Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I Give You Thanks (Psalm 100) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

You may have heard this story before, but I think it’s worth hearing again.   A couple days before Thanksgiving, a father living in Phoenix telephones his son in New York and says: “I hate to ruin your day son, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing.  45 years of misery is enough.”  “Dad,” his son shouts, “what do you mean, what are you talking about?”  “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the father says.  “We’re sick of each other and I’m tired of talking about this so you can call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”  Frantic, the son calls his sister who explodes on the phone.  “Like heck they’re getting divorced, she shouts, I’ll take care of this.”  She phones her Father and says: “You’re not getting divorced.  Don’t do anything. We’ll both be there tomorrow.”  The father hangs up, turns to his wife and says: “It’s OK honey, they’re both coming out for Thanksgiving and paying their own fares.”

Thanksgiving, our national fall festival, will soon be upon us, a day set aside for our nation to pause and give thanks.   Let’s go back for a moment in history.  We remember the Pilgrims, who sailed from England to Plymouth Mass, in 1620.  A year later they celebrated a feast in the autumn of 1621, after a year of sickness and scarcity. They celebrated together with the local Indians, to give thanks to God for their first successful harvest.  Half their number had died, they were people without a country, but to these people of strong Christian faith, this was a joyous outpouring of gratitude to God.

In the midst of a brutal Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, established a special day called Thanksgiving.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

Clearly, the origin of Thanksgiving Day was not merely a generic day of gratitude, but a day to specifically give thanks and praise to God and to seek God’s intervention in bringing reconciliation and healing amidst our War Between the States.

I, like you, am grateful for many things.  For my wife, for my family, for friends, for serving as pastor at PBPC.   What are you thankful for?   I am also thankful for our American time tested process of changing the highest office of the land, the President of the United States.  It is an orderly and peaceful transition.  Yes, the campaigns by both candidates were spirited, to say the least.  But rather than power being changed by a coup, by assassination, by wars, by violence, we heard how President Obama and President-elect Trump met for a private conversation for over an hour.  Power is handed over from the current president to the incoming president.  And now as one administration is moving out of the White House and another is moving in, we await the final step, the inauguration scheduled for January 20, 2017.  However you feel about the outcome of the election, you must respect the orderly and smooth transfer of power in some 73 days.

The Bible exhorts you and me as people of faith to give thanks to God.  Psalm 100 says: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise, give thanks to him, bless his name for the lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever.”  We are to give thanks because the God we worship is good and because his love is steadfast.  In Psalm 138, listen to how this poet jubilantly expresses his faith: “I give you thanks O Lord, with my whole heart, before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.  On the day I called, you answered me; you increased my strength of soul.”  This psalmist had prayed to God for inner-strength, for God to lift his soul, and deliver him from some ordeal and God answered his prayer.  Has God answered a prayer you have made for inner-strength and courage in a difficult situation?  Has God ever delivered you from a threatening or troubling situation?

In the letter of I Thessalonians, we hear this exhortation: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Why have a thankful heart in all circumstances?   God knows that giving thanks and being thankful is good for our character as human beings and for our faith as God’s people.  If we have a thankful spirit, we can perceive special blessings, small miracles, new possibilities, second chances, hints and flashes of God’s amazing grace through unexpected people and events.     If we lack a grateful heart, we miss these things.

How does God desire for us to give thanks?  To worship Him, to pray, to express thankfulness in words and actions.  It is after-all Thanks-giving, not Thanks-taking.  One example is churches which are planting community gardens all around the country including Northminster Presbyterian Church in Clairemont.  Some churches in New Jersey have become part-time farmers, growing more than 300,000 pounds of food for needy people last year.  Christians are supplying a critical need for families who rely on food banks and soup kitchens, where fresh fruits and vegetables are often in short supply.   What a glorious way of giving thanks.

Reflect for a moment on these key biblical truths.  First, a thankful heart can reduce stress in your life by making you more content with who you are and what you have.  You will be freer from the anxiety that goes with being resentful and dissatisfied.  Second, a grateful heart can increase joy by enlarging your sense of God’s abundant blessings.  Focusing on blessings, for which you are grateful, helps to develop a sense of just how much there is to be thankful for.  Third, a grateful heart builds relationships.  Thank-less, ungrateful people repel; thankful, appreciative people attract other peoples.  Expressing our gratitude to others draws us closer to people and them to us.  Fourth, giving thanks for the gift of life brings us ever closer to the Giver of life, to God.   Fifth, if we cannot learn to be a thankful person, we can become bitter and callous and insensitive toward others. Further, we can become totally self-absorbed and thereby develop an attitude of entitlement and narcissism.  Praying steadily to God, walking humbly with God, sharing with others builds a thankful spirit.

A thankful heart can positively affect the people around you.  It can influence their attitudes, their identity, their spirit, their self esteem, their behavior.   Like the story about a couple named Larry and Jo Ann.   The author writes:

“One day, a most extraordinary event took place.  The husband Larry said to his wife: “Jo Ann, I’ve got a magic chest of drawers.  Every time I open them, they’re full of socks and t-shirts and underwear.  I want to thank you for filling them all these years.   Jo Ann stared at her husband over the top of her glasses.  “What do you want, Larry?”  “Nothing, I just want you to know I appreciate those magic drawers.”  This wasn’t the first time Larry had done something odd, so Jo Ann pushed the incident out of her mind until a few days later.

Jo Ann, that was a great dinner,” Larry said one evening.  I appreciate all your effort.  Why, in the past 15 years, I’ll bet you’ve fixed over 14,000 meals for me and the kids.”  A few days later, Larry said: “Jo Ann, the house looks spiffy.  You’ve really worked hard to get it looking so good. Thanks Jo Ann, for just being you.”

Jo Ann was now growing worried.  Where’s the sarcasm, the criticism, the impatience she wondered.  Whatever was wrong, Larry didn’t get over it.  Day in and day out he continued focusing on the positive.  Jo Ann’s step was now a little lighter, her self-confidence higher and once in a while she hummed.  She didn’t seem to have as many blue moods anymore.  She rather liked Larry’s new behavior.  That would be the end of the story except one day another most extraordinary event took place.  This time it was Jo Ann who spoke. “Larry, I want to thank you for going to work and providing for us all these years.  I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I appreciate it.”

The author continues: “Larry has never revealed the reason for his dramatic change of behavior.  No matter how hard I pushed for an answer; it will likely remain one of life’s mysteries.  But it’s one I’m thankful to live with.  You see, the author writes, I am Jo Ann.”

Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise, give thanks to him, bless his name for the lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”   May God bless you and yours on this Thanksgiving!  Amen

Friday, November 11, 2016

Not in Vain (l Corinthians 15:58) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The weekend following September 11th, 2001, syndicated columnist and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan drove to Lower Manhattan to witness the relief effort taking place at Ground Zero. She found herself focusing on the convoy of trucks filled with rescue workers coming off their 12-hour shifts. The men in the trucks were construction and electrical workers, police, emergency medical workers, and firemen. It was a procession of the not-so-rich and famous.

She writes: “These New Yorkers had become celebrities, more significant than any Broadway act.   A large crowd of onlookers were cheering the workers with shouts of "God bless you!" and "We love you!" They clapped and blew kisses.  I looked around and saw who were cheering. Investment bankers! Orthodontists! Magazine editors! A lawyer, a columnist, and a writer. We had been the kings and queens of the city, respected professionals in a city that respects its professional class.  And this night we were nobody. We were so useless, all we could do was applaud the somebodies, the workers who, unlike us, had not been applauded much in their lives…. I was so moved and grateful. Because they'd always been the people who ran the place, who kept it going, they'd just never been given their due.”

On that tragic day, rather than talking them for granted, the world recognized how useful, how indispensable construction and electrical workers, police and firemen, and emergency medical workers are to a city.

Which leads us to our scripture lesson: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”

How ironic.   The apostle Paul who wrote these words, personally knew not only success and joy in his life and ministry, but failure, discouragement, disappointment, and frustration.  He had endured persecution and threats, but in his hearts of hearts, he still knew God would honor his ministry to the Gentiles.

Paul writes: “I have been shipwrecked on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, in cold and exposure.  And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.”   That is, the churches which he and other apostles had planted.

In the Lord your labor is not in vain.”   Here are words of wisdom, words of spiritual maturity, words of truth, words used to depending upon the grace of God.   I admire the apostle Paul.  Despite daily facing obstacles and setbacks in his work, he believed in his heart that God was blessing his preaching, his pastoring, and his work of planting churches.   He believed that his work was not in vain.

By faith, you too have the power to endure, to push on, to not allow yourself to be defeated in your work.  You have the power to persevere.   You have the power to devise new plans and approaches.  You have the power to cast off bad habits and learn good habits.   And that power is the power of our Lord, the power of his victory over death, the power of the Holy Spirit, which comes to us through faith.

There is a work of difference between feeling useless and useful, helpless and helpful.  Spiritual wisdom is the conviction deep in your soul, that whether your efforts and energies produce results or not, they mean something in the purpose of God, in the mind of God, in the kingdom of God.  They weren't wasted.  That conviction lifts our soul.

We must never forget that we are engaging in a spiritual battle, in spiritual warfare.  The book of James says – “Resist the devil and the negative thoughts which can poison our life.”  Why - because Satan promotes a defeatist attitude.  The devil knows that a discouraged Christian is ineffectual, your power and influence to be a vital witness to Jesus Christ is mitigated at best and shut-down at worst.   You can’t share Christ’s joy when there is no joy in your heart to share.  

What is your deepest frustration today?   You are putting forth effort, but feel like you’re getting nowhere, you are just spinning your wheels?  God’s word is clear.  First, always abounding in the work of the Lord means be steadfast in the work of the Lord.  Don't allow others to discourage or stop you.  Stand firm and steady.  Don't give up, or give in or give out.  Second, always abounding in the work of the Lord means give yourself daily and fully to God, relying upon God’s strength, and not just your own, praying for how God wants to use you in His service.   Sometimes we are completely surprised with how God decides to us.

And third, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.  It’s never in vain when you prayerfully commit your efforts to God, when you ask for God's inspiration and power and blessing, when you humbly and sincerely dedicate your work to God, even though at times you fail to reach your goal or produce results.   Results may not be visible, but that doesn’t mean God is not working in an imperceptible way using your time and efforts and energy and prayers.

The book of Hebrews reaffirms God’s promise: “God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints.”    God never forgets work done in His name.  God remembers your labor.   God knows your efforts to love others and serve and glorify Him.  God sees what you have done and are doing and what these things mean for His kingdom.

I recall an intervention I was involved in with a family in our church in Monument, CO.  One of the family members had been an alcoholic for over 20 years.  The family had tried everything but to no avail.  This time it worked. The son made the commitment and joined AA. This family had the joy of seeing the results of their prayers and work over many years come to fruition.  Their work in the Lord was not in vain.  Praise God.

I remember a mother at our church in Santa Monica.  I knew she had been estranged from her daughter for many years.  The daughter had refused to have any communication at all with her mother.  The mother continued to pray and reach out through the mail and leave occasional phone messages on her daughter’s voice mail.  After 10 years, one day, the daughter phoned her and invited her mother to lunch.  It was a glorious day of where a mother and daughter were reconciled.  Praise God.

Open your heart.  Allow God’s word to encourage you.  God may bless you and you see results immediately.  Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results later on in your life.    Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results, not in this life, but in the life to come.  Hallelujah.    God has made you a promise.  Have confidence in the promise of God.   Amen!

Friday, November 4, 2016

What God Requires! (Micah 6:6-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A man named Jeff, living in Denver, after reading an advertisement offering firewood for $60.00 a cord, including delivery, decided to phone in an order.  When the man came by and finished stacking the order, Jeff was upset saying, “that’s not a full cord of wood.”  The seller replied firmly, “That’s what I call a cord.”  Grudgingly, Jeff pulled some bills out of his wallet and handed them to the man.  Hey, just a minute, the man complained after counting the money, you only gave me $30.00 dollars.  Jeff shrugged his shoulders and replied, “That’s what I call $60.00.”

Let us now turn to the passage from the prophet Micah.  Micah is preaching to his fellow Jews and asks a rhetorical question: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Shall I come with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my sins, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”   The prophet answers the question – “God has told you Oh man what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition, based in Scripture, declares that justice, fairness, righteousness, in our relationships with God and one another, is grounded not in society, and not in man, but in our understanding of the nature or being of God.  God is just.  God is righteous.  God treats us fairly and in turn God expects us to treat one another fairly.

God wills that his people be good, that we lead righteous lives.  Goodness has something to do with practicing justice or righteousness, kindness and humility.  This a command from God to you and to me.  It is not a request, not a recommendation, not a suggestion, not an option; it’s a requirement for believers and followers of God.

In the eighth century, Micah lived during a time of when the social order, the moral structure of Israel’s society, was in decline.  The rich and powerful were exploiting the poor.  Corruption was rampant.  Immorality was flagrant.  Idolatry was in vogue.   Social and economic injustice was widespread.   Merchants used false scales, weights and measures to exploit the poor peasants and farmers.  Officials and judges took bribes. Farmers suffered at the hands of powerful landlords.  Micah writes: “When they want fields they seize them, when they want houses, they take them.  No man’s family or property is safe. The righteous are sold for silver; the needy for a pair of shoes, the poor were trampled upon.”

Temple worship was strong, attendance was high, animal sacrifices were at an all-time high, people brought generous offerings to the temple, but hypocrisy ruled the day.  Micah’s message was a warning that God’s judgment was coming and he was giving people an opportunity to repent.  Prophet Amos says: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

God has a special concern in his heart for the poor, the oppressed, and powerless.  The book of Proverbs says: “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  Prophet Isaiah says: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right.  Seek justice, love good, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  I John says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

When you think of justice what comes to mind?  It’s an abstract concept.  We think of social justice, criminal justice, legal justice, justice in heath care, justice for crime victims, racial justice, religious justice, economic justice, environmental justice, all of which fall under the rubric of justice.

Here is a tragic example.  In an article in the San Diego Union Tribune, date June 14, 2016, just a few months ago, we read:

Human trafficking investigators have dismantled what they described as the first - members-only Internet prostitution ring of its kind in San Diego, run by two local men who lured in vulnerable women and allowed customers to post reviews of their “performance.”  These men picked up women who were down and out on the streets, many of whom had drug problems, and persuaded them to entrust their care to them.  The men are alleged to have given these women drugs and money. Then they would post their photos on a Facebook page, where they were made available for paid sex.  About 900 members were active when authorities shut down the website, police said.

“This is ground-breaking,” San Diego police Capt. Brian Ahearn said of the sex ring. “This is a very covert operation that was very well-planned and very sophisticated.”  The case wrapped up with the arrests of Dale Vinzant, 68, of Mission Beach, operator of San Diego Adult Service Provider and Christian Koalani, 66, of Pacific Beach, who ran American Escort Company.  They are in jail pending a trial.  I say thank you and praise God for the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force of the SDPD.

What are you and I doing for others in the name of fairness and justice?  Perhaps God is calling you to help someone in this important way.

Further, God calls us to practice kindness, to love mercy.   Kindness was desperately needed in Israel during the prophet Micah’s time.  So it is true today.    God is merciful, compassionate, kind and God’s word to us is to love kindness.

Herbert Prochnow wrote: “You may be sorry that you spoke, sorry you stayed or went, sorry you won or lost, sorry you thought the worst, sorry so much was spent.  But as you go through life, you’ll find you were never sorry, you were kind.”

Like the story a teacher writes about a little boy in elementary school.   “In our town's elementary school at the beginning of the year, the school secretary routinely collects the lunch money from the new kindergartners.  This solves the problem of lost money. But for nervous 5-year-olds, it took a while to understand what was happening.   For the first few of days, the school secretary would come into the classroom and announce:  "Does anybody have any lunch money for me?" Her question was met with no response.  On the third day, one little boy came in at the bell, walked hesitantly to my desk, held out his hand and whispered, "Here is money from my piggy bank for that poor lady who needs money for lunch.”

I recall the story of the woman who pulled up to a tollbooth at the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, and said: “I’m paying for myself and the six cars behind me.”  The next six drivers arrive at the booth, money in hand, and were told: “Some lady ahead already paid your fare, have a nice day.”  The woman, it turned out, had read a note taped to a friend’s refrigerator, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.

I personally notice it when I’m driving.  Those unexpected acts of kindness, which we used to call courtesy, when someone lets you change lanes or enter the street from a driveway.  If I were to ask tell me a story of when someone was mean or rude, or disrespectful or unkind to you or someone you know, we might be here all day.   But can you also point to stories of someone who was kind to you or to someone else?

When was the last time you were kind to someone?  When was the last time someone was kind to you?  People remember when you have been kind to them.  They don’t quickly forget.  Even small kindnesses make a big difference in another’s life.   Just when you are down, just when you are discouraged, a simple and timely act of kindness can renew your faith in God and humanity and lift your downcast spirit.

One of my favorite quotes is by Quaker William Penn: “I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

Finally, the prophet says, “God has told you, O man, what is good; the Lord requires of you to walk humbly with your God."  Now let’s be honest.  In our aggressive, assertive, competitive culture who wants to walk humbly?  Who really believes Jesus when he says in Matthew: "Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth."

But God says there’s something good about being humble, something noble about being meek. It’s out of fashion in our culture, this is true, but God says be humble, which does not mean being submissive or subservient or passive!   It doesn’t mean being weak or being a doormat.   Walking humbly simply means you’re comfortable in your own skin.  You accept who you are.  You know yourself.  You are not racked by insecurity or neediness.  You aren’t always trying to prove something to others.

It frees you to do things for others without a need for recognition or praise. It doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself; it means you think of yourself less, and think of others more.    Walking humbly before God means we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  You can laugh at yourself. Humility enables you to recognize that life is a gift from God that you accept with gratitude, rather than an attitude of entitlement.  Pride, hubris, insecurity low self-worth are the enemies of humility.  Walking humbly means you put your ultimate trust in God and believe with all your heart that you are valued and loved by God.

Dr. John Ortman, pastor of a large church in N. CA. tells the following story. 

“We were with friends at an open-air street fair, when we spotted a mechanical bull that tries to buck people off. The guy operating the bull said, "Watching it isn't nearly as fun as riding." So I told the bull operator that I wanted to ride. He took one look at my middle-aged body and asked, "Sir, are you sure?”

He explained to me that the bull has 12 levels of difficulty. "It might not be easy," he said, “you have to follow the bull. You have to shift your center of gravity as the bull moves."  So I got on the bull and it started slow, and then it started moving faster and I was holding on real tight.

It kept moving and twisting and jolting and bucking and jumping.  I was huffing and puffing. I was hanging on sideways. My arms were flailing around. But I hung on and finally the bull slowed down and stopped, and I was still on the bull.  I imagined how impressed my friends were, not to mention the operator.  I felt pretty good.  I gave him a look and he smiled and said, "Nice job, that was level one."

Jesus says lead good lives.  True worship, true belief, true obedience must translate into an ethical concern for others.  And God clearly tells us what it means to be a good person: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."  Amen!