Friday, September 30, 2016

Don’t Lag, be Ardent (Romans 12:9-21) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A visitor to Minnesota writes about his experience.  “In the community of Nisswa, Minnesota, an event happens a couple times a year which draws people from all around, the popular Nisswa Turtle Races. Every Wednesday evening in the summer months, the people of Nisswa and the surrounding communities gather at a designated parking lot for the weekly races.

It's big excitement and big business. Vendors rent turtles; others sell "turtle products." And the fans gather early, placing their chairs and blankets in the best viewing sites. In one recent contest, 435 turtles raced in heats of fifteen over a six-foot-long course.

Bif, the announcer, calls the turtles to their mark, gives them the "Go!" . . . and the crowd goes wild. People stand, jump, and wave their hands in the air, imploring their turtles to be unturtle-like. The excitement grows and finally reaches a boiling point as the preliminary winners all gather for the championship race.

Amid unrestrained shouts and cheers, the first turtle crosses the finish line, and the winning "trainer" receives five dollars—along with a turtle necklace. What an uncharacteristic frenzy of emotion for the normally reserved folks of Northern Minnesota!”

Exuberance, enthusiasm, what do you get excited about?  The stress and tension, the hurt and
disappointments, the pressure and demands of life take their toll; they constantly threaten to deplete our energy and vitality.  Life can lead us down dark roads of pessimism. You know people who have lost their zest for life.  Who have given up?  The truth is that life can become routine, we can become stagnant and lose our vivacity.

When you think of someone you know who is enthusiastic who comes to mind?  The word "enthusiasm" is actually derived from the roots of two Greek words; en — “in or within” and theos — “God.”   It means having God within or being inspired or possessed by God.   I don’t know but there’s just something about enthusiasm, it’s contagious.   It’s catchy.   It rouses people out of their lethargy.

Enthusiastic people light up our lives.   They stir us up.  They have an ability to radiate energy.  They are curious, inquisitive.  They are intensely interested in other people.  They aren’t afraid to try something new.  They focus on the positive, when things are negative; on what’s possible, when things seem impossible, on clearing roadblocks rather than being stopped by them.  They look for solutions to problems, rather than blame.  They look for options, possibilities.  They feel deeply and laugh often.  A sense of humor is key.  They don’t take themselves so seriously.  They give themselves fully in what they do, no matter how small the task. They serve a greater purpose than themselves.

In her book Exuberance: The Passion for Life Kay Jamison profiles Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, whose passion for the glories of the natural world touched and influenced millions. This buoyant quality enables people to do great things.   Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm."  There is a playful dimension in the spiritual writings of the Christian Saints like Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth century mystic, who wrote: “Be Juicy people, filled with wonder, delight, and optimism.”

If all we do is complain, we need a change of attitude.  If we are negative much of the time, often feeling sorry for ourselves, if we see darkness rather than light most of the time, we need a change of heart.   Why?  It’s not healthy.  It’s not what God intended for your life or mind.  And further it’s not a great way to make friends.  People get tired of hearing us.  Let’s be honest, people stop listening after a while.

I remember a woman who was extremely critical, negative, always complaining, and a poor listener. She was difficult to be around for very long.  She said one time, “I just no longer have any friends, they are all busy, they don’t have time for me, no one calls me anymore.”  How do you want to be remembered?   “She was a glass half empty person; we called him Mr. Crabby.”  God didn’t say, “I think I’ll create a race of grumblers.”  God wants us to live passionate, helpful, hope-filled, positive, committed, and energized lives.  A lack of enthusiasm often stems from ingratitude, a sense of entitlement, a lack of appreciation, and self-centeredness.  As a Christian I also believe it stems from a lack of faith.  You think it all depends on you.

The Bible in the letter of Romans says: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.   Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”  Another translation says: “Never lag in zeal, be ardent, be aglow and on fire, serving the Lord.”   God’s word is talking about being enthusiastic followers of Jesus, in your witness, your faith, and your attitude.  Jesus is talking about letting others know you are his follower regardless of the circumstances.   And that takes the power of God working in our hearts.

We read in I Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Jesus says: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.”

God wants you to do your work, to fulfill your responsibilities, whatever they are, to serve, wherever you are, with such ardor that others see Christ in you.   If it’s being a mom, what a gift from the Lord, give it everything you’ve got.  If it’s being a dad, what a gift, give it your all.  If its serving in the church or community, what a privilege, give it your whole heart.  If it’s babysitting, what a blessing, give it your all.  If its being a student, what an opportunity, give it 100%.  If it’s being a grandparent, now that’s an easy one, most grandparents I know are quite exuberant.  God wants us to give our heart and soul, to radiate His love and care, and God will bless such an attitude.   Yes, such an attitude makes all the difference.  When you hear it, when you see it, when you smell it, when you sense it, when you feel it, you are blessed.

I remember a woman at another church who said: “Pastor, why do other churches have women’s retreats and we don’t?  I said well, we need leadership.”  She said: “Would you mind if I starting talking around to see if there is interest in a women’s retreat?”  I said “By all means.”  She started talking to other women of the church, gathered a small planning group together, recruited a speaker, and that fall our church sponsored our first women’s retreat.

That’s the difference between enthusiastic people and grumblers.  Grumblers say, “Look at this problem, isn’t it awful, whose fault is this.”  Enthusiastic people say: “We have a problem.  What do we need to do to solve it, Lord, how can I help?”  Vehemence, ardor finds solutions where there appear to be none, and seeks breakthroughs where it was thought impossible.

God has given you power, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.    Take time to renew your spiritual resources each day.   Our lives need to be infused with the goodness and power and joy of God every day.  A good prayer is: God, grant me a grateful heart.  I want to be aglow with your presence?   I want to serve and support others joyfully and freely without feeling obligated.   Enliven my Spirit.  May people see Christ in me.

Our member Judi Hauser texted me recently about a visit with member Jean Stone, who is in her 90’s and back in the hospital.  Judi wrote: “I wanted you to know I spent an hour with Jean Stone today.  She is such a strong willed determined person and so cheerful.  She says she is doing very little exercise, but her left arm and the pelvic area are improving. She has a doctor’s appointment on Monday and hopes to see significant improvement.  We had a great visit and I deeply admire her strength and faith.”

Retired baseball player Cal Ripken, the ironman, of the Baltimore Orioles played a record-breaking 2,632 consecutive ball games.  Ripken's mother tells the story about the night before Cal's first Little League baseball game.  “When I tucked him in that evening, I noticed he was wearing his baseball uniform. I told him he didn't need to do that; he'd have plenty of time to dress in the morning. So I made him get up and change into his pajamas.  Several hours later before turning in for the night, Mrs. Ripken went in to check on Cal one more time. He was sound asleep, snug and comfy--in his uniform!”  Sometimes we adults can learn something from the unrestrained enthusiasm of our children.

Where do you get inspiration?    I like what Rev. Robert Schuller wrote: “Add up your joys; never count your sorrows.  Look at what you have left in your life; never look at what you have lost.  Relive your happy memories.  Treat yourself to replays of that great collection of joyful experiences that have occurred in your past.  There are many wonderful things that have happened to you in life.

I close with these words of wisdom: "Do not judge whether what you are doing is impressive or mediocre.  Just give yourself to whatever you do fully and with this knowledge: God is within me. All actions that I perform are an offering to God."

Let us be positive, exuberant followers of our Lord.  Never lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Why,   because our days and our lives are an offering to God.    Amen!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Count for Something (Matthew 25:14-30) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In January 2010, Jeff Miller, an independent businessman from Rogers Park, Illinois clinched his third consecutive “Ultimate Couch Potato” title Chicago's ESPN Zone. "It's all about determination," said Miller, who watched TV sports programming for 72 straight, sleepless hours.

Miller, 26, bested three other competitors and pushed himself beyond the Guinness World Record for nonstop viewing.  The venue controlled the remote from the time the four contestants first reclined on New Year's Day, and 72 hours later Miller sat alone. His superior sluggishness earned him a new recliner, a $1,000 gift card toward the purchase of a television, money for one year for his cable/satellite bills, and the Ultimate Couch Potato trophy, adorned with an actual spud just like the trophies he won in 2008 and 2009.  Ambition, you gotta love it.

From a Biblical and Christian perspective, God has created each one of us, so the question is, is winning the ultimate couch potato title what God desires for our lives or does God have something else in mind?  One philosophy goes something like this:  When someone calls for a volunteer look the other way, turn away, keep your head facing downward, don’t make eye contact, don’t look up.  Follow, never lead.  Strive for mediocrity.  Aim low.  Do the least, do the minimum, just get buy.  Stay in the center of the crowd so you won’t get chosen; whatever you do, don’t stand out.  Sadly, this is some people’s philosophy today.

So why has God created you and me, to glorify God and not ourselves? We are called to accomplish something for the Lord?  We are called to live for something larger than ourselves?   We are called to achieve?   God has created us for significance, for our lives to count for something?    Are you reaching your full potential as a follower of Jesus Christ?   Are you investing in the Kingdom of God?

We read in psalm 8 – “What are human beings O God, that you are mindful of them, mere mortals, that you care for them, and yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.   You have given them dominion over the works of your hands you have put all things under their feet.

In our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew we read about a master going on a journey who leaves his servants in charge of his property.  He gives give talents to the first servant, two talents to the next servant, and one talent, to the third, each according to his ability.  Clearly Jesus meant this parable to apply to his followers.  And we quickly see that we all have talents and abilities, but they are different, and that some people have more abilities and others have less, but God has given abilities to everyone.

After a period of time, the master returns and asks his servants to give an account of what they have done with their talents.  The master is pleased with the first servant and says: “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You did something positive with your talents.    You have been faithful and I will give you other responsibilities.  Come and share in your master’s happiness.”  The servant with the two talents receives the identical response.  But the master is not happy with the third servant.  The servant makes excuses, and accuses the master of being hard and unpredictable.  He blames the master for his doing nothing with his abilities.  He fails to take personal responsibility for his lack of action.  Out of fear, he buries his talent and doesn’t attempt to use or invest it.  The master takes the talent away and gives it to another servant.  Then the master has the servant thrown out into the darkness.

This is a parable about life, life matters, it counts for something, it is significant.  What does a significant life look like?  That’s what’s wonderful. Significance comes in all sizes.  There is no one standard or ideal, no one size fits all, no blueprint or template.  There is no cookie cutter measure.  It looks differently.  It might even look like your life right now.   Are you living a significant life?  Are you reaching your God given potential as a follower of Jesus?

I suspect that there are people in our society who feel insignificant.  They think, “I don’t really matter.  I haven’t done anything important. I haven’t contributed anything of value.   I don’t have anything special to offer the world.  I’m nothing special.”   Of course there are also those whose ego is so colossal, that they fill a room all by themselves.   They believe they are God’s gift to anyone who has the good fortune to meet them.  Maybe you know someone like that.

Living a life that counts for something means that our lives are accountable to God, that we will be held accountable for the stewardship of our lives.

The truth is that God has given each of us something to work with.  We don’t enter this life empty handed.  God has imparted to us a mind, ears and eyes, a heart, wisdom, knowledge, experience, health, compassion, influence, relationships, freedom to make choices and set priorities, the ability to see needs and address them.  God passionately wants us to achieve something in the limited time that He has given us on this earth.

God says: “I created you in my image, your life is a gift, you are special, you are my child, that’s why you have the capacity to excel in life?  I have given you my Spirit.”  That’s why we can lead a life that is noteworthy in God’s eyes.  God has graced us with abilities and talents.

Living a life that counts for something also means that our view of God affects how we perceive ourselves.   Your view of God will directly affect your ability to step out in faith.  The first and second servants respected the master, they trusted his word, they trusted his mercy and love, they trusted his leading, they obeyed him, they stepped out in faith.  Even when the master was gone, they proved trustworthy and wise in their work.  They knew this was a chance to do something significant.

You’ve seen old cars driving around with a bumper sticker that says my other car is a BMW?  Well a young man was seen pedaling around a college campus with a T-shirt reading “I’m going to be a doctor.”  A sign on the back on his bicycle proclaimed, “I’m going to be a Mercedes.”   Now that’s positive thinking.

Actor Hugh O’ Brian died last Monday.  He was 91.  Now I don’t know about you, but he was one of my childhood heroes.  He played Wyatt Earp, in the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp which ran six seasons, from 1955 – 1961.  That series made him a star.  He also acted in many other television shows.  Now that in itself is quite an accomplishment.

But his most enduring legacy is off-screen.  He organized the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization, founded to inspire and develop youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.  More than 375,000 high school sophomores selected by their schools have gone through this organization.

How did it start?  It grew out of an invitation to O’Brian from Dr. Albert Schweitzer to visit the medical missionary at his hospital in Africa.  O’Brian spent 9 days working at the hospital in the summer of 1958.  It was a life changing experience for him.  He and Dr. Schweitzer spent hours talking each night after dinner.  As O’Brian was getting ready to depart, Schweitzer asked asked: “Hugh, what are you going to do with this?”  On the plane flight home, the vision of an educational organization for youth came into his mind.

On the other hand, I also think of people whom you never heard of, people who were not famous, but significant in my personal life – Like Ms. Moe, my third grade teacher, Mr. Armundson, my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Malone, my Sunday School teacher, and Rev. Hamilton, my pastor.  Your significant life can be known by the world or by a single person whom you were there for and supported at just the right time.   The life we lead depends upon our understanding of, our view of God.  If you believe God is a couch potato, chances re you too will adopt a similar life-style.

Living a life that counts for something means that what we do in life has eternal significance.   Your influence stretches beyond this earthly life.  It touches other people for generations after we are gone.  Our life has an immeasurable impact on this world.  When we invest our lives glorifying God, God will honor our investment and multiply our efforts beyond anything we can know or imagine.

You never know when your seemingly small task is actually a part of God’s big plan.  Remember there are opportunities all around us – in our neighborhood, our community, our church, our family and even in politics.  God calls us to lead important lives, and we need to respond.  Because ultimately only God can see the big picture and how you fit into that picture.  God calls us not just to survive but to thrive.  Not just to lead lives of mediocrity, but of reaching our God given potential.  That whatever the task or challenge, to give our most and not our least.

Herman Cain, CEO and president of Godfather’s Pizza, was raised in poverty.  He credits his hard working father for his success in life.  Throughout Herman’s life, his father worked 3 or 4 jobs at a time in order to support his family.  Cain also received inspiration from a poem taught to him by Dr. Benjamin Mays, a former president of Morehouse college.   This poem has guided Herman through the ups and downs of his life.

Life is just a minute, only sixty seconds in it, forced upon you, can’t refuse it, Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it, But it’s up to you to use it.  You must suffer if you lose it, give an account if you abuse it, just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”

God’s word is powerful – your life matters, it counts for something.    Remember the psalmist’s words:  God has crowned you with glory and honor.  Let us pray: “God, here I am, open my eyes, open my ears, use me for something significant, that you will be pleased, that you will be glorified and that we too may hear those word:  ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, well done.’”   Amen

Friday, September 9, 2016

Our Perspective and God’s Perspective (I John 3:1-3; Col.1;1-2) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Last week we received this letter in the mail.   “Subject:  Notice of Data Security incident.  Dear Alan and Nancy: We are writing to inform you of a data security incident that may have involved your payment card information.  We take the privacy and security of your identity protection seriously.  Here are the steps that we have taken to protect your payment card information.”  We called the bank and after a discussion closed the account and opened a new one.  Have you ever received a letter like that?

As we know, identity theft occurs when someone steals your name and other personal information for fraudulent use.  Thieves can open up checking accounts, charge your credit cards, drain your bank accounts, buy cars or houses, take out loans, all on you and me.  This is a serious cyber-age crime invading our personal privacy and identity.  Why don’t these people put their skills to positive use?

Identity is both collective and individual.   Our collective identity is the shared sense of belonging to a group, belonging to something larger than ourselves.  I am an American is perhaps the most obvious example.  Belonging to a street gang is another.  There are some 30,000 street gangs which are responsible for 80% of the crime in America.  Gang members will do anything to maintain their position in the gang.  But what about our personal identity?

How we think about ourselves matters, right, it matters a great deal.  Baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser, in his book Out of the Blue, tells about an encounter he had with Dodger’s manager Tommy Lasorda.  Lasorda called Hershiser into his office one day and shouted at him.  “You don’t believe in yourself!  You’re scared to pitch in the big leagues!  Who do you think these hitters are, Babe Ruth?   Ruth’s dead.  You’ve got good stuff.  If you didn’t, I wouldn’t have hired you.  I’ve seen guys come and go, son, and you’ve got it!  Be aggressive.  Be a bulldog out there.  That’s gonna be your new name, Bulldog.  With that name, you’ll scare the batters to death.  “Starting today I want you to believe you are the best pitcher in baseball.  Look at the hitter and say, ‘There’s no way you can ever hit me.’”  Two days later, Orel pitched relief and in three innings, he gave up only one run.  Lasorda’s talk, Orel called it the sermon on the mound, had worked.

Identity is an elusive and challenging part of being human.  More precisely, it is a fluid part of who we are, a dynamic aspect of our lives.  We begin to feel like we know ourselves, we begin to feel comfortable with who we are, we believe we can finally define ourselves, and then something occurs and we find that we are in the process of re-defining ourselves yet once more.  We can’t seem to hold on to whom we understood ourselves to be.   Maybe we must answer the question, who am I, throughout our life.  Perhaps we are continually redefining ourselves.  Is the question of identity a lifelong process.  What do you think?

Who am I?  One way to answer that question is to go to  Genealogy is popular today.   I think knowing your lineage is a positive aspect of life.   I like the commercial where this guy says that for all of his life he thought of himself as being of German extraction.  So he often danced around in lederhosen.   Then he went on and made the alarming discovery that he was primarily of Scottish descent.  So as he said: “I traded in by lederhosen for a pair of kilts.”

So many factors contribute to our identity. Our family defines us. Our gender defines us.  Our race/ethnicity defines us.  Our social status defines us.  Our work, our careers, define us.  I remember a professor who had long since retired, but still insisted on being addressed as professor.  Our roles define us.  I am single or married, a son or daughter, father or mother, wife or husband, a grandfather or grandmother, widow or widower, working or retired.   Our physical dimensions, our size defines us, our intelligence defines us, our success or failures define us, our accomplishments and achievements define us, being dependent or independent defines us and the list goes on.

Human beings face many challenges in life.  And one of them, practically from the moment of birth, is to try and figure out who the heck we are in this world and in comparison to other people.  I think this is a critical goal or process in life.  I think we continually battle between defining ourselves and allowing the world around us to define us.  I think we should be proactive, not passive.  We also know the way we see ourselves, is not always, though sometimes it is, the way others see us. The problem is that our identity is often a moving target.

For example, two American psychologists, Pauline Clancy and Suzanne Imes, observed what they called "the impostor syndrome." They described it as a feeling of "phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative, despite evidence of high achievement." While these people "are highly motivated to achieve," they also "live in fear of being 'found out' or exposed as frauds."

The gifted American author and poet Maya Angelou wrote: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'" Despite winning three Grammys and being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, this huge talent still questioned her success.

So we turn to the scriptures:  In the letter of I John we read this astonishing truth about identity, our new identity: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.  Beloved we are God’s children now.  What we do know is this, when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”  This is the word of God.  Ponder this word for a moment.

In the letter of Colossian’s we again hear God’s amazing word: “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.”  Both of these passages speak about our new identity from God’s perspective.

An author writes: “In August, 2009, we got a rather amazing email from my brother in law, John. Six or seven years ago, when John and his wife, Lori, were working with a youth group in Nebraska, they met Amanda—a teenage girl.  Amanda came from a terribly abusive home and was eventually taken from her parents by the state.

After conferring with their two sons, John and Lori legally adopted Amanda. She is 22, and her name is now Amanda Foote. She will even get a new birth certificate!  Now John and Lori have three legal heirs, and Amanda has two new brothers.   When it was official, John said:  There was a huge change in Lori and me—sort of like when you see your newborn for the first time.  And for Amanda, there was a big change in her, too. Now she knew she belonged. She knew we were her parents."

The author continues:  The beauty of it all made me offer a word of thanks to Jesus, God's Beloved Son. God has given us a new name, a new standing in a new relationship, we are God’s responsibility and God’s heirs, we are a new family of brothers and sisters in Christ, and God is our true Father.”

The irony is that when you become a Christian, you take on someone else's identity.  You are a brother or sister of Christ; you are a child of God.  Through faith in Christ, You and I have been given a new identity that we weren't born with or that we didn't earn or purchase.  By grace, God has adopted us in Christ.  And this is a gift which is true now and forever.

Don’t you walk just a little taller, don’t you stand just a little straighter, when you hear this about how God sees you.  God sees you in a new way now.  And God’s new way of seeing you will never change.  God will never forget about us or who we are.  We may see ourselves one way, the world may see us another way, but ultimately what matters is how God sees us, how God sees you and me.  May we live each hour, each day remembering this, being encouraged by this, and being secure in the knowledge of God’s perspective. Amen!