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!