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)]

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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)]

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OFFENSE

Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults. … Overlook an offense and bond a friendship; fasten on to a slight and—good-bye, friend! … Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget. [Proverbs 12:16,17:9,19:11 (MSG)]

giant swallowtail butterflyOur sermon series was titled “Cage Fighting” but, rather than learning about fighting one another, we were learning about the ways Satan attacks and keeps us in his stronghold with things like shame, doubt, fear, and unforgiveness. While chatting with the pastor before church, I asked about the day’s topic. When he said offense, I immediately thought we’d learn how to take offensive action against the enemy.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the program and read the above proverbs. What did they have to do with spiritual weaponry? I was annoyed that I’d been misled until I realized I’d misunderstood the pastor. While I was thinking about taking the offense and attacking, the pastor would be speaking about taking offense and feeling attacked! He’d be talking about the kind of offense that leaves us feeling outraged, insulted, or (in my case) annoyed. My error that morning illustrates why we’re easily offended; I had a preconceived idea, misunderstood what I heard, and didn’t ask for an explanation.

In this day of political correctness — when BC (before Christ) has become BCE (before the common era), Christmas trees are called holiday trees, no one is quite sure how to refer to a disability, and The Journal of Animal Ethics says calling pets “pets” is demeaning (they’re now “companion animals” to their “human carers”) — mistakes are bound to happen.

Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity but never giving offense is nearly impossible. In reality, most people don’t mean to be racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, narrow-minded, impolite, or behind the times but sometimes they are. We can give offense inadvertently simply because words may have different connotations to different people, many words have changed their meaning over the years, or we don’t know the history of a symbol or phrase. For example, since my black postman wears a pith helmet, I didn’t know it was considered by some to be a symbol of white imperialism until Melania Trump was criticized for wearing one in Kenya.

Although wrong, rudeness and thoughtlessness are part and parcel of modern life. Today’s world offers an unlimited opportunity to both give and take offense and Satan loves it. To fight him, we must act and speak with love and do our best to never give offense, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Nevertheless, just as we must act and speak with love, we must listen and respond with love, as well. Knowing how easy it is to be offensive, we must work harder at not taking offense. Unfortunately, self-involved creatures that we are, we often choose to see bias, insult, or aggression even where none is meant. Taking offense just leads to anger, resentment, and retaliation (some of the enemy’s favorite weapons). Often translated as forbearance, patience is a fruit of the spirit and literally means “long temper.” Indeed, we should be slow to anger, give the benefit of doubt, not respond to provocation, turn the other cheek, love, and forgive.

I actually did learn how to fight the enemy that day, just not the way I thought. While some may say the best defense is a good offense, I learned that the best defense is not to take offense at all! As for me, I’m going to spend my time and energy being offended by the things that really matter: human trafficking, hunger, lack of safe drinking water for much of the world, poverty, homelessness, discrimination and injustice.

Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it. [Rene Descartes]

We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it. [Abraham Lincoln]

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. [Colossians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

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LEARNING TO WALK

So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. [1 Peter 2:1-3 (RSV)]

toddlerWatching a friend’s video of her grandbaby’s first steps, I thought back to my children’s first faltering steps. They teetered and tottered, often fell, got up, and fell again. Eventually, the wobbly legs of my eldest became the confident legs that take him down mountain slopes on a snowboard, the awkward steps of my daughter became the graceful ones of a dancer in toe shoes, and the child who took forever to walk now runs marathons. It took time and maturity, however, before they could carry themselves with such strength and assurance.

A pastor friend told me of a young woman, Anne, who recently joined his church. Tuesday mornings, a group meets in the sanctuary to pray over the weekend’s prayer requests. Although Anne is a brand new Christian and self-conscious about offering prayers in a group, she feels called to come on Tuesdays and be a part of this ministry. One morning, she arrived late. With Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, Anne rushed down the aisle only to stumble. As the coffee spilled over her blouse and onto the floor, what came out of Anne’s mouth definitely was not a nice church lady, “Oops!” Having uttered words not typically heard in church, her face turned red with embarrassment. Mortified at her misstep, I imagine she would have given anything to rewind the previous sixty seconds. Instead of gasps of horror and scornful frowns, however, the prayer warriors in the sanctuary chuckled and reassured her. Like Anne, they once were baby Christians and experienced their share of missteps and lapses. They didn’t approve of her language but, having “been there and done that” (and probably much worse), they understood and reacted with love rather than judgment.

When we first accept Christ, we’re really just baby Christians. Babies aren’t born with all the knowledge and skills they need and we’re not reborn with all the knowledge and skills we need either. There will be stumbles and missteps as we learn to how to walk the Christian way. Like Anne, the new Christian is often torn between the old way of thinking, speaking and acting and the new Spirit-led way of living. Sometimes old habits and attitudes are hard to break. Nevertheless, the baby Christian welcomes the Holy Spirit, follows His lead, listens to His conviction, prays, studies Scripture, and gradually grows more like Christ. Like a toddler, when she falls, she just gets back up and keeps going and growing.

Babies don’t remain babies forever nor would we want them to. We want our children to mature and become all they’re meant to be. That doesn’t happen by being critical, judgmental and unforgiving whenever a child falls. Growth happens with encouragement, patience, love, and through example. While the prayer warriors at my friend’s church understood that, not everyone does.

When our Bible study leader announced that we’d be discussing Nicodemus the following week, the woman beside me asked who he was. I saw her shrink in embarrassment when another woman condescendingly replied, “How could you not know who Nicodemus is?” I quickly looked in my Bible’s index and, reassuring her that she wasn’t alone in her question, told her she’d find his story in John 3. I can only hope she’ll return next week.

Not everyone who attends a Bible study or church is a mature believer; some are brand new disciples while others are seekers or just testing the water. Let’s always be as reassuring, forgiving, and welcoming to baby Christians as we are to our little children and grands!

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. [1 Peter 4:8-9 (RSV)]

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (RSV)]

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LET’S PRAY

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

snowy egretsThe eight of us were brainstorming a difficult and heartbreaking situation facing a family we know. We had plenty of ideas about getting them the assistance and guidance they needed but we could only direct them to the resources. They were the ones who needed to take action. Unfortunately, people often want the easy way out of their problems and desire money rather than counsel. Money, however, is usually only a stop gap measure and it frequently enables a bad situation to continue or get worse. The problem we were discussing required change, compromise, work and sacrifice far more than money. These people had to take action and, truth be told, I’m not so sure they wanted to step forward and act.

Those of us sitting around the table that day are people of action. Asking “What can I do? How can I help?” we wanted to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and make things right. This was one of those times, however, when there was nothing more we could do and no way we could make things right. There always will be hurts that we can’t heal, needs that we can’t satisfy, situations we can’t fix, and wrongs that we can’t make right. Sadly, this was one of them.

I learned something important that day, something even more important than understanding when it is time to step back from someone else’s problem. Our discussion had reached a dead end and we started repeating ourselves. At that point, we had a choice. We could beat a dead horse and keep talking which probably would have turned our constructive discussion into gossip and censure. On the other hand, we could stop and pray. Fortunately, understanding we were helpless onlookers and seeing we were dangerously close to becoming judge and jury, someone suggested prayer! Knowing we can’t fix everything but that we can love and pray for everyone, we prayed and handed the situation to God.

The thing I learned that day? While I’ve always believed in the power of prayer, I hadn’t realized the power of just saying, “Let’s pray!” Pausing for prayer changed the entire tenor of the discussion. The next time I’m in one of those conversations that starts to go downhill into the territory of gossip, disapproval, or scorn, I know to say, “Let’s pray!” Prayer can change more than situations and other people; it can change the people doing the praying!

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [James 1:26 (NLT)]

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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MY TREASURE

But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:40-42 (ESV)]

As we sang carols at the beach Christmas Eve, Sarah’s grand sat on her lap while finishing off a holiday cookie. By the time the little one was done with the cookie and cuddling her gram, Sarah’s shirt was a wrinkled mess of frosting, crumbs and cookie drool. I couldn’t help but think of the gospel story of parents bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. Even in the first century, I imagine little children meant grubby hands, sticky fingers, and runny noses. From what we know of Jesus, though, I picture him welcoming those children onto His lap along with all of the mess that came with them. Perhaps some even left drool on his robe.

A few days later, I tiptoed into the kitchen for my early morning latte only to be greeted by dirty dishes in the sink, an open box of crackers on the counter, crumbs on the floor, and phones, sunglasses, and crayons strewn across the breakfast bar. “Why can’t they put anything away?” I silently grumbled. As an empty nester, I’m used to having things my version of perfect and it’s an adjustment when children and grands visit bringing their noise, toys, and disorder with them.

Jesus rebuked Martha for being overly concerned with the preparation and formalities that come with guests. He reminded her that those things were trivial when compared to having a relationship with Him. That having a relationship is more important than being the perfect host and having everything flawless is true when it comes to other guests, as well. Before voicing more complaint, I remembered how happy I was to have family visiting for the holidays and asked myself which I treasured more: a quiet neat house or a noisy, messy, energetic and happy family.

Again, I thought about Jesus and the small children He blessed. The One who was born in a manger, welcomed shepherds and sheep into His nursery, touched lepers, wrote in the dirt, put a mud poultice on a blind man’s eyes, washed the feet of the disciples and held sticky-fingered children on his lap wouldn’t be concerned about a disorderly house – a disordered life, yes – but a disorderly house, no!

Thinking of the many Bible verses that remind us how fleeting life is, I asked myself how I want to be remembered. I’ve never heard a eulogy that extols someone’s spick-and-span kitchen, perfectly set table, immaculate cars, spotless windows, or neatly folded towels. As I straightened up the kitchen, I understood that fingerprints on every mirror, Legos on the floor, and endless laundry are just the price we pay for family and I’m more than willing to pay it! In fact, I treasure the opportunity to do it!

Thank you, God, for children of all ages and the beautiful mess that comes with them!

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Luke 12:34 (ESV)]

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (ESV)]

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