Friday, July 21, 2017

Seasons of Loneliness (Psalm 137:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Years ago Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline performed a song together entitled, "Have You Ever Been Lonely?"     Have you?

One evening, during a violent thunderstorm, a mother was tucking her 4 year-old son into bed.  She started to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, "Mommy, could you lie down next to me until I fall sleep?"  The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. "Honey you'll be fine, the thunder won’t hurt you, I have to sleep with your daddy."  In a shaky voice, he whispered: "The big sissy.”

A recent BBC news article said: Police respond to lonely man’s 999 call with tea.  "What else could we do but make him a brew of tea and have a chat," one of two officers reported on a Twitter feed.   The elderly man told the BBC he was touched by the visit, saying he felt he had been "locked off from everything." He added: "You feel somebody cares and oh that does matter … we talked about simple things, nothing very special, but the officers showed that they cared by being there and talking to you."

Reporter Billy Baker wrote an article in the Boston Globe in March of this year: “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men isn’t smoking or obesity.  It’s loneliness.”

Loneliness is a part of the human condition.  It 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.”

A fundamental human fear is the prospect of being alone.   Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone.  What are its manifestations?  You feel that no one truly 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 or who will listen.  It’s the sense of being forgotten, overlooked, and excluded.  You feel like you’re missing out.  It’s the fear that no one really cares that you exist.

I have felt lonely at different times in my life.  I suspect you have too.  You can feel lonely when you’re by yourself, and you can also feel lonely in a crowd.   It’s not the number of people around you that matters, it’s your relationship to them.   Is there a connection or no connection?  I’ve talked to people who go to a movie or restaurant or shopping mall when they are lonely just to be around people.  Sometimes it really helps.  But other times it merely intensifies the awareness of their loneliness.

Can you be famous and wealthy and lonely:  Elvis sang – Heartbreak Hotel, “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I could die.”

One psychologist describes three types of loneliness: transient, situational and chronic.  Transient loneliness is a sudden passing mood or feeling; it lasts a few minutes to a day or so.  Situational loneliness is a common reaction to times of transition and separation - divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a friend, a serious and debilitating illness, moving to a new location, changing or losing a job, retirement, or children leaving home for college.  Well, that one brings mixed feelings.  Situations loneliness lasts up to a year.  Chronic loneliness refers to people who feel lonely for two or more years at a time where no significant change has taken place.

In the Bible a psalmist cries out: “Turn O God to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted.”  Another psalmist expresses his feelings in the poignant Psalm 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 were rounded up and deported to Babylon in 587 B.C.  Nebuchadnezzar didn't take the entire population of the city, but only the cream of Jewish leadership, the educated, the skilled, the wealthy.  He left the elderly, the sick and poor behind to harvest the crops.

This psalm captures the downcast spirit of the Jews in exile; they dearly missed their friends. The deported Jews grieved families who were broken up or killed, they missed worshipping together in the temple, they missed their home, their land and their culture.

The psalmist writes: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Zion is another Hebrew name for Jerusalem.  In the middle of their loneliness they turned to God.

Since loneliness is part of the human predicament, it is important to learn ways of coping with it like other aspects of our lives.  There are certainly unhealthy and self-defeating ways of dealing with loneliness.  Becoming a workaholic, piling up debt, staying home all the time, turning to alcohol or drugs, watching television non-stop, not learning something new, 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.  Solitude is the other side of loneliness.  Solitude is the positive side of being alone.  Solitude expresses the glory of being alone.  You enjoy time alone.  Solitude is being able to spend time alone without feeling lonely.  It is spending time alone doing things like walking at the bay, gardening or knitting or resting or reading or meditating or playing a musical instrument or a crossword puzzle, or praying or recalling past memories.  It is a refreshing and revitalizing gift from God.

God has created human beings with two opposite needs.   We have the need for meaningful relationships and the need to be alone; we need companionship and we need solitude.   Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden Pond, wrote: “I never found the companion that was so companionable, as solitude."     Solitude is a gift of grace don't you agree?

Second, we must take responsibility for our loneliness.  God has given us a free will.  Loneliness is not a trap from which is no escape.  Loneliness is real, but it’s not life-long sentence without the possibility of parole.   We sometimes bring loneliness on ourselves.   We close ourselves off from others.  We shut the door to others.  We cut ourselves off from family, colleagues and friends.  We don’t take the initiative to contact someone, we wait for someone to contact us. Know this, God brings people into our lives.  Why:  Because God didn't create us to be alone.  God created us for family, for friendships, and for community.

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 and 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 saying take a class on a subject that interests you, take a day off and do something enjoyable. 

God may be calling you into service, into volunteering your time, into helping others.  Instead of focusing inward, focus outward on other people.  Use the time and talents God has blessed you with.   Visit someone in the hospital.  See the joy that your presence brings.  There are countless opportunities in the church and in the community.   Focusing outward upon the needs of others, and not only ourselves, fills us, and diminishes our sense of loneliness.

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

Don’t stay on the side-lines, 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, laugh and cry together.

Jesus our Lord understands your loneliness.  He was fully human and fully God.  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 14, 2017

God's Will in my Life (Phil. 2:12-13; Ro. 12:1-2) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

"Why Am I here?" "Why Am I Alive?"  “Do I have a purpose or am I just taking up space?”  Have you asked such questions?   George Cameron thinks about these questions daily.  He is alive due to the kidney donation of Clay Jones, a high school football player in Texas, who died in an accident.  Cameron writes: "I gambled, I drank to excess, I didn't take care of myself.  But knowing that I carry the kidney of this young man has really affected me.  It awakened faith in me.  I wonder why God spared me.  I have changed for the better and now work harder at being patient and loving and respectful of my life and the lives of others.”

Yes, God desires for you and me to seek, to know, and to follow His will.  Listen to this scripture from Colossians: “We pray and ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will, in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might.”    Yes, Lord, fill me with the knowledge of your will.

Two weeks ago I spoke about God’s Will in general.  To review, first, God’s Intentional Will means that God created human beings to worship God, to live worthy lives, to bear fruit, to lead moral, just and spiritual lives. Second, God’s Circumstantial Will means that God is involved in the circumstances of our lives. God takes the disappointments, the defeats, the failures, the accidents, the set-backs, even evil and weaves them together for His good purposes.  Third, God’s Ultimate Will means that because God is the sovereign ruler, God’s will for history, the world and our lives will not be defeated but will ultimately be fulfilled.  Today we are examining the question of discovering God's will in our personal lives.

In what kinds of situations have you prayed for God’s will?  “Lord, I need guidance in this decision I’m facing.” “Lord, help me solve this problem.” “Lord, should I change jobs or go back to school to change careers?” “Lord, help me with raising my children.” “Lord where can I get help for my marriage.” “Lord, where can I get help for my aging parents?” “Lord, help me with my finances.”  “Lord, should I have this surgery or not.”   Perhaps you can identify with one or more of these concerns.

First, Scripture declares that God’s Will is knowable; you and I can know it.  This is good news.  God’s Will is not some life-long quest where you must travel to India or Nepal to find it.  Some claim that God’s will is in the searching, the seeking, the journey itself, not the destination.  That is not the word of the Bible.  Romans: 12: “Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  It can be discovered, perceived, discerned, and experienced.  Faith is the gift which enables us to personally understand God's will.  Yes, it is a mystery on the one hand, and yet God will unveil this mystery to us when we sincerely pray about it.

Further, scripture says God's Will is not only knowable, it’s achievable.  By faith, God gives us the power and grace, the insight and ability, to fulfill, to obey, to accomplish His will, to be where God truly wants you to be and to do what God wants you to do.  This is confirmed in these words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Well done, good and faithful servant, well done, enter into my kingdom.”    Again, this is good news.

Further, God’s Will for your life may be right in front of your nose.  In fact, you may be fulfilling God’s will today.  I have spoken with people over the years who tell me they have been searching for God’s will but haven’t found it.   “I don’t know what God’s plan for me is, but I hope I find it before I die.”   Some believe it will be something extraordinary, like saving the environment, making a major difference in their community, saving lives or becoming a missionary and winning thousands of people for Jesus.  I remember talking with a fellow pastor one day.  He was incredibly frustrated.  He said he was waiting for God to give him his opportunity to be like a Billy Graham and lead crusades around the world, but was currently stuck being a pastor in a small church. Is it possible that he was already doing God’s will but was blind to it?

Sometimes we know God's will in advance.  Recall God’s call to the Apostle Paul.  “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, come over to Macedonia and help us.  After Paul had seen the vision, he got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel there.”

In another example, Christian song writer Amy Grant grew up in Nashville, in a Christian home imbued with faith, traditional values, love and support.  She knew from the time she was a child that God was calling her to a career in Christian music.  By the time she was 16, Amy had released her first album and today she’s a dominant voice in the Christian music movement.  She has sold over 30 million albums and taken Christian music to a wider audience than any other artist in the Christian genre.  I have known grandparents who heard God calling them to raise their grandchildren or people who knew God was calling them to adopt a child.  People who know God’s will early on and are fulfilling it have told me:  “I was born to do this.”   God’s will is for them is a life-time calling.

On the other hand, Scripture also teaches that we don’t always know God's purpose in advance.   God called Abraham to go forth to a land that God would show him in the future and to trust that God would be with him.  God didn't tell him where the land was but to simply obey and trust.  God says place your hand in mine and walk forward trusting in me.

For example, a pastor writes: “I have found that God’s will for me is meaningful more in retrospect than in prospect.  I find when I step out in faith, rather than waiting around for a sign from God, and move ahead, God shows me His will.   How He desires to use my life becomes clear.  I see God’s hand far more when I look backward than when I try to look forward.”

I find this is often true in my life.  God decides how and when he wants to use us for His glory.   Our role is to be alert and ready and have the courage to trust in God and go forth in faith.

Recall the verse from Philippians: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure “ The biblical truth is this: God has a lifelong purpose for some people like Billy Graham or Amy Grant.

On the other hand, God has changing or different plans for other people.  God’s will may change in your life over the years.  God's will for you and me is to please him at the different stages of our lives.  God used David, from being a lowly shepherd, to a fighter who killed Goliath, to the king of Israel over his lifetime.  Likewise, God’s will is often to use us in temporary or short-term ways: like serving in the church in different roles, or volunteering at a hospital, or an animal shelter or in the public schools, or taking on some cause in the community i.e., crime or homelessness, or cleaning the beaches, or raising children or caring for an ill neighbor.   I still haven’t figured out whether being a parent is a temporary or lifetime role.   Psalm 138 vs.8 says: “The Lord will work out his plans for my life; the Lord will fulfill his purpose for me, your love oh Lord, endures forever.”

Where do we find God's will?  How can you discover God’s will?  Here are some biblical ways God reaches out to us.  God doesn't use the cookie cutter approach.  God uses the tailored approach.

First, God speaks through His Word, the Bible.  Read it prayerfully and regularly.  Everything we need for living a life that pleases and honors God is found in Scripture.  Psalm 119 says: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

But we need to be a little careful and pray for God’s guidance.   A man was facing a major dilemma in his life and decided to seek an answer by turning to the Bible.  He flipped open the Bible and randomly put his finger on a page and read the verse: “and Judas went away and hanged himself.”  He was a little startled, so he tried it a second time, and placing his finger on another verse read: “Go and do likewise.”  He thought, I’ll give it one more try and randomly selected a third verse, and read: “Thus saith the Lord.”

Second, God speaks through your own faith and intuition and judgment and common sense and conscience.  You will be in-tune with God’s will if you are daily walking with God, the Holy Spirit will guide you.  Pay attention to the voice within you.  Often I've found that a thought arises: call this person or go see this person, a church member or family member, and they say:  “Wow, I was just thinking about you,” or “I really needed to talk to someone.”  Listen when God speaks to your inner self.

Third, God speaks through the circumstances of your life.  Oswald Chambers put it this way: “God speaks in the language you know best, not through your ears but through your circumstances.”  Think about those times when you said: “It was meant to be, it happened for a reason, it was a God thing.”  What you do each day matters to God.   You may now be where God wants you to be and doing what God’s wants you to do. Rejoice in it.  Give thanks for the opportunity to serve the Lord.

Fourth, discover God’s will by knowing how God has shaped you, designed you, wired you in terms of your spiritual gifts, attitude, aptitude, abilities and talents, your personality, your passion, your interests.  What motivates you?  What energizes you?  What could you see yourself doing?  God strives to match your divine design with your work, your tasks, your opportunities, your decisions, your service, your vocation and avocation.   When there is a match, you are doing God’s will.

If you are not good with numbers, like I am not, God’s will is probably that you not become an accountant or church treasurer.  If you can’t sing a note, God’s will is not likely that you should sing professionally or sing in the church choir.   If you have a poor sense of direction, God’s will is not likely that you become an air traffic controller.  We discern God’s will by knowing ourselves or our divine design and how God has put us together.  I remember a Sunday School teacher at a former church who told me after teaching her first day of Sunday School: “I am sorry pastor, I resign, I realized something today, I don't like children.”

I thought God wanted me to become a cop.  I majored in Criminal Justice Administration at SDSU.  I worked as a police intern for three years during college.  I realized at the end of that time that I was not cut out to be a cop.

Fifth, we discern God's will through the wisdom, counsel and faith of others.  As you seek God’s will, talk to others, to people you respect and trust.  Listen with open ears.  Don’t get defensive if someone says something you don’t want to hear.  You want to hear the truth.  Listen for the word of God from these people.

Sixth, sometimes you must take a leap of faith to find God’s will.  I’m sure you’ve experienced times in which you have prayed and prayed but nothing seems to happen.  I have.  God are you listening?  We must step out in faith and trust that our decision is in accord with God’s will.  Only later, do we find the answer.

Finally, sometimes God reveals his will in a time of need, the needs of others or in a time of our own need.  We are most vulnerable in a time of need.  I have known people who responded to another person’s need, say illness, and they felt God calling them to become a doctor or nurse.  Likewise, I’ve know people who deal with illness in their own lives, and decided they heard God calling them to medicine.

We go to God in our own time of need because we have nowhere else to turn.  It is a time of crisis or confusion or illness or brokenness.  Here we are most receptive and open to God’s word and will.  In such times God can reach us because we are ready to listen.   Yes, discovering God’s personal will is so important.  I close with this prayer:  “Dear Lord, fill us with the knowledge of your will.”  Amen!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Seeking God’s Will (Ro.12:1-2; Phil.2:12-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Are you in charge of your life?  We like to think so, but you wonder, with all of the  twists and turns of our lives.  And we look at this world, with its joy and sadness, good and evil, justice and injustice, health and illness, the thrill of success and the agony of failure, and we wonder.

And where does God’s will fit in?  Have you ever prayed: “Lord, your will be done,” or “Lord show me your will.” or “Lord, I want to follow your will?”  I have.  Scripture is clear: God desires for you and me to seek, to know and to follow His Will.   God wants us to open our hearts and minds to His voice and guidance in all times and in all places and in all our years.

What is God’s will?    I doubt that this sermon will answer all of your questions, especially since I still have questions, but it will give you some biblical insights.  Discerning God’s will is not simple.   Any minister who says he or she understands and can explain God’s will to you is, let us say, not lacking in self-confidence.   Are you hearing God speak to you or is it something or someone else?

A man goes ice fishing for the very first time. All of a sudden, he hears a voice. "There are no fish under the ice!" He ignores it and moves to another area, cuts a hole, and tosses his line in. Again, he hears the booming voice: "There are no fish under the ice!" He nervously looks up and asks, "Lord? Is that you?"  "No, this is the ice rink manager!"

First, Scripture teaches that we live out our lives in a context of conflicting wills.  Our own free will, your will, my will, other people's free wills, Satan's will and God's will.  Toss accidents into the mix and you have a real conundrum.  Second, scripture says that God's sovereign will is not only at work in individual lives, but in the universe, history, in time, in the destiny of nations.  Jesus prays in the Lord's Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The terms God’s kingdom, God’s Will, God’s rule, God’s Plans or Purposes are synonyms/interchangeable.  They mean the same thing in scripture.  These terms mean God is alive and active in this world and in our lives.  God’s Will has existed in the past, is a reality today, and it is coming in the future.

In the letter of Romans, we read: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  We cannot discern God’s will by thinking like the world thinks, but only when we allow the Spirit to transform and renew our minds.  And in the letter of Philippians we read: “For it is God who is at work in you enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  God’s Spirit is speaking to your spirit helping you to grasp God’s will.  We must always pray to discern God's will vis-a-vis the world's will.

These are amazing biblical passages.  They bring comfort, encouragement, assurance and hope.  They affirm the truth that God’s will is not silent or make-believe or a fantasy.  God's sovereign and powerful will is a tremendous force in our lives and our world.     You and I are not merely pawns in life; victims of capricious and impersonal forces like fatalism over which we have no control.   God's will is present and active and God has given us a free will to seek and follow His will.  God calls us to align our will with His, to get in tune-with His will through faith.   Conversely, we also have the freedom to disobey God.

Nothing that happens in life is God’s will!  Is that true?  Can we make that claim?  No. We would be saying God is dead or apathetic or complacent or on permanent vacation in the Bahamas.  We claim through faith that God’s will comes in many forms: blessings, answers to prayer, miracles, small and great, coincidences, surprises of grace which we never saw coming, good coming out of bad, new opportunities emerging out of dead ends.   Well then can we state this:  Everything that happens in life is God’s will?   No we can’t say that either.  We are then speaking about pre-determinism or even fatalism and we are immediately ruling out human free will.

Was 9-11 God’s will?  Are terrorist attacks God’s will? If a child dies of an illness or in a car accident is that God’s will?  If a person is diagnosed with cancer is it God’s will?  If you or I do something foolish, which we later regret, it is God’s will?  As a Christian and pastor I believe the answer is no.  You have no control over a drunk driver who T-bones you or the cancer that your physician diagnoses.  The God of the Bible just doesn’t operate that way.  Why not?  We again live in a context of conflicting wills and individual responsibility.  Jesus acknowledges the existence of Satan, of free will, of sinful of human beings, of a fallen creation and of accidents which occur in life.

Think about Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the World.  In Jesus we see God’s will being played out.   If sickness was God’s will, why did Jesus heal people in his ministry?      Jesus does not tell a man with leprosy that his disease is God’s will; Jesus cures him.  If hunger was God’s will, why did Jesus feed people?   Jesus does not say to the hungry crowds go away, hunger is God’s will; Jesus feeds them.  Jesus does not tell people racked with guilt that guilt is God’s will, Jesus forgives them.  If ignorance was God’s will, why did Jesus teach his disciples and teach the crowd’s through stories and parables?

In his classic book, The Will of God by Leslie Weatherhead, we find some key insights into this question.  The author divides the concept of the Will of God into three aspects – the Intentional will of God, the Circumstantial will of God and the Ultimate will of God.

First, God’s Intentional Will means God’s original plan for creation, God’s original purpose in creating the world and human beings before the Fall.  Genesis says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Neither the earth nor the heavens existed.  God created the universe and human beings with a purpose in mind.  God created people with the free will to love Him and obey Him, to love their neighbor, to worship God alone, rather than self or idols, to be whole - spiritually, intellectually, relationally, physically, and emotionally rather than broken, to treat one another with fairness, respect and dignity, to  live together in unity, to lead spiritual and moral lives, to care for the earth rather than exploit it, to gain knowledge rather than live in ignorance, to live a meaningful and joyful and fulfilling life in fellowship with God.   This was God’s Intentional Will.

Second, God’s Circumstantial Will.   Now we enter a gray area.  Our eyesight becomes a little blurry.  Why, because scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight.  Because of human disobedience, the Fall destroyed man’s relationship with God.  Humanity as represented by Adam and Eve, turned away from God, fell from God’s grace; Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.

God’s Circumstantial Will refers to the truth that despite the problems, sin and evil that resulted from the Fall, God is present in this world working through us and with us in our circumstances.  God promises to help us by His grace and power to not let us be defeated by our circumstances, but rather to get through, to endure, and finally triumph over them.

God sent His Son Jesus to seal this promise.   Jesus is the seal of God’s promise to be with us, to not forsake us.   The letter of Philippians says: “I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”  Scripture says: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

God promises to instill hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless times.   God promises to impart courage to us when we are overcome with fear and anxiety.  God promises to provide strength for us, when we feel weak, exhausted and helpless.  God’s promise means don’t give up.

And so we look at today’s world war, with radical extremist Muslim terrorist groups like Isis, dedicated to establishing Sharia Law world-wide, infidels against other moderate Muslim nations and democratic nations in Europe and the USA.  Some say they can’t be defeated, they are too strong.   Others say we need the will and a plan.  What do you say?   God’s will is that though we don’t know how, God’s plans and purposes are at work today to defeat this barbarous and evil threat to civilization.  This is the promise of Easter; Jesus’ resurrection was a victory over evil.

I Corinthians says: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it.”  God brings good things out of bad circumstances.  God uses challenges for our good.  God redirects our lives when we are lost or misguided.  This doesn’t mean that everything will always turn out perfect or the way we want it to be.

Like the story about a police officer in a helicopter who spotted a car speeding down the freeway.  He radioed his partner on the ground and a few miles later the patrolman in the car stopped the speeder and began writing a ticket.  “How did you know I was speeding,” the man asked.   The patrolman kept writing and pointed skyward. The man looked up and moaned, “Oh, no, you’re not against me too.”

Listen to this story of a couple whose son was born with a congenital heart defect.  When he was four, he went to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for open-heart surgery.  Despite their prayers, and the skills of the doctors, sadly, the child died.  His mother said: “God helped us through our grief in such a loving way, that we continually marveled at what was happening.  The people who brought us the most comfort were those who had also lost a child.  They knew what we were experiencing and when they softly said, ‘We understand what you are going through; there was a bond between us that really lightened our load.  The Bible verse that popped into my head was: “In everything God works for good with those who love him.”’  We hung onto it for dear life and watched it come true.  In the weeks and months to come, we were led to accept Philip’s death without bitterness and other people’s faith was strengthened as they watched what was happening to us.”

Lastly, we come to God’s Ultimate Will.  This means that God’s purposes in the world will ultimately be achieved, will ultimately be realized, will ultimately be established forever.   They will be fulfilled forever.   God's plans and purposes cannot be defeated or destroyed by any power or nation or evil charismatic person or group.  God will make sin and evil serve His final purposes.

I close with a beautiful picture of the future, a future which one day will be realized.  We find it in the book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.”   “Lord, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fathers of the Bible (Genesis 21:1-5, 35:27-29; I Chronicles 23:14-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A teenage boy had just gotten his driving permit.  He asked his father if they could discuss his use of the family car.  His father said, "I'll make a deal with you. You bring your grades up, study the Bible more, get your hair cut, and then we'll talk about it."   After about a month, the boy came back and again asked his father if they could discuss his use of the car. The father said, "Son, I've been very proud of you. You have brought your grades up, you've studied the Bible, but you didn't get your hair cut."  The young man replied, "You know, Dad, I've been thinking about that. I read in the Bible that Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair."  "True son," his father said, "and everywhere they went, they walked."

Welcome on this Father’s Day.  A study from Penn State researchers published in the journal Child Development tracked nearly 200 families over a seven-year period.  The study found that time with mom and dad starts to drop when teenagers hit about the age of 15.  The study noted that, generally speaking, the more time teens spend with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, social competence, and sense of well-being.  Teens with involved fathers "may develop higher general self-worth because their fathers go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them."   Yes, fatherhood is a critical role.

Are some fathers born great?  Leonard Ravenhill tells about a group of tourists visiting a picturesque village in Europe who walked by an old man sitting beside a fence.  In a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, "Were any great men born in this village?"  The old man replied, "Nope, only babies.”

Today, we remember, honor and pray not so much for the ideal of fatherhood, but for real flesh and blood fathers.  Fathers who take fatherhood seriously and strive to be the best fathers they can be.  For fathers who treat their wives with love and respect as an example to their children.  We remember single fathers, married fathers, young and old fathers, foster fathers, step fathers and adoptive fathers.  We honor fathers who make promises and keep them, who stand by and support their families emotionally, spiritually and financially.

Today we pray for fathers who are separated from their children because of military service or because of problems in the family.  We pray for fathers who are grieving the death of a child, and for fathers who have a passionate desire to pass on spiritual and moral values to their children, and who give, not just material things - but their time, their love, their energy, their knowledge, themselves.

We also pray for fathers who do not support their children – emotionally or financially.  We pray for a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of attitude, that they will turn to God in repentance, that they will see the light and by God’s power and grace, mend their ways, and become the father’s God wants them to be and the father’s they are capable of becoming.

Who are some well-known fathers in the Bible?   Abraham left his home to follow the call of God.   Abraham was the father of the people of Israel, a leader and visionary.  He was constantly challenged by God and he met those challenges head-on.  When he and his wife Sarai were unable to conceive, God blessed the couple with their son Isaac.

God challenged Abraham by ordering Isaac be sacrificed. Though Abraham's heart was broken, he knew to trust in the Lord and at the last moment Abraham’s hand was stilled by God and Isaac's life was spared.  Abraham's difficult life is a reflection of difficult lives today.  Many modern fathers meet such challenges and learn, through experience, how to trust God.  Once that trust is developed, fathers pass that unyielding faith and trust to their children, who grow to love God as well.

Isaac is another well-known father.  Isaac married Rebekah, who was barren, like Sarah had been.  As a good husband, Isaac prayed for his wife, and God opened Rebekah's womb. She gave birth to twins:  Esau and Jacob.  No, Isaac wasn’t perfect, he favored Esau over Jacob. Isaac reminds fathers today that we are not perfect.   We need to grow and mature and learn, and be humble and grateful.  God calls ordinary men to be fathers, capable of doing extraordinary things.

Isaac obeyed God and followed his commands.  He became a leader and patriarch of the Jewish nation.  Isaac was faithful to God.  He never forgot how God saved him from death and provided a ram to be sacrificed in his place.   Isaac watched and learned from his father Abraham.  In an era when polygamy was accepted, Isaac took only one wife, Rebekah. He was a loyal husband and loved her deeply all his life.

Moses was another father.  He was the father of two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.  He also served as a father figure to the entire Hebrew people.  Moses trusted in God and led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land.  He loved them and helped discipline and provide for them on their 40-year journey to the promised land.  Moses seemed to be a larger-than-life character, but he was only a man. He shows today's fathers that overwhelming tasks can be achieved when we stay close to God.

Our last father is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Though Jesus takes center stage, it is important to remember Joseph.  Joseph was responsible for raising the Christ child together with Mary.

It was a father’s job to prepare children for a trade.  Joseph passed on a skill to Jesus and trained Jesus to become a carpenter.  Joseph loved Jesus, protected him, provided for him, and raised Jesus up in the Jewish faith and tradition.  Joseph was a righteous man and was chosen to help care for Jesus in his childhood.  Joseph is an exemplary father figure for Jesus and the several children he later fathered.  Today, fathers can learn to be compassionate, loving and righteous after the model of Joseph.

In this light, I remind you of some basic biblical principles of Fatherhood.  God is our eternal Father.  Since human beings were created in the image of God, fathers are to reflect the image of God’s fatherhood.  Yes, that’s a tall order, a seemingly impossible one.  It is a role fathers strive to fulfill with humility and patience, trust and faith, and constantly seeking God’s grace, forgiveness and power.

Fathers are to love their children.  Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son to demonstrate both God’s love for sinners and a father’s love for his children.

Fathers are to teach and train their children.  A good father is an example and teacher for his children.  Ephesians 6:4 says: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Fathers, control your temper, practice self-control, do not provoke your children to anger.”  This includes teaching about God and faith.

A good father protects his children from harm.  This is one of the basic duties of a father.  Jesus used the analogy of a shepherd protecting his sheep, those in his charge, and likewise, fathers are to protect their children whom God has entrusted to them.

A good father provides for the family.  The father who loves his family strives to and works hard to provide for them.    This is understood broadly as providing material necessities, but also providing emotionally and spiritually in terms of prayer and being a Christian example.

Writer Mark Twain said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant; I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Our culture has dramatically changed.  Whom do we hear about?  We hear about superstar and super-paid athletes, successful entrepreneurs, celebrities and entertainers.  Yesterday I scanned the internet. I found hundreds of articles on almost every subject, but not one about Fathers or Father’s Day.   So how about elevating an important person and role in our society; a father, a committed father, a loving father, a man of faith, a good family man.  It is a role established by none other than God.   Amen!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Spirit of the Living God (Acts 2:1-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The Holy Spirit is always something of a mystery for believers.  A father tells the story of their family gathering for breakfast, he asked his four-year-old daughter to say the blessing.  She folded her hands, bowed her head and prayed, "Thank you, Father, Son, and Holy toast."

Yes, it's Pentecost Sunday.  The color red you see around you is a symbol for fire. In the Old and new Testaments fire and flames denoted a theophany, an appearance of God, the purifying presence of God.   Today we celebrate the coming and blessing of God's Holy Spirit.  Pentecost means 50th day, for it was 50 days after Easter that God sent His Spirit to the disciples.  Pentecost is the story about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' disciples who were gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit bonded them together as one and the Christian church was born.

We Christians affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; we believe that God is one God in three persons.  God is a tri-unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.    We are not talking about the human spirit, nor the spirit of the age, nor about team spirit.   We are speaking of the Spirit of God, the third person of the trinity or the God head.   The Holy Spirit is the Giver and Renewer of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.  God the creator is over us or beyond us, God the Son, our savior is for us and God the Holy Spirit and sanctifier is with us and in us.

In the Gospel of John we discover the Greek word “Paraclete,” a word I want you to add to your Christian vocabulary, when referring to the Holy Spirit.  It is variously translated into English as Advocate, Comforter, Companion, Counselor, Helper, Spirit because the Holy Spirit performs all of these functions.

After Jesus' resurrection and public appearances, knowing that soon he would no longer be physically with the disciples, Jesus makes a promise to his followers: “I will not leave you orphaned.   I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever.  The world cannot receive the Spirit, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him,” Jesus says, “because he abides with you and he will be in you forever.”  Not temporarily, not occasionally, but forever.

In times of trouble, in fearful times the Paraclete is our comforter.  When we face confusing decisions the Paraclete is our counselor.   In lonely times, God's Spirit is our companion.   When we are weak, the Paraclete or Holy Spirit is our Helper.

A pastor writes:

When I decided to start a new church in Los Angeles, I found that I was overwhelmed with pressure and stress.  I was working more than seventy hours a week.  My wife would ask me to take a day off and I would say, "I can't." I wasn't sleeping at night and I began to take sleeping pills. When the church was about a year old, I woke up in the night and had this strange sense that God was laughing at me.   It was the weirdest feeling.  I lay in bed wondering why God is laughing at me?

I finally got an answer. Here's how it happened.  When we moved into our house, I saved the heaviest piece of furniture for last—the desk from my office.   As I was pushing and pulling the desk with all my might, my four-year-old son came over and asked if he could help.  So together we started sliding it slowly across the floor.  He was pushing and grunting as we inched our way along.  After a few minutes, my son stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Dad, you have to push too.”  I realized that he thought he was actually doing all the work, instead of me.  I couldn't help but laugh.  But then a moment of realization struck me.  I knew why God was laughing at me.  I thought I was pushing this new church all alone.  Instead of recognizing God's power and strength, I was thinking it all depended on me.

Do you ever think it all depends upon you, that the weight of it is on your shoulders alone, and fail to see and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit working in partnership with you?  I experience that at times.  God's Spirit brings comfort when we battle feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.   When your heart is discouraged, the Holy Spirit brings a priceless gift, the gift of inner peace. Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Have you ever felt anxious about something and then suddenly you experience an inner calm?  The Holy Spirit helps us to persevere when we are weak, to find courage when we are afraid, and to find hope when we despair.  The Spirit consoles us in times of grief.   Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  The work of the Holy Spirit is about inspiring, transforming and changing.  Can you identify some part of your mind, heart or soul that is changing?  Trust in Jesus’ promise.  The Holy Spirit is working in your life.

In his book, Against the Flow, Oxford professor John Lennox notes that when God calls us to do something difficult, he gives us the strength when we need it, not before we need it. Lennox illustrates this biblical principle with a story about an encounter he had with a Russian follower of Jesus who spent years in a Siberian labor camp for the crime of teaching his own children about the Bible.

Lennox writes: “This man described to me that he had seen things in labor camps that no man should ever have to see. I listened, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared in such inhumane conditions.  As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: ‘You couldn't cope with that, could you?’ Embarrassed, I stumbled out something like: ‘No, I am sure you are right.’ He then grinned and said: ‘Nor could I! I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you I couldn't imagine how one could cope in the Gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus had promised his disciples when he was preparing them for persecution.  The Holy Spirit comes upon us when we need him and not before.’”

The ultimate test of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, according to the scripture, is when your life and mine manifest the fruits of God’s Spirit as we read in the letter of Galatians.  Do you recognize those times when you are radiating the fruits of the Holy Spirit:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

I have always liked the song “Spirit of the Living God” which we just sang.  It is a song, it is a prayer, it is a plea.  Listen to the words: “Spirit of the Living God, Fall fresh on me, Spirit of the Living God Fall fresh on me, Melt me, mold me, Fill me, use me, Spirit of the Living God Fall fresh on me.”

On this day of Pentecost, may our prayer be: “Oh Spirit of God, fall afresh on me, breathe on me, oh breath of God.”  Amen!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Jesus’ Promise (Revelation 21:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Some friends were hanging out one day and the conversation turned to the subject of death.  One of the friends asked: "What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"  One friend answered, "I would hope people would say, He was a great humanitarian, a generous philanthropist, who cared about his community.”  A second replied: "I would want people to say, 'He was a great husband and father, an example for many to follow.”  The third friend gave it some thought and answered: "I would hope someone says, 'Look, he's moving!’”  We often use humor when speaking about death.

We also use humor when talking about heaven, like the story about three women who die and go to heaven:

St. Peter tells them he’s tied up at the moment and asks them to wait outside the heavenly gates.    Later, St. Peter returns and calls the first woman into his office.  He apologizes for making her wait so long.  “Oh, I don’t mind at all she replies, I’m just so happy and humbled to be here.”  St. Peter is delighted by her attitude.  “Well, he says, if you will just answer one question, we can finish processing your papers.  “How do you spell God?”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.

St. Peter calls in the next woman and also apologizes for making her wait.  She says: “Oh that’s okay, I’m willing to wait a 1,000 years if necessary, just to see God face to face.”  St. Peter is pleased.   He asks her: “Tell me, how to you spell God.”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.  St. Peter calls in the third woman.  He starts to apologize, but the woman angrily interrupts him: “How rude of you to make me wait, do you know who I am?  I’m going to get you fired for being so incompetent!”  St. Peter replies, “I’m so sorry, if you’ll just answer this one question.  How do you spell Czechoslovakia?”

In this Easter season we are reminded of a universal truth – we humans are mortal, sooner or later, everyone dies.   I think being active in the church puts us closer to the reality of death than many people, because we witness the death of church friends and family members throughout the year.   How foolish to go through life unprepared for what we know is inevitable.

A Gallup Poll reports that more Americans believe in heaven today than in 1981, up from 71% to 78%.  This goes along with an increase in those who believe in hell, up from 53% to 60%.  I think that as 70 million baby boomers approach retirement, they are becoming more interested in the Hereafter.

The Bible depicts two conceptions of the afterlife - heaven and hell.  We see this pictured in literature in Dante’s 14th century classic story The Divine Comedy.  The plot of The Divine Comedy is that a man is miraculously taken on a tour of the afterlife, to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  He has two guides; the Roman poet, Virgil, leads him through the Inferno and Purgatory.   The young woman, Beatrice, to whom the story is dedicated, leads him on a tour of Paradise.

Do you believe in an after-life, in a life-hereafter, in heaven and hell?  It really is about what we believe, what we accept as true; not what is a fact or what we can prove.  It is a truth claim.  Some people don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in an after-life.  They don’t believe God exists and that one’s life is extinguished at death, like one would extinguish a candle.  They might be right or they might be wrong.  But fundamentally it is still about belief.

Some people don’t believe because they hold a materialistic view of life.   They believe that reality, that the universe, that all that exists, is physical.  There is no God or spiritual reality. Truth they believe is empirical, that what is truly known or can be known comes only through our 5 senses, taste, touch, see, smell, and hear.

I was speaking to a scientist from our congregation last week.  She said even science acknowledges that there are phenomena that are true or real, even if we can’t identify them through our senses.  Some examples are time, magnetic fields, thoughts, air, oxygen, gravity, sound and radio waves.  Until the invention of the electron microscope, atoms, molecules, and sub-atomic particles were nothing but a hypothesis or theory.

I do believe in an after-life.  I know it in the depths of my heart.  Remember this, knowing in your heart is still a type of knowing, a valid knowing, even if not a scientific knowing.  I am sure you can think of things you have known or know today, you know in your heart that cannot be proven.  I believe in heaven and I believe in hell.  Why?  I agree with the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I believe in hell because the Bible declares that God is holy, moral, righteous, just, fair.   For example, the 6th commandment “Thou Shall Not Murder” declares God’s will for all humanity.  There is a price to pay if you violate God’s commandment.  The Bible says there are consequences for our behavior, the wages of sin is death; the consequence of evil is punishment.  The prophet Amos says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.”

I also believe in hell because Jesus, the Son of God, speaks of hell.  Jesus said to his disciple, “You are Peter, upon you I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The Bible uses different words for death and hell and each means something slightly different – sheol, gehenna and hades.  Hell is described as the abode of the dead, a place of judgment, punishment, loneliness, darkness, and separation from God, family and the faith community.

I also firmly believe in heaven.  Clearly, the Bible focuses not only on your and my life today, and living a Christ-like life, a loving life, an ethical life, a joyful life, a servant life, but also upon the life to come, everlasting life, glory.   In heaven we live a new life of joy and peace in God’s presence forever.  Imagine that for just a moment.   The stirring words in the book of Revelation paint this picture: “God will dwell with mortals, God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will cease, grieving and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”   Here is a beautiful picture of heaven.  One I think, given the stress and demands of life, that we should keep daily in our minds.

I believe in heaven because Jesus taught about it and because Jesus’ promises it in our future. Jesus said: “Because I live, you shall live also!”  “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Jesus said: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” Jesus taught: “Our Father who art in heaven,” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you.  I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”    Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

I also believe in heaven because on Easter God raised Jesus from death to life.  Jesus’ resurrection defeated the power of death.  Jesus appeared to many of his followers after his resurrection.  The book of Acts says: “After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God.”

I further believe in heaven because of the countless numbers of people who have testified to the after-life due to near-death experiences.  I have spoken to some of them personally over the years.   It’s fascinating at how similar the stories are.  A nurse, Diane Corcoran, describes the accounts of hundreds of people she has worked with.    In one instance a man said:  He felt himself “going to another place.” With tears rolling down his cheeks, he described this place as “beautiful” and “wonderful.”  But, he was told, he would have to go back, at which point he woke up in his body.

She said people describe themselves as hovering and seeing their bodies below, traveling through a tunnel toward light, and meeting deceased loved ones.  Some people describe having a “life review” or seeing their life, from an outside perspective.   Many of those who have near-death experiences say they were surrounded by an embracing and powerful light unlike anything on earth.

What is heaven going to be like according to Scripture?   Clearly, we are speaking about a mystery, but we do catch glimpses from scripture.  I believe you can summarize it in three ideas.  You’re going to be rewarded for your faithfulness and obedience to God.   You will be with Christ forever.   You will recognize loved ones and enjoy eternity with them.  Believing that Christ is Lord over life and death, trusting in the promise of Jesus about our future, gives us hope, strength to carry on, and comfort amidst the trials, losses, and tragedies in life.

I close with the words of Rev. Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life.  This life is not all there is.  Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production.  You will spend far more time on the other side of death in eternity than you will here.  Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity.  It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.   It is the preparation for the main event where you’re going to spend all of eternity.   At most you will live a hundred years here on earth, but you will spend forever in eternity. You were made to last forever. The question is where will we spend eternity?  God offers us not just an opportunity of a lifetime; but an opportunity beyond our lifetime.  God’s plans for our lives endure forever.”  Amen!

Friday, May 5, 2017

I Doubt It! (John 20:19-31) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The mother of a Christian family wrote to her son who was in his first year of college.    She asked how he was doing and reminded him to study hard and that he was in her prayers.  He wrote back: “Hi Mom, I like college. I’m making new friends, but I can’t believe how much you have to study.  I have been extremely busy with reading assignments and term papers and lab work, and I’m having a terrible time in one class.”  And then in a creative paraphrase of II Timothy 4:7 the son concluded: “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, but I doubt if I'll pass chemistry. Your favorite son, John.”

Is it rare to have doubts? No, it’s something we must grapple with and live with every day.  It confronts us in all realms of life.  What do you have doubts about?   Is there one thing in particular that you have doubts about or many things?  How do you deal with your doubts?

For there is no shortage of things to have doubts about.  Like our safety as a nation in the light of terrorist attacks, doubts about the economy, about our elected leaders in government, is government really looking out for the welfare of the people?   We have doubts about job security and about decisions looming before us.  We have doubts at times in our marriage, or about a friendship, or about how we’re raising in our children.  We have doubts about our health.  Yes, doubt is no stranger.

Is doubt all bad?  No.  People have had self-doubts about whether they could achieve something or knew that others had doubts about them were spurred on to prove to themselves or others that they could be successful.  Doubt has been a positive motivator for many to reach higher, to excel, to persevere, and to succeed, whether in sports, in entrepreneurial endeavors, in careers, in inventing, in business, in education, in attaining goals.  Doubts can propel us to take risks and accomplish things we never dreamed possible.   I also believe a little skepticism is healthy.  Being gullible, na├»ve, overly trusting can sometimes as we know get us into trouble.

But the answer also depends on the nature of our doubts.  Doubts about what color to paint the kitchen is one thing; struggling with serious self-doubt about our abilities, our judgment or our self-worth is another thing entirely.  Not believing in yourself, losing faith and confidence in yourself, is something else indeed.   Struggling with deep doubts about being a parent, about being a spouse, about whether your marriage can be saved, about your competence at work or in school, can lead to pessimism, anxiety, and ultimately depression.  I don’t think it’s healthy to ignore your doubts.  We need to pay attention to them and examine them and deal with them.   Denial is rarely ever the right path.

What about doubts when it comes to our faith in God?   Scripture clearly shows that you should not berate yourself or feel guilty, or think you are spiritually weak when you ask hard questions or feel disappointed in God or angry at God or struggle at times with your faith.   Such times demonstrate an intellectually honest faith.   Just read the psalms in the Old Testament for examples of an intellectually honest faith.    Like psalm 43: “Vindicate me O God, defend my cause against ungodly people; you are the God in whom I take refuge, why have you cast me off?  Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”  In other words, God where are you, why is this happening?

In II Corinthians we read: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”  The apostle Paul writes: “Now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.”  Anyone here ever feel like you are seeing dimly, when you’re trying to understand what God’s plan or purpose is for your life?   I have.  Christian faith is a living, breathing, organic relationship with God through Christ.  Faith is about trust and obedience.  And like any relationship, there is an element of the unknown, of mystery, of surprises, of questions, of disappointments, of unmet expectations.

Our faith ought to steady us, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith should instill confidence and peace, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith comes easy when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but then the storms of life assail us.   When is your faith strong and joy filled?  When is your faith shaken?

I believe there is some of the disciple Thomas in each of us, myself included.  Thomas was a charter member of that 12 Step Program – “Doubter’s Anonymous.”  But just a minute, aren’t we all?   Thomas knows his own mind.  He saw Jesus buried.  He refuses to go along with the crowd. The problem was that Thomas had missed the celebration.  I hate when that happens.  He missed seeing Jesus’ spectacular appearance.   The other disciples tell him about seeing the Risen Lord, but he isn’t buying it.  Jesus once again appears to the disciples and this time Thomas is there.   Jesus says: “Have you believed because you have seen me?”  Thomas, I’m glad that now you believe I am alive.   Touch my hands and my side.  Jesus clearly loves Thomas.

But then the risen Lord says something no one sees coming: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Jesus is saying there are blessings when we receive a revelation from God like Thomas and believe.   But Jesus says, you are also blessed by God when you have not seen and yet believe.

Doubt is a part of faith because our human understanding is limited.  Faith in God is rooted in belief, assurance, surrender, humility, respect, gratitude and knowledge.  But it’s not rooted in sight.  It requires trust and obedience.    Faith and prayer confesses that we cannot control God to answer our prayers, and aren’t there times when you wish you could?   Scripture says:  “Fight the good fight of the faith.”  Faith is worth the fight.  I think this is another way of saying doubt is real and it must be struggled with from time to time.

Doubts remind us of the vicissitudes of life.   Sometimes a day is filled with amazing blessings and surprises and beauty and joy and wonder and humor.   I remember our indomitable church member Jack Farris, who if you asked him how he was feeling, would answer: “If I felt any better I’d have to go see a doctor.”   And then tomorrow comes and we are hit hard with all kinds of problems.  We find ourselves questioning, “Why Lord, why?”

Does God abandon us in times of doubt?  No.  Author Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly child who was burdened by ill health for most of his life.  He died at the age of 44.  From skeptical beginnings, his spiritual journey eventually led him to become a man of radiant faith.  He started by debunking the Christian faith as the “deadliest gag and wet-blanket that can be laid on man.”  He referred to himself as a youthful atheist.  As he grew older, he began to have what he referred to as “his first wild doubts about doubt.”  Later, he commented: “Tis a strange world, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him?”  Near the close of his life, he wrote: “Faith is a good word to end on.”   Yes, sometimes doubt eventually leads us to faith.

I like what Dr. Lewis Thomas writes: “Much of God’s light shines in darkness.  There is enough darkness in each of our lives to cause us to wonder what, in God’s name, is going on.  Yet we would have to affirm that there is enough light in our lives to enable us to trust even when we cannot grasp what a particular event means.”

I believe that in times of doubt God brings the right people into our lives.  God gives us the gift of the church, like the disciples, who were there for Thomas.  Our faith is strengthened through the faith and presence of other believers.   It has happened to me personally.  I have also seen this over the years in the church, when people in difficult times tell me how their faith is inspired and encouraged by the prayers, visits, calls, cards, love and support of fellow believers.  The Holy Spirit links your sprit with the spirit of other believers in such times.

Like the story of Hans, a professor at a seminary who was devastated by the death of his wife, Enid.  Hans was so overcome with sorrow that he lost his appetite, and became depressed and didn't want to leave the house. Out of concern, the seminary president, along with three other professors, paid Hans a visit. The grieving professor confessed that he was struggling with doubt. "I am no longer able to pray to God," he admitted to his colleagues. "In fact, I am not certain I believe in God anymore."   After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, "Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you."  The four men continued to meet daily for prayer, asking God to restore the gift of faith to their friend.  Some months later, as the four friends gathered for prayer with Hans, Hans smiled and said, "It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me."

Our Easter faith proclaims that God raised Jesus from death to life.  Easter means that new life, new beginnings, new surprises are not only possible but a reality.   Fate does not control our destiny; God is ultimately in charge of life.   God is the ruler.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is with us through His Spirit.  Yes, sometimes we say – “I doubt it.”  But there are also times when we say – “Lord, I praise you.” “I believe in you.”  Thank you Lord.” And God’s people said:  Amen!