Friday, August 11, 2017

Be Courageous (Joshua 1:1-9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Two little brothers walked into a dentist's office.  One said: “I want a tooth taken out and I don't want any gas because we're in a hurry.”  The dentist said: “You're quite a brave young man.  Which tooth is it?”  The boy turned to his smaller brother, and said: “Show him your tooth, Tommy.”

A common fear - going to the dentist.   What are you afraid of?   Is there something you are genuinely afraid of?  Psychology tells us that fear is an innate response to physical and emotional danger.  If we didn't feel fear, we couldn't protect ourselves from legitimate threats.  Fear is a survival instinct.  Fear is a gift of our Creator.   Only a fool is never afraid.  So fear plays a positive role in our lives.  There are times we should be afraid and react accordingly.

But sometimes we fear things that aren’t a threat to our lives or welfare; we turn away or flee or hang back for no good reason.  Psychology recommends that confronting our fears is the best way to conquer and get past them.  If it’s public speaking, practice it, if its fear of heights, get on an outside elevator, if its fear of dogs, get a puppy.

Fear and courage is something the ancient philosophers pondered about.  The 5th century Greek philosopher Plato identified wisdom with one’s mind and courage with one’s heart.  The value of courage was revered.  You may not be as large as a lion, but you can possess the courage of a lion.  In The Wizard of Oz one of Dorothy’s companions is a cowardly lion who desperately desires courage.  The wizard pretends to give courage to him, but the irony is that he possessed it all along.  The wizard helped the lion find what was inside him all the time.  I believe God does implant courage in our hearts, that is part of what it means to be made in God’s image, but I also believe we must pray to God for courage in certain situations.  And speaking personally I know God will grant it when you need it.

According to scripture, the antidote to fear is courage.  What is courage?  The ability to act or do something in spite of being afraid.  The ability and willingness to face or confront that which frightens you.  Though frightened, rather than being paralyzed, you find the courage to act. 

Fears can be real or imagined.  Common fears are fear of the unknown, the fear of uncertainty, the fear of violence, the fear of dying and the fear of death.   Yes, life is no place for cowards.   A life well lived requires key virtues: wisdom, kindness, self-control, and courage.

We think of physical courage, like the courage to rescue someone from a burning car or house or to rescue someone who is drowning.  We think of moral courage like the courage to speak up for what is right despite criticism and opposition, to speak the truth when others are silent, to take a stand, when others shy away.  And then there is spiritual courage.  To courage to believe and trust in God, even when things are collapsing around you.  The courage to trust in God's love and mercy, amidst disappointment and loss.  The courage to doubt your doubts and to believe even with unanswered questions.  Yes, courage is an essential quality for life.

In our O.T. Lesson we learn that the great prophet Moses, who by the power of God had led the Israelites out of Egypt, has died.  After wandering around in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years, the people are poised to enter the promised land.  The Lord decides to call a successor.

God calls Joshua.  Joshua is overcome with fear at taking on such a daunting task.  Who wants to follow in the footsteps of the great Moses?

Seeing the fear in Joshua's heart, the Lord speaks to Joshua: “My servant Moses is dead.  Now proceed to cross the Jordan you and all this people into the land that I am giving to them as I promised to Moses.  As I was with Moses so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.  Be strong and courageous, for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.  Only be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Did people in Jesus day have to deal with fear in their lives?  Of course.  Jesus knew this and spoke directly to them.  We read many stories where Jesus said to his followers: “Do not be afraid” or “fear not.”  In fact, those words occur in the entire bible 365 times.  God knows that we must learn to face and conquer our fears, if we are going to be able to lead full lives and obey his call upon our lives.

Who comes to mind when you think of courageous people?  I think of the men and women of our military who put themselves in harm's way and police and firefighters and lifeguards who put their lives on the line every day for you and me.

I also think of Rev. Sarah Stephens, a Presbyterian Pastor, who graduated from Princeton seminary 10 years after I did. She has spent the last three decades of ministry on three continents.  God didn’t call her into parish ministry, which can be dangerous enough, but into the arena of human rights advocacy, with an emphasis on combating human trafficking.   She was hired by the International Catholic Migration Commission, and was assigned to Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo.  She learned about the scale of human trafficking in the region.  She worked to create shelters and other social services for survivors of trafficking and to address legal and economic issues affecting them.  She often put herself in harm’s way.

She said:  “We worked with many wonderful Albanian colleagues to reduce human trafficking and reduce stigmatizing those who were trafficked. We were able to educate people and governments that exploitation includes not just women, but men and children.”

There are times when out of obedience and love for Jesus, you must find courage, the courage to speak up for Jesus, for your faith, to let others know you are a follower of Jesus, that you are doing something because you are a Christian and Jesus is the Lord of your life.  The courage to say something rather than being silent, to intervene in someone's life, to be frank and honest with someone.  Saying to a friend, or family member: “I must tell you that I think you are making a major mistake.  I think you are on the wrong path. I know this may upset or offend you.  I have to be honest with you, because I care about you and value our friendship.”

I like what a preacher said to one of his members: A young man had gone bankrupt due to a failed business venture.  He told this preacher he had lost everything.  The preacher replied: “Let me correct you.  You haven't lost everything.  You had something before you had a business.  You had a dream and you had the nerve to try to make it happen.  You haven't lost that.  Nobody ever loses courage.  Courage isn't something you lose because courage is always an option.  Courage is a choice.  And by God's grace, it is always there for you to choose.  My friend, God wants you to choose courag.  Will you choose it?

I believe the story of Joshua inspires us when we face times of fear.  It tells us that God is present with us, that God goes with us, when we are called to take on some project or task or mission or assignment.  God says to us: “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  This is God’s promise to you and to me.

Pray for boldness.  Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is acting, doing something, despite being afraid out of love: your love God, your love for some person, your love for the truth.  Following Jesus requires courage and courage comes from trusting in Him.

Scripture says: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of courage, of love and of self-discipline.   Amen!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Celebrate the Journey (Psalm 90:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A grandmother tells this story.  “My 5-year-old granddaughter overheard conversations from her parents about my occasional heart problem, the-fast beating I experienced, when I would try to sleep. One evening as was our custom, we settled down to say our prayers before bedtime.  She prayed: ‘Dear Jesus, please make Grandma's heart stop beating so she can get some sleep.’"

A man writes: “Passing by a table in a local restaurant, I saw a gentleman I knew who was turning 100 the following week.  He was having dinner with his rather large family. I stopped and said to him, ‘Hey George, you're out celebrating a little early, aren't you?’ He looked at me and replied: ‘At my age, son, every day is a celebration!’

Welcome to celebrate the journey.  I want to thank Donna Pierce, our Coordinator for Congregational Care, who helped to organize today’s service.  Today we are recognizing and honoring 20 members of PBPC who have reached the exceptional age of 90 or older.   What is it?  The ocean, the moderate climate, San Diego, good genes, the grace of God?   These people have been on the journey longer than the rest of us, but don’t lose heart, keep breathing, keep moving, keep praying, keep worshipping, for one day it we will honor you when you reach this revered age.   Yes, we value life and we value living.

A recent article said life expectancy in the USA hits a record high.  Life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was about 47.  Today, the average lifespan for men is 76.4 and for women about 81.2.  By 2040 its projected that the life expectancy for men will be 86 and for women 91.

Studies point out the positive role that spirituality/religious faith, prayer and worship play in our journey of life. People who attend church live longer and are less stressed.   The research from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee reveals non-churchgoers are significantly more stressed than those who attend religious services.  Have you observed this?  The article states: “Attending church is actually good for your health. Worship is the key; it could be church, a synagogue, a mosque.  It is about faith.”   I know 20 special people who would all affirm how indispensable faith has been in their journey.  God earnestly desires for human beings to be in fellowship, in a right relationship with Him, no matter what our age, from children to the elderly.

C. G. Jung, the famous 20th century Swiss psychoanalyst, wrote: “Among all my patients in the second half of life, that is to say, over 35, there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not finding a religious outlook on life, and none of them has been really healed, who did not regain his religious outlook.  We grow old unsatisfactorily when our personalities are deprived of such a basic need.  To go through the later stages of life without any thought of the meaning of life and the author of our existence is a situation fraught with danger.”  St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in the 4th century wrote: “O God our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.”

What insights do we gain from scripture about life’s journey and especially its final stage?   Human life is a gift from God our creator.  You and I exist by the grace of God.   Your life is unique, there is no one else in the universe exactly like you.   Life is transitory.  Our mortal lives have a beginning and an end.  Scripture says: “Abraham lived 175 years and then breathed his last, and died in a good old age, an old man full of years, and was gathered to his people.”

The psalmist says: “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. For a 1000 years in your sight, are like a day that has just gone by or like a watch in the night.  You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning, though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.”   Yes, life in God’s sight is short, brief; in the light of eternity it is like new grass in the morning and dry and withered by the evening.  Lord, Lord teach us to make good use of our days, to fill them, to love others, to witness to you, to honor God every day, to spend our days wisely and not waste them or use them against God.

Suffering, pain, grief and disappointment are part of life’s journey.   Human sin and evil take their toll.   We depend upon God, we depend upon Jesus, and one another to help us get through the setbacks and hurt of life.   But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Because life is also filled with joy, adventures, surprises, blessings, laughter, miracles, hope and love, all of which comes from God.

We were created for positive and lasting relationships with God and one another.  The role of 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.  For the Lord takes pleasure in his people.”

God establishes seasons or special times in our lives.  Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”   We must seek to understand God’s timing, God’s lessons, God’s moment, God’s purposes and plans in the seasons of our lives.

God has given us physical bodies to care for.  And if we don’t abuse them, if we care for them, they usually serve us for many years.  We all know how important regular exercise is.  Walking, running, swimming, dancing, bike-riding, weight-lifting, it doesn’t matter.

l regularly see older people in their 70’s and 80’s working out at 24 Hour Fitness.  As a senior, it inspires me. Not long ago I had just finished doing a couple sets of shoulder presses with my highest weight ever.  I was very proud.  I stood up when a man much older than I, a slender man, one might even say skinny, asked if he could use the machine. I said of course.

I remember thinking I hope he doesn’t hurt himself.  That’s a lot of weight.  Maybe I should offer to remove some of the weight.  I waited for him to lower the weight.  Instead, he sat down, put both hands on the bar and pressed the weight I had been struggling with about 15 times over his head.  Then he added about 20 more pounds and repeated it.   I was shocked.   He stood up and said: “I’m finished young man, it’s your turn.”  I said, “No sir, I’m all done.”   After my pride recovered, I thought wow, we really can exercise and gain strength at any age.

God wants to use us for His glory and Kingdom throughout our lives, yes even in the twilight years.   I think of seniors in our own church, people who are singing in the choir, serving on session, volunteering with the Boy Scouts, visiting members in their homes and in the hospitals, doing projects at church on Wednesdays, volunteering in the community.  Such people are an inspiration in continuing to glorify God.

I read a story recently of an elderly woman who heard a sermon in which she felt God tugging at her heart to look for ways in which she could use her gifts to minister to the needs of others. She realized that she had the gift of hospitality. She lived alone in a small apartment near a large university.   She pondered the needs around her and she thought of the students nearby, who were so far away from home.   An idea came to her.  She got a stack of three-by- five cards and wrote on each one the following words: "Are you homesick? Come to my house at 4:00 p.m. for tea." She included a phone number and address and then posted the cards all around campus.

At first nothing happened, but then homesick students slowly began trickling into her house each week for tea. When she died ten years later, eighty honorary pallbearers attended her funeral.   Each one of them had been a student who, once upon a time, found a hot cup of tea, a sense of home, and the gospel of Jesus in the hospitable heart of this faithful servant.

Some persons become bitter as they age.  They focus on the negative.  They feel like they have no purpose, that no one cares, that their life is virtually over.  They feel like they have been cheated.  They focus on their limitations due to age. They isolate themselves, feel sorry for themselves, and cut off ties with family and friends.

Jesus says:   Don’t do that.  Don’t go down that path.  Don’t go there.  You have a choice.  Stay positive, stay connected, stay engaged.  Believe that God has something to offer you and to offer others through you.

When John Quincy Adams, our 6th president, was an elderly man, a young friend asked: "How is John Quincy Adams today?" Adams replied: “John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you.  But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, thank you.”

The Bible 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.”   God desires an attitude of thankfulness, appreciation, humility and joy.

For how you spend your years matters, it matters to others, and it matters to God.   Just last week Jane Kay told Donna Pierce, our Coordinator for Congregational Care, that she wanted Donna to help her if one of our members died.  Jane said she would take care of the arrangements and Donna would take care of the day of the memorial service at church.  Jane was still thinking of serving God almost literally until her last breath.

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.”   This idea captures the heart of scripture.   A good prayer is: “God what do you want me to do with my life before I die?”   God is not finished with you.  Let us celebrate life’s journey in light of the one who is our dwelling place in all generations, from everlasting to everlasting, until the last trumpet sounds and Jesus welcomes into glory.   Amen!