Friday, July 31, 2015

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

A mother writes:  “My four 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 the animals?”  "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 Mavis Qualsett, our Coordinator for Congregational Care for helping us recognize the 19 members of PBPC who have reached the exceptional age of 90 or older.   They have been on life’s journey a little longer than the rest of us.   But don't lose hope, keep breathing, keep moving, for one day we will be happy to recognize you in worship when you reach the age of ninety. 

The number of senior citizens, of which I am proud to stand among, is rapidly increasing in America.   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.

We value, we cherish, we treasure life.  We try to extend it as long as possible.    Some researchers claim that red wine, in moderation, has been found to lengthen the human lifespan.

Our lifespan is of course dependent upon a variety of factors like genetics, over which we have no control.  It is also dependent upon social and environmental factors, which we can do something about, such as having access to quality health care, positive social relationships, maintaining a positive mental attitude, a healthy lifestyle, getting adequate rest, eating a balanced diet, and finding effective ways to cope with stress.  Studies also clearly point out the significant positive role that religious faith, prayer and worship play in our journey of life.

We gain wisdom about life's journey 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 - birth to 18 months to the Eighth stage - maturity to death.    Each stage faces four 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 about life's journey from a theological perspective?

The Bible declares that human life is a gift from God, God is the creator.   We didn’t create ourselves, nor is our creation an accident, a fluke of nature, a primeval event where chemicals and gases bumped into each other and humanity spontaneously exploded into existence.  The book of Genesis says:  “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female God created them.”  Your life is unique, irreplaceable, matchless; there is no one else in the universe exactly like you. 

The Bible teaches that life is transitory.  Our lives have a beginning and an end.  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.”  Our lives are swiftly passing by.  The days and years seem to fly by faster and faster.  Can I get an amen to that.  Nancy and I are thankful and happy to be grandparents, but Wyatt and Haven are already 2 years old.  They are growing up fast, soon they will be off to college, getting married, having children of their own, well I might be getting ahead of myself just a little.

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.  So we depend upon God, we depend upon Jesus, and one another to help us get through the unexpected detours and challenges of life.

The Bible declares that we were created for positive and lasting relationships with God and one another.  The role of the biological family, friends and the family of God, the church, is crucial along the journey.  The psalmist says: “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.”

The Bible declares that life has seasons.  We need to recognize them, to grow in them, to 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’s guidance in those seasons.  Seasons of childhood, youth, adulthood, seniors, marriage, singleness, parenthood, illness, seasons of success and failure, seasons of spiritual or health crises, and seasons of 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.

Scripture says 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.   There is no retirement in the Kingdom of God, no not 65, not 66, in other words God’s plans and purposes for our lives continue until we take our last breath, and the last trumpet sounds, and we hear God's heavenly call.

Remember when the angels told Sarah, Abraham's wife, who by the way would have qualified for being on the list today, that she would give birth to a son?  What was Sarah’s reaction?  She 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.  God had plans for Abraham and Sarah at their advanced ages.

God has so created us that we can be useful to God at all stages of life.   Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as grandma Moses, was 76 years old the first time she started to paint.  Tennyson was 83 when he wrote “Crossing the Bar;” 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 while holding a rope in his teeth, being handcuffed and wearing leg shackles.  That gives me something to shoot for when I turn 70.  Sportscaster and Padre’s baseball announcer Dick Enberg is still going strong at 80.  He just received a prestigious broadcasting award at Cooperstown, New York.   There are many exciting volunteer opportunities in the church and in the community around us.  When God is finished, God will let you and me know.  But as of now, God is not finished and calls us to glorify Him in His Kingdom. 

The Bible speaks of the importance of  maintaining a positive and hopeful attitude along life's journey.  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 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?

I quote from our friend, Rev. Dr. Jim Hagelganz, former interim pastor, guest preacher and teacher on many occasions, from his blog which I know some of you receive:

“God’s Lord’s Day Morning to my Fabulous Family and Friends…Some things to think about: Confronted with Choice.  I was recently diagnosed with a muscle atrophying disease for which there is no cure.   It can possibly be controlled but it is progressive. (and as you know, I’m not a progressive politically) Facing this, I am confronted with a choice. I can grouse, get depressed, feel down and complain that I’ve been given a raw deal, etc.; or take another route!

I chose to take the other route. Psalm 139:15-16 says God, (the Transcendent sovereign God) “made all the delicate inner parts of my body and knit them together in my mother’s womb. (God’s) “workmanship is marvelous.” (God) “was there while I was being formed in utter seclusion! (God) saw me before I was born and scheduled each day of my life before I began to breath. Every day was recorded in your book.” (Wow, what an amazing statement).

I totally and deeply believe this.   It’s been basically a lifelong commitment. My life began with God.  God has been with me throughout my life.  Called me and granted me his salvation.  I’ve had a great life, marvelous times and tough times – cancer twice, Diabetes, heart problems when a child; now a heart pacemaker, other negatives with bumps and pain, but many great times with fabulous family, friends, sports, a calling in work that made it possible to interact and have positive impact on lives by sharing the gospel. O yes, some negative impact too… I’m not perfect. As I look back I see the leading of God in my life; he has led me through it all.

Now he leads me on another what appears to be a difficult trail.   It is difficult for me to walk; often with cane, now possibly a “walker” which my former doctor and friend used.  Hands are weak: difficulty using fork and knife at times while eating… deterioration is taking place.  My choice? Well, God has been good to me all these years. He has led me in the past. I believe he is leading me into a new adventure. Who knows what exciting living is ahead… new people to meet--- new doctors, nurses, and others, people to whom I may have a unique opportunity to minister. Old friends and of course family are near too… O there will be down times, possibly some depression, but I choose not to stay there.  I’m choosing to walk with God.

Also, there is a day coming when it will all be over here for me. But I look forward to that day. (no I don’t want to rush it) There is a spiritual that goes, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin through.” I remember that. (You are too! “The death rate is 100%.”) Jesus has gone on to prepare a place for me/us John 14:1-3. Wow, to be with him and also all my family and friends who are already there. I’m ready to go…

You see, I walk with God and it is an exciting walk… many new things are coming and I am going to experience them. Some good… some maybe not so good, but it is a new adventure and I’m not alone. God is with me and I am basically happy. Concerned, yes!  But living the adventure with joy. That’s my faith!  My choice! What’s yours? …something to think about…eh?  One of the meaningful and joyful experiences of life is to love… to love you all…yep, I sure do.  DAD/GRAMPA/GREAT-GRAMPA/UNK/CUZ/FRIEND/ETC.

I  love what Rev. Hangelganz wrote.   God wants us to gain wisdom in this life.  God wants us to glorify Him and love him and others.  God wants us to draw near to Him as God has drawn near to us in Jesus.   In psalm 90:12 we read: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”   Lord teach us to number of days, to think about them, to examine them, in light of our faith in God as we know Him in Jesus Christ.    Our motto in this journey is – “I belong to God.”  For how you spend your years matters, it matters a great deal to God.  The late Dr. 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.”

Here are some questions to consider: “Will you glorify God in all that you do?”  “What is God’s purpose for the years before you?”   “Are you going to serve and care for others?”  “Are you going to be generous with your time, talents and resources?”  “Will you strive to gain wisdom?”

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!

Friday, July 24, 2015

When We Remembered (Psalm 137:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One summer evening, during a violent thunderstorm, a mother was tucking her 4 year old son into bed.  She was about to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, "Mommy, I don't want to be alone, will you lie down next to me until I fall sleep?"  The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. "I'm sorry Dear," you'll be fine, she said, "I have to sleep with your daddy."  After a long silence, in a shaky little voice, he whispered: "The big sissy.”

When GQ magazine asked basketball star Kobe Bryant if he had any friends he answered: “I have "like minds." You know, I've been fortunate to play in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of people like me.  Actors. Musicians. Businessmen. People who feel like God put them on earth to do whatever it is that they do.  Now, do we have time to build great relationships? Do we have time to build great friendships?  No.  Do we have time to socialize and to hangout aimlessly? No.

Then the interviewer asked, "Do you miss the idea of having a great friendship?" and Bryant replied: Of course. It's not like I'm saying, "I don't need friends because I'm so strong." It's a weakness. When I was growing up in Italy, I grew up in isolation. … I was the only black kid.  I didn't speak the language. I'd be in one city, but then we'd move to a different city and I'd have to do everything again. I'd make friends, but I'd never be part of the group, because the other kids were already growing up together. So this is how I grew up, and these are the weaknesses that I have.”

Another story is about Mary who has been in a convalescent hospital for three years.  She spends most of her time in her room alone, watching television or reading or sitting in a chair staring out the window.   Her children and grandchildren live across country.   She rarely has phone calls or visitors.  She doesn’t talk much to the other residents or they to her.  

Here are two faces of loneliness.  It’s a reality that touches all ages – youth, young adults, the middle-aged and the elderly.

The late Roman Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen writes:  “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.  The growing competition and rivalry which pervades our lives from birth has created in us an acute awareness of our isolation.  This awareness has in turn left many with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community.  It has led people to ask anew how love and friendship can free them from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging.” 

Loneliness is a part of the human condition.  It expresses the pain of being alone.  What are its manifestations?  You feel that no one truly understands you, that no one really knows you.  You feel that you don’t really belong.  You aren’t special to anyone.  There is no one you can really talk to.  It’s the sense of being forgotten, overlooked, excluded, missing out.  It’s the fear that no one really cares that you exist.   I have felt lonely at different times in my life.  We have all felt lonely at times.  There is of course a stark difference between bouts of loneliness and chronic loneliness.  Loneliness touches our soul, because the prospect of being alone is a fundamental human fear. 

It’s not the number of people around you that triggers your loneliness; it’s your relationship to them.   Do you feel connected or disconnected?  I’ve talked with people who will go to a movie or restaurant or shopping mall when they are lonely just to be around people.  Sometimes it helps.  But other times it merely intensifies the awareness of their loneliness.

Can you be wealthy and lonely?  Ask Howard Hughes.  Can you be famous and lonely?  Elvis sang – Heartbreak Hotel, “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I could die.” Can you be popular and lonely?  Ask Michael Jackson. 

One psychologist describes three types of loneliness: transient, situational and chronic.  Transient loneliness is a sudden passing feeling; it lasts a few minutes to a day or so.  Situational loneliness is a common reaction to transitions and separations - divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a loved one, a lasting argument with a friend, a serious and debilitating illness, moving to a new location, changing jobs or losing a job, retirement, or children leaving home for college.  Effects can last up to a year.  Chronic loneliness refers to people who feel lonely for two or more years at a time, when no traumatic event has taken place.     

In the Bible a psalmist cries out:  “Turn O God to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted.  We turn to our scripture from the psalms.”  Another Psalm is 137.  It is the melancholy song about being strangers in a strange land.  The historical setting is when King Nebuchadnezzar and his armies of Babylon or modern day Iraq conquered Jerusalem.  The Jews of Jerusalem suffered two deportations under this king, one in 597 B.C. and again in 587 B.C.  The Jews were rounded up, taken captive and transported to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar didn't take the entire population of the city, but only the cream of Jewish leadership, the educated, the skilled, the wealthy, the poorer population was left behind to harvest the crops. 

This psalm captures the downcast spirit of the Jews in exile, for they missed their friends, families were broken up or killed, they missed worshiping together in the temple, they missed their home, their land and their culture.  “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” which is another Hebrew name for Jerusalem.

Since loneliness is part of the human predicament, we all must learn ways of coping with it.  There are certainly unhealthy and self-defeating ways of dealing with loneliness.  Becoming a workaholic, spending yourself into deep debt, staying home all the time, turning to alcohol or drugs, watching television constantly, or sitting around doing nothing for yourself or others are clearly unhealthy ways.

Are there positive and constructive ways to overcome loneliness?  I offer these biblical principles.  First, God has given us the capacity for solitude, which is the other side of being alone.  Solitude expresses the glory of being alone.  You can enjoy time alone, it’s a gift from God.  Solitude is being able to spend time alone without feeling lonely.  It is spending time doing things alone like gardening or resting or reading or meditating or thinking or praying or recalling past memories.  It can be a refreshing and renewing and revitalizing gift from God.

God has created human beings and we are a contradiction.  We face a dichotomy when it comes to our needs.   We have the need for meaningful relationships and the need to be alone; we desire  companionship and we desire solitude.   Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden Pond, wrote:  “I never found the companion that was so companionable, as solitude."     Solitude is a wonderful gift of God don't you agree?

Second, take responsibility for your loneliness.  Ask yourself – Is my loneliness my own doing?  We sometimes bring loneliness on ourselves.   We close ourselves off from others.  We shut the door on others.  We cut ourselves off from family, colleagues and friends.  Know this, God brings people into our lives – are you open to them?  God didn't create us to be alone.  God created us for family, for friendships, and for community.

A poem titled The Shell says:   “What are you like inside that shell?  Sometimes you seem like a tough nut to crack.  That smile you give me.  Does it come from inside or outside your skin?   Would you give me the time of day?  Forget that.  I don’t need your time.  I need you.  Would you dare to give me yourself instead of your time?  Sometimes you are so solemn you frighten me.  Your life is a gift of grace.   Does it take on more value if you fear to enjoy it?  Would you open up a little?  But wait.  I will let my shell be cracked first, and you may come into my life.  What have we got to lose, except our loneliness.

Third, discern God’s presence and call in your loneliness.   Ask God to help you use your time wisely.  Don’t allow loneliness to paralyze you into doing nothing. God speaks to us in our loneliness, listen to what God is saying.  Henri Nouwen writes:  “The more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon, a deep incision in the surface of our existence, which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.”

Loneliness can be a perfect opportunity for us to hear the voice of God.  Don’t let it be a missed opportunity.  Listen, pray, read Scripture.  God can use your loneliness to stir things up.  Loneliness can be a window for God to get your attention and help you gain new insights and self-understanding.  God may be coaxing you to be more empathetic to the needs of others. God may be saying you need to restore a broken relationship - go to that person you have hurt or who hurt you and ask for forgiveness or seek reconciliation.  God may be saying you need counseling for the grief you are going through, grief from a broken relationship, from an emotional wound that is draining your energy. 

God may be calling you into service, into volunteering your time, into helping others.  Instead of focusing inward, focus outward on other people.  Use your time and talents.  There are opportunities in the church and in the community.   Focusing outward upon the needs of others, and not only ourselves, diminishes our own loneliness.

Fourth, God has called you into His family of God, the church; celebrate the gift of Christian community.  As Christians we are members of a faith community.   The church, the body of Christ, as imperfect as it is, as human as it is, is a Spirit-filled community in which Christ has invited us to belong to. 

Don’t stay on the periphery, don’t remain an objective observer.  Get to know your Christian brothers and sisters - worship together, serve together, praise together, learn together, pray together, witness together, fellowship together, laugh and cry together.

Jesus our Lord understands your loneliness.  He experienced it during his ministry and in a profound way on the cross.  Grow to appreciate God's gift of solitude, take responsibility for your loneliness, listen for God’s call in the midst of a lonely time, and celebrate the gift of Christian fellowship.  Amen! 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Hometown Disappointment (Matthew 13:54-58) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A man was heading home after work and decided to stop to watch a Little League baseball game.  He asked one of the youngsters what the score was.  “Well we're losing 18-0.  Oh, said the man, I must say you don't look very discouraged.  Why should we be discouraged Mister, we haven't come up to bat yet.”  You've got to love that never say die spirit.

What is discouragement?  At its core, it's a loss of courage.   You find that you have lost heart.   It's a loss of confidence or motivation or self-assurance or hope.   Familiar words which closely resemble it are being demoralized, despondent, dejected, disheartened, dismayed, or dispirited.   Does anyone know what I'm talking about?     It's not a healthy place to live mentally and emotionally.  It's color is gray and sometimes dark, it's not a bright and shining place to be.   It can be contagious to those around you.  It's also universal, it catches up to all of us sooner or later, including yours truly.  Some of you may be wrestling with discouragement this very morning.

Even Jesus was not immune; he too knew such times.  In our lesson from Matthew, we find Jesus dismayed because of what was occurring in his own hometown.  Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a town in the region of Galilee, in northern Israel, with his mother Mary, father Joseph, and his siblings.  Everyone knew him from the time he was a child.  One day, after being away for a period of time, Jesus returns to his hometown and begins teaching in the synagogue.  The towns people are critical and skeptical of his teaching and demonstrations of power.  They ask:  “Where did this man get these things?”  “What's this wisdom that has been given him?”  “Isn't this the carpenter?”  “Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?”  “Aren't his sisters here with us?”   They were offended by him.  He was greeted with incredulity, hostility and skepticism.

Perhaps Aesop, of Aesop's fables fame was right, familiarity breeds contempt, the more you are acquainted with someone and know their faults and shortcomings, the easier it is to dislike them and not respect them.   The townspeople shut Jesus out.  The audacity, the arrogance, the impudence of him coming to our town and saying these things.  Jesus says with a heavy heart:  Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house, is a prophet without honor.”   It was a bad day for Jesus.

Why do people get discouraged?  Consider some of the causes.  First, it comes from fatigue.  Weariness is a common source of discouragement.    Someone said:  Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”  I've seen it in my own life, I suspect you have seen it in yours.   You are bushed and become physically and emotionally drained.   Then you are vulnerable.   Problems become magnified, they appear larger than they really are.   Relatively simple challenges seem overwhelming.  You lose heart and discouragement takes over your mind.  You wonder if you will get through something or if you will ever complete that initially simple task before you.

A school photographer was snapping pictures of first graders at an elementary school, making small talk to put his subjects at ease.  "What are you going to be when you grow up?" he asked one little girl.  I don't know she replied, but my mom says she is always tired, so maybe I'll be tired to.”  The remedy for such a condition is obviously rest, relaxation, getting away, taking a sabbath, a break from the pressures and demands upon you.

Second, discouragement stems from times of failure and frustration.  You become frustrated with not reaching your goals.    Though you are working hard you don't seem to be getting anywhere, you can't seem to complete your task or carry out your responsibility.   The sense of accomplishment eludes you.  Things are not turning out the way you had hoped, your self-confidence is shaken.  You are frustrated with the trivial things and perpetual obstacles that consume your time and energy.  You get burned out and lose heart.

A classic example is the mythical Greek figure Sisyphus.  He was condemned to everlasting punishment in Hades.  The punishment was to roll an immense boulder up a hill, and then when it was just about at the top, it would come plunging down to the bottom.  He had to repeart that futile process day after day for eternity.  Can you imagine such a punishment.   Conversely, one author wrote:  I know people who work incredibly hard all the time, but they never burn out, because they are reaching their goals and living with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.”

Third, discouragement comes from fear.   Fear that things won't turn out well, fear of failure, fear that the worst will happen, fear that you are inadequate, fear of criticism, fear of what people will think about you or say about you.   You so desire to win someone's approval,  but you can see it isn't happening and it becomes a worry and concern.    Dr. David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mt. Community Church in El Cajon writes:  Occasionally, I receive a critical letter from someone who has heard me speak or read something I've written.  It seems that those letters always arrive at the most inopportune time.  You may be struggling already, and you open the mail and discover someone has directed a barrage of criticism at you.  And you start believing the criticism, wondering if you ought to even continue the work you’re trying to accomplish.”   Yes fear is a common catalyst, your confidence is shaken, you lose courage, and you lose heart.

I remember feeling so good when I read that story from Dr. Jeremiah, whom we know is a respected nationally known pastor, author and speaker, who has his own television program.  No matter who we are we all have times when we feel vulnerable.  It reminded me of the time when I was serving as pastor of FPC, Santa Monica.   It was my first few years as pastor.  I had been counseling a man for months about problems he was having in his marriage and his business.  He told me what an encouragement I had been to him and that he was planning to join the church.   One day he called and invited me to breakfast.   After a time, he said he had something to tell me, that he was leaving the church.  I asked him why.  He said: “Well you are just not a good preacher and I don't get anything out of your sermons.  I felt like someone had literally kicked me in the stomach.  It shook my confidence to the core for a period of time.  I too began to ask myself if being a pastor was my true calling.   Thankfully, by God's grace after a time I bounced back and mentally got back on my feet.  Resilience is a wonderful gift.   I also learned a valuable lesson that God taught me.  Never let someone's critical and negative opinion have such power over you.

Is there a remedy, an antidote, for seasons of discouragement?  Yes, here are some biblical responses.

First, persevere.   Don't quit at the first sign of problems or trouble.   Scripture says: “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered, be steadfast, stand firm, let nothing move you, always give yourselves fully to God's work.”  Don't give in or give up too quickly.  There can be invaluable lessons God wants to teach us during difficult times, and we need to just tough it out, trust in God and persevere.  Devise a new plan, a new strategy for reaching your goal.  Seek  wisdom from others.  Find a new perspective, a new angle.  Re-set your aim at your target.  Just because  there are problems, doesn't mean you are not in the right, place, at the right time, doing the right thing.
Second,  fight the gloomy outlook!  Resist it, don't yield to it.  Scripture says - fight the good fight of the faith.   Don’t give into discouragement and allow it to rob you of your power and enthusiasm and energy and joy.  God gives us power to resist such things.   Pray for God's help to lift your spirit.  Pray for that power to stop yourself from sliding into mire of discouragement.  I have found this is true in my prayer life, no, not always, but it happens.  The Bible teaches that we are in a spiritual battle, a supernatural conflict with negative forces.  The book of James says - “Resist the devil.”  Why - because Satan loves to take us down.  The devil knows that a discouraged Christian is ineffective.  When you are dejected and disheartened, your power and potential to be a witness for Christ falls dramatically.  It’s impossible to share Christ’s joy when there is no joy in your heart to share.

Third, remember that Jesus Christ is your Lord, leader and ruler yesterday, today and always.    Remember God’s goodness to you in your past.  When you recall the good things God has already done in your life, your spirit will be lifted.  Remember God’s closeness in the present.  God is with you whether you feel Him or see Him or Sense Him or not.  Jesus promises - “I am with you always.”  Phil. 4:13:  I can do everything through Christ, because He strengthens me.”   Get your mind off your circumstances and on the Lord.  Scripture says, God will console us in times of discouragement.  The first place to begin when discouragement sets in is prayer, and then, turn to uplifting and inspiring scriptures, and let the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit infuse your spirit and renew your heart.

Fourth, though it is hard to admit to ourselves, sometimes we must finally put a halt to our efforts, apply the brakes and move on to something else.   “Stop beating a dead horse” sums it up.  The problem is that there is no magic formula for one to know when that time has arrived.  Prayer is always required here.  It's a decision of faith.  It's a leap of faith.  How much time do you give it?   That is always the question.

Jesus himself recognized that the time had come in Nazareth.  Jesus could see his ministry was not bearing fruit, it wasn't being received, it wasn't being embraced in his own hometown.  He gave it a chance.  But at some point, Jesus recognized that his efforts were futile, useless and so Jesus left Nazareth and moved on to the next town.  God sometimes call us to let go, to put it behind us, and to move on.  What do you hear God saying to you? 

In what area of your life are you feeling discouraged?  What is it that you are struggling with now? 

I leave you with a scripture which has inspired millions of believers over the centuries:  It is from Isaiah 40:  “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.  He gives strength to the weary and power to the weak.  Those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not be faint.” Amen!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Freedom's Gift and Task (I Peter 2:16-17;Galatians 5:1, 13-14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is located in Havelock, North Carolina, close to some of the Atlantic's most beautiful beaches.  But when visitors come to Havelock, the first thing they hear isn't the ocean's waves; it's the roar of fighter jets.   Since 1940, the sound of jet engines have echoed through the local skies.  The Marines from Cherry Point don't mind the noise.  As a matter of fact, the entrance to Cherry Point Marine Air Station has a large sign that reads: "Pardon our noise, it's the sound of freedom."

On July 4th our nation celebrated Independence Day.  What an all-important day.  For we remember the story of our nation's beginnings and the incredible sacrifices of our nation's founders.  It's a day to give thanks to God for His blessings upon this nation.  I hope you had a good 4th of July. 

Independence Day honors one thing – freedom, liberty.  According to many observers it is the beacon, the ideal of what America represents to the world.   Of course glorifying freedom in general is one thing, defining and applying it specifically to reality, to issues and our way of life is something else.  What does freedom mean to you? 

Historically, political, economic, social and religious freedom was the motivating force in the American Revolutionary war for independence against Great Britain.  We were inspired by noble ideas about self-government, individual liberty, economic opportunity, freedom of worship and fair representation.  Yesterday celebrates 239 years from that historic moment in Philadelphia in 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to approve and sign the Declaration of Independence.

We have built a nation founded upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, a tradition under God, with principles like freedom and values like justice.   We believe freedom is worth sacrificing for.  We believe freedom is worth working for.  We believe freedom is worth dying for.  We thank the brave men and women of our military, who have sacrificed their lives to ensure the liberty which we enjoy as Americans.

Recall these famous words from the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”   Our first amendment protects rights of people: free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble peaceably, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The Bible has much to say about freedom.  It teaches that human beings because of sin are never totally or fully free.   Isn't that a bummer?  We are always vulnerable to, tempted by, or subject to some form of slavery.  We must keep alert.  We think for example of people consumed by consumerism, constantly buying more and newer things.   Author Phillip Yancy writes:  “I remember reading the account of a spiritual seeker who interrupted a busy life to spend a few days in a monastery. "I hope your stay is a blessed one," said the monk who showed the visitor to his cell. "If you need anything, please let us know, and we'll teach you how to live without it."

We think of people who are slaves to drugs, to pornography, to alcohol, to gambling or money or power or hate or evil.   Because of human sin, that is, self-centeredness, self-worship, idolatry, disobedience to God's laws, we are always vulnerable to becoming slaves to something or someone.

Scripture further teaches that freedom is a divine gift, a divine right which comes from God.  God is free and we are made in God's image so that we might exercise our freedom.  Galatians says:  “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

You and I were created by God to live free lives in our relationships with God and one another.  Freedom is a divine gift; it is God’s will. Our freedom is grounded in the liberating work of God in Jesus Christ. The good news is that no matter what you or I are in bondage to, what we are enslaved to, through faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be delivered and begin to experience the freedom which God intended for us.  Therefore, stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Scripture further teaches about the nature of Christian freedom?   Is freedom being able to do whatever you want whenever you want to?  Is freedom the ability to be reckless and shiftless and irresponsible?  Sure it is.  Well, maybe not.

Biblically, that is simply another form of slavery, slavery to one's whims, impulses and selfish desires.  Christian freedom is a paradox – Christian freedom is becoming a slave to Christ.  Biblically, true freedom is being a servant of God.  I Peter says:  “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.  Honor everyone.  Love the family of believers.”   We read in Galatians:  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”   We read in I Corinthians:  “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win some of them.  To the Jews, I became as a Jew in order to win Jews.  To the Gentiles, I became as a Gentile in order to win Gentiles.  To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.”   Christian freedom is becoming a slave to Christ.

Further, Christian freedom is both a gift and a task, a gift of grace from God and a task for God.   The gift, through faith, of being free from the controlling power of sin and Satan in our lives, the freedom which comes from knowing you are accepted and forgiven by Jesus, freedom to know God loves you, freedom from the fear of death, and  freedom from hopelessness.  On the other hand, freedom is a task given to us by God: the freedom to love God, to worship God, to serve others, to share our resources, to guide others, to pray with others, to encourage others, to love neighbors after the command of Jesus Christ.

God's gift of freedom is at the same time a task for the Church – to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to heal the sick, to help the poor, to share the gospel.  There are Christians like the coalition of Roman Catholic organizations involved in fighting against the evil of human trafficking, the slave trade of humans.  Human trafficking enslaves people into forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.  God is bringing freedom to modern day slaves through His church.

Clearly, the issues today about freedom are complex and highly emotional.  Implementing the principle of freedom is never simple.    For example, in regard to immigration and control of borders and the debate about the God given human right and freedom to travel, to move from one country to another verses a government's right and duty to protect the nation and provide for an orderly process of immigration.  Or the right and freedom of individual privacy, which we all treasure dearly verses the need for national security and governmental surveillance.

Or the current debate about the recent supreme court decision legalizing same sex marriage in all 50 states.  For some its a non-issue and for others its a major issue.    The court has declared the right and freedom for gays to marry.   Christians differ on this issue.  Christian Pastors and Jewish rabbis disagree on this issue.  Non-believers don't all agree on this issue.   I know that members and friends of this congregation hold different views on same-sex marriage.

Some make a case by pointing to biblical teachings about marriage and others point to the separation of church and state.  Some argue for the right of states to set marriage policies and guidelines and others argue for the federal government's right to over-rule them.  There is discussion about the religious freedom of churches and pastors or Christian colleges and what this new law means for them.  There is the discussion about marriage verses civil unions and domestic partnerships.

As I have stated before, based upon scripture, I believe that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.  On the other hand, I also believe in equal legal rights for all American citizens under our constitution, rich and poor, old and young, educated and uneducated, gay and straight, black and white, male and female, religious and non-religious.  Marriage affords far more legal rights to people than civil unions.

I think the demonizing and labeling and name-calling on both sides is unconscionable.  Self-righteousness on either side should be condemned.   Pursuing one's convictions is important, but however one feels, we must strive to see these issues with the mind and heart of Christ.  That's what separates Christians from non-Christians.  We must treat people with respect.

Why?  Scripture declares that God so loved the world that he sent his only son.  So it's crucial that whatever our viewpoint, we must be guided by Jesus' command to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.   For freedom is both a priceless and gracious gift from God our creator, and Christ our redeemer, and a task for His followers in our daily lives.  For freedom, Christ has set us free.  Amen.