What do you do when the job runs out, or the stock market cuts your income, or your health requires a change of lifestyle, or there's a crisis in relationship with spouse or children or boss? Thursday, I followed a car with a bumper sticker that read, "A drunk driver killed my child." What do you do? What do you do when what you are doing and how you are doing it is not working? Your options are: quit, or continue doing what is not working, or start over. Perhaps you sigh, "Oh, I just can't. I don't have the energy or the motivation." Whatever you do, don't say, "Well, I'll try." Try is a negative word, a passive word that implies the possibility of failure. Banish the word "try" from your vocabulary. It's wimpy, wishy-washy, futile. Let your "yes" be "yes" or your "no" be "no"! Don't say, "I'll try;" say, "I'll start over."
Cheer up! Starting over is at the heart of the gospel. Even God starts over. The Bible is a casebook of "Start Overs. It is interesting how the Hebrews interpreted the ancient myth of the flood as an occasion of God's frustration with the human race, and God's decision to start over! The trouble was that God had to start over by using human beings, and humans were the cause of the trouble in the first place!
Then God sent Abraham to start a new people. When the people ended up as slaves in Egypt, then God sent Moses. Then God sent Joshua, then a series of judges, then prophets. Finally, God came in the flesh, in the person of Jesus. God starts over.
The lesson today is an account of God's starting over. The northern kingdom, Israel, was headed for disaster. Israel was weakened by shallow worship, just going through the motions. Its loyalty to God was a sham. It was weakened by moral decay. The rich were getting richer and lazier; the poor were getting poorer.
Rather than give up on Israel, God started over. God called Amos, a man of God, a farmer from Judah, to leave his farm and go to Israel and preach, to warn them about the imminent disaster. Perhaps it wasn't too hot an idea to send a southerner to preach to northerners; perhaps it wasn't too good a plan to send a hick farmer to preach to city folks; but perhaps Amos was all God had.
So, Amos went. He started over. 7:14-15, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'" Amos left his home, left his familiar surroundings, left his sheep and his sycamore trees, left his family, went to Israel and started over.
"Start over," was Amos' message. The Lord God used a plumb line, measuring the nation to see how straight it is, and what God found was, "You're out of line; you're out of plumb." Get straight, Amos cried, start over. "Seek the Lord and live," Amos preached. 5:14, "Seek good and not evil, that you may live."
Starting over is not necessarily easy, pleasant or successful. Starting over, which we also call "conversion", may be painful, challenging, frightening, but God calls, and the Holy Spirit powers.
Yesterday, Ellie and I flew to San Jose, California, to help surprise our oldest son, Jack, on his 40th birthday. We talked about the valedictory speech Jack gave at his high school graduation ceremony. His theme was persistence. His title was, "Failing Successfully." He gave examples of heroes who refused to give up when faced with setbacks. Then he asked, "Do you remember Matthew W. Peterson? No? That's because he quit!" The stadium rocked with laughter and applause. For several days, Matthew W. Peterson was the talk of the town. Don't quit! Start over!
My wife Ellie's grandmother had thirteen children, two of whom died as infants. When her oldest daughter, Millie, died in 1924, Grandma took in Millie's two young boys, ages three and four, which happened to be the same age as Grandma's two youngest girls. Having a house full of children, four of whom were preschool age, got to be too much for her, and she couldn't get out of bed. They called it a nervous breakdown then; today we call it depression. Her husband, who had to go to work early, asked a neighbor to come in and get the older children off to school. One morning, Millie, the daughter who had died, appeared at the end of the bed, and said, "Get up, Momma. You've got too much to live for." Grandma got up. With new resolve, with new energy, she started over!
It was the day after the infamous Oklahoma City bombing when the pastor of the First United Methodist Church inspected the ruined church sanctuary, escorted by an FBI agent. The pastor looked out through a broken window, and his eye fell on dead bodies. "Has the whole world gone crazy?" he whispered.
Just then, the FBI agent exclaimed, "Look at those flowers!" There in the midst of the rubble stood a full row of Easter lilies. Not one of them was broken or turned over! When the pastor saw the flowers, he saw Jesus! He saw a new church building rising up from the rubble. He had a sign made, "GOD REIGNS, AND WE SHALL REMAIN." That sign stood as a witness to the thousands of hushed visitors who came to the site. It proclaimed to the world, it proclaimed to the bombers: We will start over! You can't stop us. Satan can't defeat us. We will start over.
The church did. While other congregations flee the inner city, First United Methodist Church decided to start over right where they were. They built a new sanctuary next to the bombed out one. They replaced the bombed out building with a Family Life Center, at a total cost of $ 9 1/2 million. Start over!
Our church has had quite a year! Turmoil, upset, disillusionment, discouragement, changes, but we are surviving. You've even survived an interim pastor! Now Kelly Bender is coming. Next Sunday is a new day. Start over!
A college friend of ours has written an autobiography of her father, Born To Be a Winner*, by Muriel Sherman Jensen. When Walter was born in Donnybrook, North Dakota, the doctor frowned, the nurse gasped, and Grandpa whispered, "I hope God doesn't let him live." Tears streaked down the father's face because his son had no left arm, no thumb on his tiny right hand, his face was flat on the left side of his twisted head, his body was lopsided with an enlarged right shoulder, an underdeveloped left shoulder and a curved spine. The baby's mother cried, "Oh, God, why was he born?"
The answer to her question was, "He was born to be a winner." His personality was buoyant, his attitude positive, and his spirit indomitable, which gave him a handsome, not disfigured, appearance.
Without a thumb on his only hand, he learned to write, build with an erector set by using his mouth and knees, play marbles, basketball, football and baseball'without a thumb! He played outfield, catching the ball with his glove hand, tossing it into the air while dropping the glove, catching the ball and tossing it into the infield. He became very adept at playing tennis and, as a teenager, Walter was North Dakota junior division tennis champion! He learned to ride a horse and a bicycle, and he learned to play cards, with no thumb! Notice the excellent parenting! His parents did not overprotect him. They let him fail. They let him succeed on his own. Never do for children what they can do for themselves.
The Great Depression made it very difficult for Walter. He taught in one-room country schools, married, earned a college degree, but was never able to earn enough money teaching. Walter began to drink and gamble. He started over, and found a job visiting schools selling class rings and diplomas for a major company. He became a very successful and respected salesman.
Through several spiritual experiences, God saved him from alcoholism and gambling. He started over. Walter said he moved Jesus 18 inches'from his head to his heart, and he was filled with joy! God used Walter mightily to do ministry. After retirement, Walter developed a prison ministry. He was very active in Lay Witness Missions, and became a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He received countless awards, but the most important to him were the people he helped lead to faith in Jesus Christ. Walter never gave up; he kept starting over. Whenever you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself, think of Walter.
Start over! Don't quit! Don't be discouraged! Start over! And, keep going until you reach the end of the journey when we all get to heaven (Hymn No. 701)
*Born To Be a Winner, by Muriel Sherman Jensen, Cross Training Publishing, 317 West Second Street, Grand Island, NE 68801, 1999
© 2001 Douglas I. Norris