CELEBRATING VALENTINE’S DAY

When the Lord your God goes ahead of you and destroys the nations and you drive them out and live in their land, do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.” You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. [Deuteronomy 12:29-31 (NLT)]

just engagedSt. Valentine may (or may not) have been the Catholic bishop of Terni, a priest who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II, one who suffered in Africa, one who secretly married couples when marriage was forbidden, or one who converted the family of a jailer named Asterius and restored sight to his blind daughter. It was a common name and whether there was only priest named Valentine who did all of these things or as many as three, supposedly he or they were beheaded by the Emperor Claudius II on February 14 around the end of the third century. The confusion about Valentine’s identity led the Roman Catholic Church to drop his saint day from their official calendar of feasts in 1969.

Today’s romantic traditions, however, have pagan roots. On February 14, the Romans celebrated a day dedicated to the goddess Juno. Included in the revelry was a matchmaking lottery that paired up couples for the duration of the festival. On the 15th, they continued the merriment with Lupercalia, a fertility festival that involved sacrificing goats and a dog and whipping women with thongs made from the skins of the sacrificed animals. Understandably, the early Christian church was displeased by such behavior and, around 496, Pope Gelasius I recast the pagan festival as a feast day in honor of St. Valentine. Instead of men drawing names of women who’d become sex partners, children drew names of saints whose lives they would emulate for the year.

Although there was a common belief that birds began to mate for the season on February 14, it wasn’t until the late 14th century that Valentine’s Day became associated with romance, thanks to the publication of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Probably about the wooing of Anne of Bohemia by King Richard II, the poem depicts a dream of a pagan heaven where all of the birds have come before Dame Nature to choose their mates. “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,” wrote Chaucer, “When every fowl comes there his mate to take.” The birds have a debate while three eagles unsuccessfully try to seduce a female eagle.

Written valentines began to appear in the early 15th century and, by the middle of the 18th century, it became common for friends and lovers to exchange notes and tokens of affection. By the early 20th century, ready-made cards replaced the personal notes. Nowadays, over one billion valentines are sent each year.

With its pagan beginnings and the murky history of a man or men named Valentine, what does Valentine’s Day mean to Christians? At first thought, the day seems harmless enough. Some churches, however, prohibit celebrating this holiday because it, like certain other popular holidays, Christianizes or “whitewashes” pagan customs and traditions. We know from the Old Testament that God detests anything pagan. The Israelites were warned not to worship other gods but also not to adopt any pagan customs. The Apostle Paul warns us about not copying the behavior and customs of the world. [Romans 12:2] I wonder what God thinks about Valentine’s Day. What does He think of our spending nearly $20 billion to celebrate a day that began as pagan wantonness?

Although God is love, He is nothing like Cupid (the Roman god of erotic love). His love for us is immeasurable, consummate, unconditional, and sacrificial and has nothing to do with chemistry, sexuality, romance or even likability. We are called to love one another as He loves us—with a love that is generous, compassionate, forgiving, unqualified and expects nothing in return. We are to love the undeserving, unlikeable and adversarial as well as family, friend, and ally. How we celebrate this day is between us and God. There is no question, however, as to how we are to love one another every day of the year.

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HE KNOWS WHAT WILL FIT

Then the Lord asked Moses, “Who makes a person’s mouth? Who decides whether people speak or do not speak, hear or do not hear, see or do not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will be with you as you speak, and I will instruct you in what to say.” [Exodus 4:11-12 (NLT)]

white admiral butterflyWe were window shopping and celebrating our anniversary. Wanting to get me a gift, my husband spotted a dress he liked in the window of a little boutique and insisted we go inside. The owner greeted us, said the dress in the window wouldn’t fit and showed me a different dress. It was so unlike anything I’d ever worn that I immediately said it wouldn’t look right on me—wrong color, wrong style, wrong material, and wrong fit. ”Don’t you tell me what it will look like,” she said indignantly. “I created this dress and know exactly who it will fit. It will be beautiful on you.” Chastened, but still sure it would look terrible, I reluctantly tried it on. The designer, however, was right. As the creator of the dress, she knew what she had in mind when making it and that it would be right for me.

Through the years, we got to know this woman rather well; as a Messianic Jew, I imagine she was familiar with the book of Exodus. Our first exchange was much like that between God and Moses when God spoke out of the burning bush and gave Moses the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Like me, Moses protested that the job wasn’t a good fit. Who was he to approach Pharaoh? Why would the Israelites listen to or believe him? God responded by giving Moses three miraculous signs to convince them but Moses still objected that the task was not right because he wasn’t eloquent. Like the dress designer, God took that complaint personally and was angry that Moses didn’t seem to trust the One who made Him. As Creator of the man’s mouth in the first place, God knew what it could and couldn’t do. When He promised to empower Moses by putting the words in his mouth, Moses still balked so God provided him with Aaron.

It’s not just trying on dresses and freeing Israelites at which we balk. Whenever we feel one of those God nudges to step out of our comfort zones, our first response is usually something like, ”But God, that’s not the right task for me. I’m not designed for that sort of thing!” Be it sharing our faith or offering to pray with someone, volunteering at the food pantry, greeting at church, teaching Sunday school, writing a blog, visiting a shut-in, planning a fund raiser, organizing a blood drive, starting a Bible study or leading a grief group, we’re sure there is someone better qualified.

Perhaps there is; nevertheless, if God calls us to a task, it’s one He wants us to do and, as our creator, He knows exactly what it is we are capable of doing. Besides, He’ll give us the skills we need. He gave Moses the words and, when God appointed Bezalel and Oholiab to be in charge of building the Ark, the Tabernacle and its furnishings, God filled them with His spirit, wisdom, ability and expertise and gave special skill to all of their craftsmen. He’ll do the same for us! Moreover, just as He provided Moses with the assistance of Aaron, He’ll give us all of the help we need to do His work.

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be”? [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HIS PEDAGOGY

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

pink hibiscus

“May the Holy Spirit give us grace to not begrudge the pedagogy of God,” wrote John Piper. Pedagogy being a somewhat archaic word, I was unsure what Piper meant. Associating pedagogy with an old, boring, stodgy, and authoritarian teacher, I thought it wise to consult the dictionary. “Pedagogy” comes from two Greek words: pais, meaning child, and agogos, meaning leader. A paidagogos was a slave who led the boys to and from school, taught them manners, and tutored them after school. “Pedagogy” eventually came to mean the method and practice of teaching and “pedagogue” to mean teacher. While God is neither boring nor stodgy, He is older than time and an authoritarian (but loving) teacher with some unique, innovative and often challenging teaching methods or pedagogy.

I don’t know about boys in ancient Greece, but I imagine they were like boys today: often less than enthusiastic about learning their lessons, spending time in a classroom, and being taught restraint, civility, and good behavior. Like schoolboys, we are often less than enthusiastic about learning the lessons God is teaching us. Sometimes life seems bizarre or unreasonable and other times it’s downright difficult or heartbreaking; almost all of the time it’s hard to understand. It’s easy to begrudge the way God teaches us.

I think of a scene from the movie Peggy Sue Got Married in which the middle-aged Peggy Sue goes back in time to high school. When asked to solve a problem in algebra class, she responds, “I happen to know that, in the future, I will not have the slightest use for algebra, and I speak from experience.” I agree with Peggy Sue—once out of school, I had no need to know about coefficients, variables, constants or exponents. But, I didn’t know that when I took freshman algebra more than half a century ago.

We are finite beings and can only see what is right before us. God, however, is infinite and can see far into our future both here and in the hereafter. When He teaches us lessons about patience, humility, loss, conflict resolution, pain, worry, pride, fear, trust, obedience, persistence, and faith, we rarely know for what purpose we’re in His schoolroom or when we’re going to need the skill we’re being taught. God’s pedagogy only makes sense when we look back in time. It is then that we realize the benefit we’ve gained from His extraordinary and often bizarre teaching methods. Indeed, as John Piper said, “May the Holy Spirit give us grace to not begrudge the pedagogy of God.”

I never had a trial I wanted to have, but I never had trial I wasn’t glad I had. [Jack Hyles]

My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees. Your instructions are more valuable to me than millions in gold and silver. You made me; you created me. Now give me the sense to follow your commands. [Psalm 119:71-73 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WORRY AND PRIDE

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. [1 Peter 5:7 (NLT)]

tropical water lilyWhen the Israelites sent scouts out to Canaan, they were doing due diligence and getting the lay of the land. Let’s remember, Moses had only asked them to scout out the land, not to determine how or whether they should proceed. But, when they returned, ten of the twelve reported the Promised Land was the land of giants who were undefeatable. In spite of Moses’s leadership, the reassurances of Joshua and Caleb, and God’s promises and power, the Israelites pridefully decided they knew more than God and chose fear instead of stepping out in faith.

Right now, while I’m not looking over the Jordan to Canaan, I’m in the land of waiting—between tests and results, between diagnosis and treatment. On the plus side, at least I won’t be here for forty years as were the Israelites! Nevertheless, the land of waiting can turn into a land of fear and worry. Our “what is?” evolves into “what if?” Instead of scouting Canaan, we scour the Internet, sift through contradictory information, imagine assorted scenarios, try to make sense of medical terms, research, and recommendations without benefit of a medical degree, and turn unknown challenges into undefeatable giants.

It occurred to me that, to a great extent, my worry is the result of pride. The Israelites trusted themselves more than God and, apparently, I trust myself and my research more than either my doctors or God. Could I really think that I, whose only medical degree is that of Dr. Mom, am smarter than my doctors? There’s a fine line between understanding a condition and self-diagnosing or treating it, between concern about something and worry over it, and I’ve crossed that line. Having already researched the qualifications of my physicians, I was satisfied with their credentials, so why did I think I should second guess them? I must remember that God didn’t ask the Israelites for their opinion about Canaan; He asked them to trust Him. Not trusting our doctors can be a mistake but not trusting God is a sin!

I’ve been pridefully leaning on my own understanding when I should be leaning on God. He’s the one in control of my tomorrows and whatever they may bring. My prayer is no longer that I become more enlightened and better qualified than my doctors but that God leads me to the right doctors and gives wisdom to them.  We can worry or we can trust God, but we can’t do both! Let us cast our anxiety and cares on Him, our Great Physician.

Do what you can, and then trust God with what you cannot do. [Craig Groeschel]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SLOW THINKING

sliders - turtlesBut the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

Someone has a small rubber ball tucked into the palm of his hand and you have just one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball away from him. What would you do? If you were an inner city youth, chances are you’d start by trying to pry his hand open. Your efforts may even escalate into a wrestling match. I’m not sure you’d have to be an at-risk youngster to have that same response; my husband responded the same way. Imagine his reaction when learning that all he needed to do was ask for the ball and it would have been his!

That is just one of the exercises in a program called “Becoming a Man”®, a cognitive behavioral program offered in cities like Boston and Chicago. Knowing that small slights often can lead to pulling a trigger, the program is designed to help young men avoid life’s pitfalls and develop the social and emotional skills necessary for success: integrity, accountability, positive anger expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal setting. Young women are not exempt from needing life skills and a similar program called “Working on Woman”™ cultivates the core values of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting, and leadership.

Instead of life skills, as Christians, we might call these faculties “Christ skills”, as does a local Christian school in my town. Instead of a formal code of conduct, the school’s teachers make a covenant with the students to live up to ideals listed as Christ skills: trustworthiness, cooperation, truthfulness, courage, organization, curiosity, patience, effort, perseverance, flexibility, pride, common sense, problem solving, caring, resourcefulness, personal best, responsibility, no put-downs, sense of humor, active listening, initiative, friendship, and integrity. With the goal of growing more like Christ, students learn to evaluate their choices and their consequences based on these skills.

All of these programs teach youngsters that there is power in slow thinking—in living deliberately rather than impetuously. Automatic thinking, such as assuming we have to force the ball out of a person’s hand, can mean the difference between life and death in the inner city but it can have bad consequences everywhere. Our typical weapons of anger and irritation may be less lethal than a gang member’s Smith & Wesson but none of us are exempt from needing to learn to think before acting or speaking.

We don’t need to live in the inner city to know it’s an angry, rude, intolerant, and violent world: a world of road rage, air rage, middle finger waving, swearing, bullying, pushing and shoving, domestic violence, tweet rants, peaceful demonstrations that turn violent, school shootings, child abuse, heckling, bickering, heated arguments, fights between students in school, fights between fans at the game, indignant outbursts, name calling, and a “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of mentality. Perhaps we all need a course in cognitive behavioral therapy or a list of desired Christ skills to emulate.

Even so, under our own power, we still will tend to act impulsively and heedlessly. On our own, we’ll never be the people God means for us to be. Maybe, instead of a list, we need a whole lot more of Jesus and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and a whole lot less of self. Along with the power of slow thinking, let’s tap into the power of the Lord!

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

CHUTZPAH

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [Luke 18:1 (ESV)]

pink peony“Lord, you’ve got to…” I started, but got no further in my prayer. “God doesn’t ‘got to’ do anything!” said a still small voice. Whether it was the Holy Spirit, conscience, or even God himself, I don’t know, but the point was well taken. “What chutzpah!” I thought, using a word borrowed from my Jewish friends that has moved from Hebrew into Yiddish and now English. Often defined as audacity, presumption, cheek, arrogance, or impudence, the way I started my prayer was all of those and more.

Some say that chutzpah is when a man kills both his parents and begs the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. One computer executive defines it as, “calling up tech support to report a bug on pirated software.” Neither example, however, captures the essence of the word. Chutzpah includes fearlessness, pluck, mettle, and boldness in its request and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Abraham’s chutzpah when he argued with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It certainly took chutzpah for Moses, an eighty-year old expat Jew who was both felon and shepherd, to demand that Pharaoh let his enslaved people free. Moses then had chutzpah enough to argue with God over the destruction of those same stiff-necked people! Esther showed chutzpah when she approached King Xerxes, David when he said he’d fight Goliath, Daniel when he took Belshazzar to task for his dreadful behavior, and even Jesus when he cleared the temple of money-changers.

I would think the parable of the resolute widow who pestered the unjust judge for justice until it was received tells us that some chutzpah in our prayers in the way of boldness, fearlessness and persistence is a good thing. As one pastor friend says, “Ours in an audacious God; we should honor Him with audacious prayers.” On the other hand, in my prayer, I was not asking for justice, peace of mind, healing or even forgiveness. Mine was the beginning of a disrespectful, brazen and impertinent demand much like that made by a selfish petulant child in a toy store.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman says, “To be a good Jew, you need two opposites: A sense of shame that prevents you from acting with chutzpah to do the wrong thing, and a sense of chutzpah that prevents you from being ashamed to do the right thing.” I think that’s true for Christians, as well, but we should use it properly. While we should step out for God with chutzpah, we always must come before Him with humility and respect.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (ESV)]

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you!  Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! [Psalm 141:1-2 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.