YOU ARE LOVED – VALENTINE’S DAY 2020

Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, and always stand your ground in defending him. … There are three things that remain—faith, hope and love—and the greatest of these is love. [I Corinthians 13:4-7, 13 (TLB)]

clouded sulphur butterfly on asterToday is Valentine’s Day and, contrary to popular belief, this holiday was not invented by Hallmark cards. Named for one of three Christian martyrs called Valentine, its real origins are in a Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia. For an unofficial holiday of pagan origin, it packs an enormous economic impact with Americans spending about $20 billion on candy, cards, flowers, dining out, romantic get-aways, jewelry and clothing. $933 million of that money will be spent on cards and $886 million on pets! With the neighbor’s cat getting a gift, you might want to think about doing something special for the one you love! After all, over 50% of American women said they’d dump their boyfriends if they didn’t get something for Valentine’s Day. Besides, you married fellows don’t want to come home empty-handed and be met by a cold shoulder and hot tongue.

Although nine million marriage proposals are expected today, love has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day or cards, candy, and candle-lit dinners. Giving or receiving a dozen roses, theater tickets, a back rub, perfume or even a diamond necklace doesn’t mean we love or are loved. While it is nice to have an excuse for a romantic evening or a day at the spa, let’s not allow this holiday to define our concept of love. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul does a far better job of that than any gift ever could. A good man or woman is hard to find so let’s not get our undies in a bunch over whether or not we received a $5 card or a $50 bouquet of red roses. Jesus called on us to love, not just on one day of the year, but every moment of every day and that kind of love has nothing to do with chocolate-covered strawberries or sexy lingerie.

Back in elementary school, valentines were sent to everyone in the class so that nobody’s feelings got hurt. Real life, however, doesn’t work that way. Even with 15 million e-cards being sent today, there still will be many who won’t receive Valentine’s Day greetings or gifts. Even if we have no one special in our lives, let’s not allow this holiday to make us feel unloved or unlovable. We don’t need a card or flowers to know we are cherished. Reading our Bibles, thinking of Jesus on the cross, or even opening our eyes to the beautiful world God gave us tells us that we are loved and special in His eyes! The Bible is God’s love letter to us and Jesus is His gift. God sent His only son instead of flowers, candy or a Hallmark card and His valentine to mankind was sacrificed for our salvation. God truly “cared enough to send the very best!”

And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts, living within you as you trust in him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love; and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God’s children should, how long, how wide, how deep, and how high his love really is; and to experience this love for yourselves, though it is so great that you will never see the end of it or fully know or understand it. And so at last you will be filled up with God himself. [Ephesians 3:17-19 (TLB)]

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INCREDIBLE CREATION

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

ring-tailed lemur - serval catAs a way of learning how to live the abundant life promised by Jesus, I am participating in a series of abundance exercises. In my first, I was to think of something God created and reflect on the different and incredible ways He expressed that creation. While at the zoo, I couldn’t help but notice God’s abundance in the diversity of His creatures: the speedy cheetah, the sluggish sloth, the crane’s sharp pointed beak, the giant anteater’s long tubular snout, the giraffe with its long legs and neck, and the python with neither legs nor neck! The gazelles’ long slender horns don’t resemble the muntjacs’ small antlers or the giraffes’ stubby ossicones; the zebras’ stripes were nothing like those on the bongo or ring-tailed lemurs; and the giraffes’ spots were different from those on the cheetah and serval. Even within each species, every animal had his own unique pattern of stripes or spots. The animals’ colors and coats ranged from the vibrant blue, gold and green feathers of the macaws to the brown-grey shell of the gopher tortoise and the heavy fur coat of the black bear. Because our zoo started out as a botanical garden 100 years ago, the setting was lush and we were surrounded by bright pink, yellow, blue, orange and white flowers along with mangroves, strangler figs, cypress, cactus, enormous banyans, and over 100 species of palm trees. God outdid himself when it came to flora and fauna. Having completed the week’s assignment in a matter of hours, it seemed too easy and I decided to notice God’s creativity throughout the week.

The next day, as we walked in the swamp, I used my ears. I can only recognize a few of the birds’ voices—the anhinga’s low grunt, catbird’s mew, fish crow’s uh-oh, egret’s squawk, woodpecker’s squeak, hawk’s plaintive call, and the jay’s raucous one—but plenty of other birds added to the avian symphony of chirps, whistles, warbles, tweets, and other sweet notes. God outdid Himself again with the variety of birds and songs!

At the farmer’s market later that week, we found fresh sweet corn, avocados, guava, eggplants, oranges, star fruit, grapefruit, tangerines, tomatoes, ginger, cauliflower, radishes, fennel, lettuce, and assorted peppers. I smelled paella cooking and popcorn popping and sampled five different types of jams, an “everything” bagel, fresh brewed coffee, olive tapenade, spicy mango salsa, and lemon-poppy seed bread. For the five basic flavors a human’s tongue can taste, God certainly provides an abundance of variations!

When picking out paint colors, I had to choose from a palette of over 800 samples (starting with eight different shades of black)! While my decision would have been easier with fewer choices, I realized how dull our world be if, like seals or whales, we only saw in shades of black, white and grey. Thankfully, God, in His extravagance of creativity, gave us millions of colors and three kinds of cones in our eyes so we can enjoy them all!

The purpose of the exercise was to open my heart and mind to the richness in our world and embrace the beauty and abundance of life by appreciating God’s amazing creativity. We probably don’t need over 5,400 species of mammals; 9,000 species of birds (each with its own song); 8,200 different kinds of reptiles; or some 2,600 species of palms. I don’t think we’d miss a few of the 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, being able to distinguish between “blue horizon” and “timid blue,” or not having a red Caribbean habanero from the more than 130 varieties of peppers, but God gave us all those things anyway! Ours is a more than enough God and, from the first moment of creation, He provided the world with beautiful abundance. It’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God—all of creation does!

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in. [George Washington Carver]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. [Psalm 104:24-25 (NLT)

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ENDLESS TREASURES

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10 (RSV)]

black swallowtail butterflyJesus said he came so that we’d have life abundantly and the Greek word translated as abundantly was perisson, meaning exceedingly abundant, beyond measure, or more than one would anticipate or expect. Jesus isn’t talking just ample or even plentiful; he’s speaking of something so fulfilling, so magnificent, that it’s beyond our wildest dreams! This abundance, however, has nothing to do with wealth, power, position, or possessions because none of those things will pass into eternity with us. Our new life in Christ is abundant by heaven’s standards, not ours and includes eternal life, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, salvation, purpose, wisdom, hope, mercy, spiritual gifts, the church, and the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In Ephesians 3:8, this abundance is translated as the “endless treasures” (NLT) or “unsearchable riches of Christ.” (RSV) Indeed, there is no bottom to our Lord’s treasure chest of blessings! Although this abundance will not be fully realized in our earthly lives, it begins at the moment of conversion but we can miss some of God’s treasures in the here and now when we don’t intentionally seek them. Jesus gives a whole new richness to our lives but, if we want to truly experience that abundance, we must give Him more than our Sundays—we must give Him our all. He must be present in every moment and all aspects of life—in the way we appreciate our surroundings, interact with people, treat the environment, deal with our emotions, take care of our bodies, apply our minds, select our entertainment, manage our money, utilize our talents, share our faith, spend our leisure time, and perform our work. It is only when there is more of Him and less of us that we will know how rich our lives really can be.

The abundant life given us by Christ isn’t found in what we already have or might get. It is found in the way we live: one day at a time, intentionally abiding in Him, choosing to be aware of His presence in all things, and by being good stewards of His many blessings.

Jesus set us free to live the abundant life by being all that He has created us to be and accomplishing all that He has planned for us to do. [Sharon Jaynes]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (RSV)]

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DON’T CRY OVER SPILLED MILK DAY

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [1 John 1:8-9 (ESV)]

red-bellied woodpeckerWhile “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” isn’t one of Solomon’s proverbs, that wise advice is several centuries old. “No weeping for shed milk,” appeared in a book of English proverbs back in 1659 and some historians believe the saying dates back to medieval days. Superstitious, people left spilled food for the fairies or elves to eat and drink. If someone cried over spilled milk, it was feared that the fairies might think the offering was begrudged and bad luck would visit the house.

For some unknown reason, today (February 11) is designated as “Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day” and is a day dedicated to not letting the little things get us down. We all have a long list of past mistakes, large and small, over which we’ve shed a few tears. While a dog or cat might lap up spilled milk, no elves or fairies are going to come along to correct our mistakes and our tears accomplish nothing! Rather than lamenting over our blunders and missteps, our job is to clean up the mess we’ve made before it starts to stink! Before we get out our mops and pails, however, we’ve got to forgive ourselves. If God can forgive us, we should be able to forgive ourselves!

In actuality, for most of us, spilled milk is the least of our problems. We all make mistakes; sadly, we’ll continue to make them. There’s no point beating ourselves up and reliving past errors. The milk can’t go back in the bottle, the words can’t return to our mouths, the money can’t get unspent, the email can’t be retrieved, and the expletive can’t be deleted! When possible, we make right what we can, as soon as we can, and then forge on ahead, hopefully more prudently. Learning from our mistakes makes more sense than crying over them!

Just as we mustn’t let the little things get us down, we can’t let the big ones take us down either. Perhaps every day should be dedicated to not crying over milk that has spilled as we take a positive attitude, forgive ourselves (and others), fix what we can, accept what can’t be changed, and move forward.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. [Lamentations 3:21-13 (ESV)]

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:13b-14 (ESV)]

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CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS ALL YEAR LONG

But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10-11 (NLT)]

christmas cactusSeveral years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus in early December. It had just started to blossom and, by Christmas, it was in full bloom and beautiful. A Christmas cactus typically goes dormant by Easter but mine bloomed until mid-May. The next year, it blossomed again at Christmas but the flowers weren’t as spectacular; it was dormant by February and didn’t survive the summer. Regretfully, I’m a neglectful gardener and my record with plants is dismal. The cactus actually lasted longer than any of my holiday poinsettias.

The spirit of Christmas shouldn’t end when we take down the tree, put away the crèche, the flowers drop from the Christmas cactus, or the poinsettia gets tossed! We can’t leave the baby Jesus in the manger and forget that He grew, taught, led, suffered, died, rose, ascended into heaven, and will come again! We need to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts well beyond the time the toys break, the holiday cookies are eaten, the Christmas cactus goes dormant and the poinsettia dies. The spirit of Christmas—its joy and anticipation—the good news of the gospel message—shouldn’t be dependent upon the calendar. It should flower all year long unless, of course, we become neglectful and forget to fertilize and water it with God’s word and prayer. A pastor friend always keeps a small nativity scene in her office to remind her (and her visitors) that the manger is as important a symbol to Christianity as is the cross. If we have Jesus in our hearts, we can be Christmas people no matter what season it is. May the spirit of hope, love, joy and peace, so present during Christmastime, continue in your hearts all year long!

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. [Calvin Coolidge]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

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A WONDERFUL LIFE

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. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

irisAround this time of year, I frequently return to Bedford Falls and get reacquainted with the conflicted George Bailey, the money-grubbing Mr. Potter, and Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Odbody. This year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life was somewhat different. Rather than seeing the movie, I attended a theatrical production set in a New York City radio station in the 1940s. The well-known story unfolded as if it were a live radio broadcast. Just five actors took on all of the roles (along with producing the various sound effects required for a radio show). In spite of the unusual adaptation, the production remained true to the original movie’s message.

George Bailey, a building and loan banker, is an unlikely hero. Having abandoned his dreams for a life in Bedford Falls, he feels that life has passed him by. About to be thrown into jail because of his uncle’s carelessness (and Mr. Potter’s dishonesty), George realizes he’s worth more dead than alive. The other unlikely hero is Clarence Odbody, an ineffective guardian angel desperately trying to earn his wings by helping this despairing man on the brink of suicide. In spite of the story’s incredibly flawed angel theology, it’s a good tale. When George wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what an ugly depraved community Bedford Falls would have been had he never lived. When George Bailey realizes how many lives would have been ruined, lost, or never even have happened, he chooses life.

While George’s perspective changes and there is a happy ending, it’s not a happily-ever-after one. Unlike Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the evil Mr. Potter doesn’t transform. We know he’ll persist in trying to take over the town and that George will continue to have too little money at the end of the month. The challenges, disappointment, and disillusionment of George’s life don’t disappear. His sacrifices cost him dearly; his aspirations were surrendered, he lost his hearing, never attended college or traveled, worked in a job he hated, and endured financial hardship. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending because George finally understands the sacrifice was worth it! He realizes the most important work we do is not the work we ever planned on doing.

The missing $8,000 wasn’t what caused George’s despair. He was unhappy and unfulfilled because he was concentrating on the life he wanted to live rather than loving the life he was leading. Like George, most of us have given up opportunities, hopes and dreams or endured hardship of some kind or another for the sake of others. If not, we should have because that’s what God tells us to do. Jesus made it clear that our lives were to be ones of sacrifice. We belong to Jesus rather than to ourselves. Following Jesus means we surrender to His purposes, which inevitably means we don’t always get what we wanted! We do, however, get something better (but often don’t recognize it).

The difference between George Bailey and a Christian is motivation. Bailey sacrificed out of a sense of duty to family, friends and town. Although family, friends, and community often benefit from our sacrifice, the Christian sacrifices out of love and obedience to God. George’s sense of duty was to Bedford Falls; ours is to Jesus! Our Lord was the suffering servant; can we be anything less? In spite of the difficulties encountered along the way, when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we will find such joy and peace that we’ll have no need for an angel to show us that it’s been a wonderful life!

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away. [The motto Peter Bailey’s office in “It’s a Wonderful Life”]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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