stage in the journey is significant, every stage is important, every stage is a gift from God, to be accepted and appreciated, to be faced with faith and trust and courage, from the beginning to the final stage of the journey. 

Some people steer clear of that 3 letter word – OLD.  “Don't you be calling me old.”  “Come over here and I'll show you what old is.”  Humor is critical at every stage.   An older member of our congregation in CO used to say - “The name senior citizen has got to go. The correct term now is “the chronologically gifted.”  He also said: “I don’t like the term old folk’s home senior housing.  I say the chronologically gifted reside in a mature congregate living community.

We soon learn that you can run from aging, but you can’t hide from it.  Today we often hear of products that are anti-aging, that fight the aging process, that slow down aging, that promise to make you look years younger.   Well, after-all, who would buy something that speeds up aging? The rapid aging of our American population called the “Graying of America” is one of the most significant forces shaping our culture.  In the United States the proportion of people aged 65 or older increased from 4% in 1900 to about 12% in 2000.  Experts estimate that about 17 % of the population will be 65 or older in 2020. 

The journey has been studied by the best and brightest thinkers for generations.  Erik Erikson, the 20th century developmental psychologist, famous for his eight stages of life 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.

Artists have been inspired by the journey.   Some artists, like Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci scorned elderly faces as "monstrous wrecks.  Older persons didn't fare well under his brush.  Others like Baroque artist Rembrandt, painted old age with a nobility and power that no artist has ever approached. He recognized "the dignity and character of aged faces" and embraced "the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious, and rich."  Do you agree?

Rembrandt was fascinated with aging, his own included.  For instance at the height of his career, Rembrandt painted his “Self Portrait at the Age of 34.   Decked out in an elaborate and fashionable costume, Rembrandt looks self-assured and even snobbish. But nearly thirty years later in 1669, the year of his death, Rembrandt painted “Self Portrait at the Age of 63. In this painting he wears a simple peasant coat and beret. His face looks wise, humble, and peaceful.  Yes Rembrandt is an artist to grow old with."

The Bible looks at this final stage of life as a time of enrichment and fulfillment and considers old age a virtue and a blessing. The Hebrew word for old, zakein, means elder and is synonymous with "wise".  The Bible commands us to respect older persons because of their life experiences and wisdom.  Old age is considered a blessing from God.    The book of Genesis says: “Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and the Lord has blessed Abraham in all things. 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.”  These verses ring with dignity and reverence toward older persons.

Without question there are challenges associated with aging.  Dealing with health issues and illnesses, like Alzheimer’s and physical decline and diminishment due to a lifetime of wear and tear on the body can be daunting.  There is the death of long-time friends and having to cope with grief and loss is common as we grow older.   We begin to lose our independence.  We need to learn to depend on others and accepting such losses and changes is difficult. 

God's desire is at whatever our stage along the journey, that we strive to embrace it with grace, that we have the spirit and will to accept our limitations and to reach out for help or accept offers of assistance from others with humility and gratitude. 

Some persons as they age become bitter and withdraw from those around them.   They isolate themselves, cut off ties with family and friends, and become virtual hermits.    Other people believe that even in the midst of increasing limitations, there is the possibility of a quality of life worth living.   When John Quincy Adams, our 6th president, was an elderly man, a young friend asked "How is John Quincy Adams today?" Adams replied:  “John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you.  But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, thank you.”

The Bible declares that God isn’t finished with us as we age and still calls us to worship and service.  Abraham and Sarah are good examples.    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.  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.  

I remember a friend, Bill Buettner, in his eighties, from the church I served in Santa Monica, who was extremely lonely when after 60 years of marriage, his wife died.  His children and grandchildren lived across country so he didn't see them often.  The church asked if he would like to volunteer with their Wednesday evening children’s ministry.  Being in his early 80’s he wondered about how it would work being with children.  But he started coming, telling stories, helping with meals and games, and loved it.  The kids started calling him grandpa; they would run up and talk with him and hug him on Sunday mornings.  He became a super-star on Sundays with the kids.  Bill said he had a new purpose for his life.  He helped in that ministry until his death.

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 ended her brilliant comedic career; Jack LaLanne celebrated his 70th birthday by towing 70 boats containing 70 people for a mile across the Long Beach Harbor by holding the rope in his teeth, while handcuffed and wearing leg shackles, something I've been considering 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. Dick Enbert is going strong at 79 as the announce for the Padres.  Padres Broadcaster Jerry Coleman was 89 when he died after a distinguished life and career.  Aretha Franklin, at age 72, sang the National Anthem at Harvard's Commencement ceremonies in May of this year.

We ask questions at every stage of life's journey.  Some are unique to the particular stage but other questions are applicable for every stage like: “What is God’s purpose and am I fulfilling it?”  “What do I want to accomplish before I die?”  “Am I using my God given talents?”   “Am I going  stay engaged, stay involved, stay active or withdraw, retreat, and disengage from people and activities?”  “How can I be a good brother or sister, wife or husband, father or mother, uncle or aunt, grandfather or grandmother, great-grand father or great-grandmother, friend or neighbor?”  How can I glorify God?

In his book Nearing Home, Rev. Billy Graham offers the following reflections about growing older:  “When Coca-Cola changed its one-hundred-year-old formula in 1985, there was a public backlash and demands for the original, so within two short months, the company was forced to return the beverage to grocery shelves under the name of Coca-Cola Classic, spiking sales for the soft drink company. The conclusion of marketers was that the formula had stood the test of time. The trade-secret had trumped the new recipe, as proven by the millions of fans who did not want the "real thing" tampered with.

What does this have to do with growing old Graham continues? “Old is authentic. Old is genuine. Old is valuable. Some say old is even beautiful …. The older generation may have a hard time keeping up with the younger, but let's remember that the generations that follow are learning about growing old from us.  Are we good examples? While we have all made mistakes and would like to turn back the clock to correct some things, we know this is not possible. But the lessons we have learned from our successes and failures can help those following behind. The impact we can potentially have on them can mean the difference between leaving good memories in our place or simply being out of sight, out of mind.

I close with a quote from Norman Cousins:  “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.“   Remember the truth we hear in Romans 8: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, nothing, not even age.”    No matter what your stage on the journey, may you always dedicate your life to bringing glory to God.  Amen!