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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NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY

sanderlingsFor I am the Lord, your healer. [Exodus 15:26b (RSV)]

In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. [Luke 7:21-22 (RSV)]

Here in southwest Florida it’s “season,” which means that flocks of snowbirds have arrived (and I don’t mean the kind with wings). While they boost the economy, locals groan at the busy traffic, the difficulty of getting into their favorite restaurants or hair salons, and the scarcity of parking places. One of the biggest problems is seeing a doctor! If we can find a doctor (or dentist) who is taking new patients (a challenge in itself) and takes our insurance, we’ll find a two month or longer wait before getting an appointment. Then, if we’re referred to a specialist, the whole routine begins again. As for urgent care clinics; unless the situation is life threatening, there is nothing urgent about the care one eventually receives. My best advice during season is not to get sick!

Our God truly is the Great Physician but, unlike the doctors in our town, He’ll take new patients. He won’t make us fill out detailed medical history forms; rather than past illnesses, He’s concerned about our wellness in the present and future. Insured or uninsured, Medicare or Medicaid, co-pay or no pay, it makes no difference; Jesus already paid our fee. God will never turn us away as incurable or hopeless because there are no lost causes in His office and He’ll never refer us to someone else because He specializes in whatever is ailing us. Best of all: no appointment is ever needed. God operates a walk-in clinic where the waiting room aways is empty and the doctor always is in!

At first, God being available 24/7 and taking His time during an appointment sounds like the concierge medicine that has become so popular in our area. God, however, doesn’t limit the number of patients in His practice nor does He require a hefty retainer fee before He gives you His number or listens to your complaint. God never takes a vacation and always has enough time and energy to deal with everyone who calls Him. Like a concierge physician, however, God is strong on preventative medicine: regular prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and eating frequently at His table.

Of course, as with any physician, if we don’t recognize our sickness and the need for healing, we won’t call Him. We must have faith in our doctor’s wisdom and skill and follow his directions completely and we must do the same with our Great Physician. While He won’t be prescribing Lipitor, a flu shot, or more exercise, He’ll probably prescribe a healthy dose of repentance, forgiveness, love and prayer. Instead of giving us medical brochures about our condition, He’s already provided us with something better than the Merck Manual: Holy Scripture. As for any sort of long-term therapy—among other things, God is sure to recommend Christian community and service.

Our Great Physician hears our painful cries and heals our troubled souls. Thank you, God.

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17 (RSV)]

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against thee!” [Psalm 41:4 (RSV)]

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NO WHINE ZONE

Lake Maligne - CanadaNot that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. [Philippians 4:11 (NLT)]

Perhaps it was because of the dreary weather, but I started my litany of complaints as soon as I got out of bed. It was chilly and damp (by Florida standards) and my arthritic knees ached. As I gingerly walked across the cold tile floor, I remembered a friend whose rheumatoid arthritis has left her unable to walk even moderate distances. In spite of a few creaky joints, I still manage to get in my 10,000 steps every day. As dreary as the day was, the only reason I didn’t complain about the weather is that, even at my grouchiest, I know that a bad winter day in southwest Florida is better than a good one just about anywhere else!

Nevertheless, my moaning and groaning continued as I faced the mirror and saw those pesky gray roots peeking out from my colored hair. I grumbled about those until I recalled my many friends who lost their tresses to chemo-therapy and radiation. I scrutinized the age spots on my face and the wrinkles around my eyes and then remembered my elderly friend whose skin cancer left him without an eye. While I was on a roll, though, I looked with disdain at my old lady neck and remembered Nora Ephron’s words: “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.” Truer words were never said but, before I could even voice that grievance, I thought of a friend’s wife who lost both her jaw and life to cancer; had she lived into her 70s, I don’t think she’d be complaining about a crepey neck.

Not yet done with negativity, though, I grumbled because the sundress I’d planned on wearing wouldn’t be warm enough. As I browsed through my over-full closet to pick a warmer outfit, I thought of all those people who have no closet stuffed with clothing, pantry filled with food, or furnace running to keep them warm. “Shame on me!” I thought, but I wasn’t done yet with my litany of complaint.

Later that morning, I became annoyed that my limping husband can no longer keep up with me. Before I could bemoan the fact that we can no longer ski together, I remembered the man who pushes his wife’s wheelchair along the boardwalk every morning. I’m sure they both would be thrilled if she could walk, even with a limp! I then thought about the neurosurgeon without whose skill my spouse couldn’t walk at all. There are many places in the world where the speedy and expert treatment my husband received would be unavailable and, like that woman, he would need a wheelchair.

“Count your blessings!” my mother used to say, but I’d wasted a fair amount of the morning counting petty complaints instead. How easy it is to gripe about stupid little things and forget how fortunate we really are. When I need an attitude adjustment, as I so desperately did that morning, I find reading Psalm 100 an excellent antidote to a case of the grumbles. My spirits improved once I’d stopped whining, taken stock of the many blessings of my life, and thanked God for them. While some of us are “glass half full!” kind of people, others are more of the “glass half empty!” sort. What we need to remember is to be thankful that we have a glass at all! Indeed, “Give thanks to him and praise his name.” 

The Lord afflicts us at times; but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient. [John Newton]

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
Worship the Lord with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100 (NLT)]

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WHERE WAS HE? (Daniel – part 3)

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Frabel - Naples Botanic GardenSomeone was missing from yesterday’s story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace: their good friend Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar’s giant statue was erected on the plain of Dura, word was sent to all of his officials to assemble there for the statue’s dedication. We know Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were there because Daniel reported that they got tossed in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an idol. But what of Daniel? He’s the one who chronicled the event: the one who wrote that all of the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and provincial officials were present. Daniel gives no explanation for his absence at the dedication of the king’s golden statue.

We’d like to think that Daniel remained back in Babylon for some important task at the palace, was elsewhere on a vital mission, or even sick in bed. We want to think Daniel wasn’t there because, if he’d been in Dura that day, he should have joined his friends in the furnace. Four men would have been sent to certain death unless, unlike his friends, Daniel had bowed to the idol! Daniel, however, is our hero: the wise prophet who later braved a king’s wrath to pray and survived being thrown into a den of lions. We never want to think that our heroes are real people, with feet of clay, just like us. When we look at the Bible’s heroes, however, they really are every bit as flawed as are we! Among others, we have drunken Noah, lying Abraham, impatient Sarah, deceitful Jacob, thieving Rachel, temperamental Moses, jealous Miriam, weak Aaron, immoral Rahab, psychotic Saul, adulterous David, sex-addicted Solomon, bad dads Eli and Samuel, the thieving publican Matthew, and Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus. They all disappointed God and sinned at one time or another.

We’ll never know if Daniel was in that fiery furnace with his friends, far from Dura that day, or if he bowed to the idol. Oddly, the remote possibility that he might have bowed his head to an idol doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t disturb me because we have a great God of second (third, fourth, and more) chances. If Daniel sinned that day, along with prophecy and history, his story is one of forgiveness and redemption.

What we do know is that that God continued to give Daniel wisdom and revelations during the more than seventy years he served the four rulers of Babylon. We know that, when another opportunity arose to honor his God by rejecting idolatry, Daniel did the right thing. Perhaps he was inspired by his friends’ faith. In spite of knowing that he’d face certain death in a lions’ den, Daniel remained faithful and continued to openly pray to God rather than to the king. “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully rescue you,” said the king, and God did. Daniel, at the end of his story, was as faithful to God as were his three friends that day on the plain of Dura.

For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. He rescues and saves his people; he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions. [Daniel 6: 26-27 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S IN A NAME? (Daniel – part 1)

“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be. [Isaiah 43:10 (NLT)]

black skimmerAfter Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, he returned to Babylon with the temple’s treasures and some of Judah’s nobility as captives. The best and brightest of the young men were to learn the literature and language of Babylon so they could serve the king. In spite of being captives, they were housed in the palace and given the king’s choice of food. While this would appear to be a pretty good gig for prisoners of war, the boys were probably castrated and made eunuchs as was typically done for palace officials (and prophesied by Isaiah in 2 Kings 20:18).

Among these captives were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were given new Babylonian names. Daniel, whose name meant “God is my judge,” became Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel protects his life” (Bel was another name for the chief Babylonian god Marduke). Hananiah, whose name meant “The Lord shows grace,” became Shadrach, meaning “Under the command of Aku” (the Sumerian moon god). Mishael, whose name meant “Who is like God?” became Meshach, meaning “Who is what Aku is?” and Azariah, whose name meant “The Lord helps,” became Abednego, “Servant of Nebo” (the god of learning and writing).

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” added the star-crossed lover. Romeo’s name made him an enemy to her family but his name was meaningless to Juliet. She knew a man’s name did not determine his value or character. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, thought otherwise. By changing the captive boys’ names, he wanted more than just their assimilation to Babylon; he wanted their allegiance. When he took their names from them, he also thought he took their God.

These young men lost their homes and families, their masculinity and their names. To further distance them from the God of Israel, as eunuchs, they wouldn’t be allowed to worship in the temple if they ever returned home. Nevertheless, they never lost their identity as children of the God of Israel and refused to defile themselves by partaking of the king’s food and wine.

Some think their decision was based solely on health and nutrition and now offer a wide variety of eating plans based on Daniel’s diet. Their refusal, however, probably had more to do with the youths’ attempt to regain some control over their lives and faith. The king’s meat would not have been butchered or prepared according to Jewish law and would have included prohibited foods like horseflesh and pork that had first been offered to the pagan god Marduk. The four friends refused it and, working out a compromise with the palace guard, agreed to eat nothing but vegetables and water for a trial period of ten days. Since they looked better nourished after that time, they were allowed to continue observing their food rules. Their fitness, however, had more to do with God’s promise of provision than their diet. God granted them not just health but special wisdom. In spite of their new names, they now knew that, by remaining faithful to God, He would be remain faithful to them. Found superior to all of the others in their group, they entered the king’s service in his court.

These four young men knew there was nothing in a name. What mattered was their character and their faith in God—a God who was judge, showed grace, and helped them in their troubles. They knew the Lord would honor those who honored Him and it was this knowledge that would carry them through their later trials in Babylon.

Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. [Daniel 2:20-21 (NLT)]

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MARKED AND SEALED

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” [Luke 3:21-22 (NLT)]

Baptism of JesusAlthough I don’t remember my Baptism as an infant, I do have a picture that tells me I wore a long white dress and a bonnet. Another picture tells me that I wore a shorter white dress, a hat instead of a bonnet and my first pair of nylon stockings and heels at my Confirmation thirteen years later. That, however, is about all I remember of making a public reaffirmation of my faith and recommitting to the baptismal promises made for me when I was a baby. Although I knew a lot about Jesus at the time, I’m not sure that I truly knew Him. I know Him now and, in a much simpler ceremony, I recently reaffirmed my Baptism in a way I will never forget.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is when many churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord which is the case at one of the churches we attend. The hymns (When Jesus Came to Jordan, O Come and Dwell in Me, and On the Wings of a Snow White Dove) set the stage. The readings from Isaiah, Acts, and Luke kept our focus on Baptism and the pastor’s sermon continued the theme as she told of her visit to the Holy Land, standing where John may have baptized Jesus, and collecting water from the Jordan River. After the sermon, she offered us the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptisms when we came to the altar to receive Communion.

The Pastor held a chalice filled with water and, when we approached her, she dipped her finger in it, made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said, “In Baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” That she’d collected the water from the Jordan River made it even more meaningful. If there could be frosting on this cake, it is that we then received the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. With just two steps, I passed from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him—to the night He was betrayed and instituted Communion. I accepted the wafer from a second person, dipped it in a chalice of wine held by a third and ate it while remembering the body that was given and the blood that was shed, not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s rare that we celebrate the two New Testament ordinances (what many call sacraments) together and I found it a moving experience. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two rituals or practices that Jesus commanded (or ordained) the assembly of believers to observe. Baptism is not what a person does to be saved; our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism is something a saved person does. It symbolizes the death of the old life and our resurrection as a new person in Christ. While it’s only done once, it can be reaffirmed, as I did last weekend. Participating in Communion is another thing the saved person does. Unlike Baptism, however, taking Communion is something the saved person does throughout his life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we walk as that new person in Him and connect not just with our Lord but with all with all believers, both past and present.

No matter how long ago we became Christians or the age at which we were baptized, let us always remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with His Holy Spirit forever.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. [Acts 2:41-42 (NLT)]

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