THE VIRTUE FARM

But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path. [Ecclesiastes 7:29 (NLT)]

When living in rural Illinois, I loved walking along the country roads, passing by fields of soy beans and corn, and seeing the horses, cows, goats, and sheep grazing in the fields. Virtue was a common name in the community and I often passed by the Virtue Farm. Thinking Virtue a noble name, I wondered if the Virtue family lived up to its promise of good character and moral excellence.

After Pope Gregory listed what came to be known as the seven deadly sins in 590 AD, he also listed seven virtues considered fundamental to Christian ethics: prudence (care and moderation with money), temperance (moderation in needed things and abstinence from unneeded ones), fortitude (never giving up), justice (being fair and equitable with others), faith, hope, and love. While it’s easy to recognize those last three virtues as coming from the Apostle Paul, the Pope’s list isn’t explicitly Biblical and the first four come from the Greek philosophers. When Peter listed the attributes of a Christian’s character, he included faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, patient endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love for everyone. [2 Peter 1:5-7] Paul listed the fruit of the spirit in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [5:22-23]. Looking at all of these lists, we can get a good idea of what qualities determine virtue. Unfortunately, we seem to have lowered the bar a bit since the time of Aristotle, Peter, Paul, and Pope Gregory. Nowadays, someone usually is considered of good character if they’re honest (most of the time), work hard, and don’t cheat on their spouse. While that’s a start, it hardly defines moral excellence.

With virtue in short supply these days, it would be nice if the Virtue Farm actually planted and harvested virtue as they do beans and corn. Of course, once it got to market, would there be any buyers? From what I see in the media, people aren’t much interested in things like chastity, modesty, self-respect, or fairness and good sportsmanship. Words like temperance, industry, and thrift are rarely used and the qualities of humility, courtesy, and self-control aren’t held in high regard.

We’re not born with virtue; it’s not like the blue eyes or musical talent we might have at birth. Moreover, virtue doesn’t grow on trees and can’t be purchased at the local farmers’ market or grocery. Virtue is something we choose; while the Holy Spirit provides us with His fruit, it is up to us to develop those virtues into good habits. While the Virtue Farm continues planting soy beans and corn, we must cultivate the seeds of virtue in our own lives. The Apostle Peter assures us that it can be done: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.” [2 Peter 1:3]

Father, we are faced with moral choices every day. Teach us with your word, guide us by your example, and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit so that we always choose the virtuous path.

Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:22-24 (NLT)] 

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NONDESCRIPT NOBODY BIRDS

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:10 (NLT)]

clark's nutcrackerA few weeks ago, in Charles Schultz’s classic comic Peanuts, Snoopy sat on his doghouse and decided not to tell his little bird friend Woodstock about Santa Claus. “He’ll never get any presents anyway. Santa Claus never brings presents to tiny, nondescript, nobody birds,” he thought before concluding, “It’s kind of sad at Christmastime to be a nobody bird.” I wasn’t so sure about Santa ignoring the “nobody birds.” The previous day, several from our church had participated in a project that demonstrated just how much “Santa” really does care.

Those “tiny, nondescript, nobody” birds live in a nearby town where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. Their parents, many of whom don’t speak English, are the working poor: the people who quietly bus our tables, pick our tomatoes and lettuce, mow our lawns, trim our trees, clean our hotels, and re-tile our roofs. A beautiful ray of hope exists for them in a center dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through early childhood education, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, and a tutoring corps. For five nights in mid-December, the Center offered a “shopping” event for families in need while volunteers served as stockers, Santa’s elves, and gift wrappers. Qualified shoppers were assigned a day and time to arrive and browse through a beautifully appointed and organized “store.” A personal Santa’s elf accompanied parents as they selected three gifts for each of their children along with stocking gifts, stuffed animals, and clothing. Parents were able to shop with dignity as they selected presents for each of their children and Santa’s own workshop couldn’t have been better stocked! At checkout, their selections were gift-wrapped in colorful holiday paper. The only difference between this store and a regular one was that the gift-wrapping was complimentary and money never exchanged hands! The store’s entire inventory had been donated by individuals, organizations and stores in neighboring communities.

People’s hearts grow bigger around Christmas and nearly one-third of all giving occurs in December. During the holidays, we see a generous outpouring of love in the Salvation Army’s red kettles, Fill the Truck and Angel Tree programs, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, Trees for Troops, assorted wishing and giving trees, and both toy and food drives sponsored by churches and other groups. The need, however, doesn’t disappear when the tree comes down. Loving, giving, sharing and caring shouldn’t be boxed up with the ornaments for the next eleven months.

I remember one father whose gifts I wrapped. Although he was thrilled to select presents for his children, tears of joy came to his eyes upon learning he also could select new shoes for them. When those two pairs of new sneakers are outgrown in a matter of months, what then? Will the family have to choose between new shoes, milk, school supplies or a visit to the dentist? Poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of medical care, and the other challenges facing the “tiny, nondescript, nobody birds” in our communities remain long past December. Instead of being Santa Claus just in December, let us be the hands and feet of Jesus, generous in thought, word and deed, all year long.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. [spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens]

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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THE LEAST OF THESE

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:37-40 (NLT)]

zebra longwing butterflyMy friend called to make sure I’d be at an event and then asked, “Do you have a minute?” When people ask that, we all know they really mean twenty minutes. With a to-do list as long as my arm, I had a minute to spare but not twenty. Nevertheless, I’ve been praying for this woman and her family for several years. I knew she needed to unburden her heavy heart, so I said, “Yes.” Twenty minutes later, she asked to meet for lunch the following day. Again, I really didn’t have the time, but I knew she needed guidance, encouraging words and reassurance about some difficult decisions she’d made. She needed a friend!

When we read the parable in Matthew 25, we’re told not to ignore “the least of these.” When reading that verse, we are likely to think about those who are homeless, infirm, disadvantaged, impoverished, disabled, hungry or abused. But, there are suffering people everywhere and they can be suburban grandmas, wealthy businessmen, co-workers, neighbors, or in our book club, Bible study or yoga class. Sometimes, one of “the least of these” lives right next door or just down the street. While their needs are vastly different from those who are indigent or disabled, they often are just as pressing. Moreover, their needs won’t be eased by donating food, clothing or money. Serving the least doesn’t always mean providing necessities for the indigent, visiting prisoners, or even welcoming strangers. It means being present when you’re needed; giving someone an opportunity to share their loneliness, sorrow, fear, or distress; sitting silently and listening; encouraging and supporting; and praying both for and with someone. While we can schedule the day we work at the resale shop or pack groceries at the food bank, times like these are rarely on our busy calendars. Nevertheless, they are just as important.

Writing a check to a good cause would have taken far less time than the time I spent with my friend, but it would have done nothing to lift her spirits or help her find her way. Do I still have the long “to do” list? Yes. I know, however, that the time I spent with her was time spent sharing God’s love and compassion; it was time doing for Him. Moreover, I’m confident that God will somehow provide me with the time I need to complete my other tasks. He always does!

To be glad instruments of God’s love in this imperfect world is the service to which man is called. [Albert Schweitzer]

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. [Romans 12:9 (NLT)]

And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (NLT)]

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WORDS

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. [James 3:4-6 (MSG)]

rabbitJames warns of the dangers of an untamed tongue and the damage that can be done with ill-considered words. Although he was speaking of speech, the same goes for the written word. Whether we’re holding a pen, our fingers are speeding across a keyboard, or our thumbs are tapping out a text, our words are powerful. Whether we use them to build or destroy is our choice.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century, authored more than thirty books. A man who never used a typewriter, he also was a prolific letter writer. Writing not just to friends and colleagues, he answered every letter sent to him. Most of us probably have trouble responding to someone with a quick email, yet this busy man never hesitated to handwrite a response, even to strangers or children who wrote after reading one of his books or hearing him on radio. More than 3,200 of Lewis’ handwritten letters remain and have been published in various collections. They range from the somewhat mundane (thanking someone for a ham) to the exceptional (reassuring a woman who is afraid of dying).

Often writing more than 100 letters a month, his letters show not just a deep thinker with a brilliant mind but also a compassionate man generous enough to take the time to instruct, explain, empathize, encourage, and reveal himself and his vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Lewis once complained, “If I didn’t have so many letters to answer, I’d have time to write another book.” His words from another letter, however, explain why he did it: “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.” He wrote those letters out of obedience to God and concern for the people who’d written to him.

While many proverbs give dire warnings about imprudent words, the other half of those proverbs often are about judicious ones. That C.S. Lewis’ letters continue to be read today illustrates the power of the written word. Rather than start a wildfire with cruel words, Lewis sowed seeds of Christ with his kind ones; may we do the same. Let us never forget the beautiful things our words, both spoken and written, can do when used wisely and with love!

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. [Proverbs 18:21 (MSG)]

The words of the wicked kill; the speech of the upright saves. [Proverbs 12:6 (MSG)]

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TRUE CHARACTER

I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. [Romans 7:18b-19 (NLT)]

smooth roseYears ago, we were acquainted with “Henry, dear” and “Mary, darling.” We called them that because we never heard them refer to one another any other way. They always were so sweet and charming in public that halos seemed to hover over their heads. My husband and I often wondered what they called one another behind closed doors and, as we got to know them better, we realized our wariness was well-founded. As noble as they appeared in public, there always seemed to be an ulterior motive behind their kindness and, while “Henry, dear” was patting your back, his other hand probably was reaching into your back pocket. While we never knew what they called one another in private, we knew that what the public saw was not what they actually got.

I thought of them the other day when watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about Fred Rogers. Having read books both by and about him, there truly was nothing artificial or superficial about the man; what you saw actually was what you got. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self,” and that’s exactly what he did!

Recently, my day began with bad news and sped downhill from there. In my frustration, my words and actions were not those of a “church lady.” I may write Christian devotions but what you see is not always what you get and the Fruit of the Spirit was nowhere to be found on my tree! Whether in public or private, Mr. Rogers’ faith was evident in all that he did or said. Mine, however, frequently gets obscured by my reaction to circumstances beyond my control. Like the Apostle Paul, “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” [Romans 7:15]

Both Fred Rogers (and the movie) were clear that, just like the rest of us, he was no saint. The difference is that, while many of us seem to think we can become good people effortlessly, Fred Rogers actually worked at being the very best person that he could be. One of the ways he did that was through self-discipline. He faithfully read the Bible, reflected and prayed every day, and his prayers continued all day long. He was disciplined in the way he cared for his body with healthy habits. He was disciplined about meeting his commitments, remembering his friends, and expressing gratitude. It’s not that he didn’t have emotions; it’s that he was disciplined enough to choose safe outlets for the negative ones. It’s not that he didn’t know any four-letter words; he just was disciplined enough to use words like “mercy, me!” instead of them! Rogers understood that while circumstances may be beyond our control, our reaction to them is not. He was disciplined in his faith, obedient to God, and saw everyone as his neighbor and a valued child of God. He didn’t give lip service to the power of the Holy Spirit; He lived, breathed, trusted and depended on the Spirit.

The difference between the “Henry, dears” and “Mary, darlings” of the world and Fred Rogers is that while they wear masks so they’ll look like good Christians, Mr. Rogers developed the strength of character to be a good Christian! Through self-discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit, he actually became good (or at least a whole lot better than many of us). The church would call that process sanctification. We can’t do it by ourselves and God doesn’t do it for us; rather, it is combining our efforts with God’s power to grow more and more like Christ. Spiritual progress doesn’t happen overnight and sanctification is not a passive process; it requires effort, discipline and obedience. Only then will people be able to say of us, “What you see is what you get!”

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

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