THE MIDDLEMAN

Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Mark 11:23-24 (ESV)]

zinniaA pastor friend shared a story about a woman at a previous church who had an odd habit. Whenever the pastor announced a change of some kind, more often than not, she would say to him, “I’m so thankful. I’ve been praying you would decide to do that.” When curiosity overcame him, he asked “Instead of using God as a middle man, why don’t you just tell me what you’re thinking or want changed?” Revealing that she was a preacher’s kid, the woman told of the officious interference, meddling, criticism and complaint her father had endured during his ministry. In fact, the often unchristian fault-finding behavior of his parishioners nearly turned her away from the church. She vowed that, unless asked, she’d never tell a pastor what she thought he should do. Instead, she’d simply pray about it and, “if it is God’s will, then He will reveal it to the pastor.” Apparently, as she discerned, God makes an excellent “middle man!”

When hearing this story, I couldn’t help but wonder at my behavior. Do I see God as the Middleman—the conciliator, the peace-maker, the intermediary, the one who brings two opposing parties to the table and brokers the deal—or do I see Him as the court of last resort? Do I go to Him first or only when I can’t get the desired result on my own? Would I rather intrude, advise, instruct, complain or criticize than pray?

We say we believe in the power of prayer but do we really? Do we truly believe that God really hears us? Do we trust Him enough to put our concerns into His hands before taking them elsewhere? Do we really believe in a God who can make things happen—a God who can move mountains—or do we think He needs our help? If we believe God can move mountains, why is it so difficult at times to believe that He can move hearts? While going through a middleman often seems the indirect and a roundabout way to get things done, when that Middleman is God, both hearts and mountains can be moved!

Of course, there’s another more subtle lesson in the pastor’s story. Do we pray regularly for our clergy? I don’t mean those formal prayers for the church found in various liturgies. We consistently must pray for our specific pastors—not that they’ll do what we want them to do but that they will have the energy, strength, wisdom, and courage to do what God wants them to do!

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. [1 John 5:14 (ESV)]

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)]

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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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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)]

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TRUE BLUE

Blue Morpho butterflySo now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

We recently visited a botanic garden that boasts a butterfly conservatory inhabited by a spectacular collection of tropical butterflies. There I was introduced to the shiny Blue Morpho. God outdid Himself with these enormous beauties so showy that pilots report seeing them from the air as they fly over the rainforest. When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, I’m thankful God didn’t make them leave the butterflies behind.

Hoping to get a photo of one of these spectacular creatures that were flitting about, I searched through the conservatory for one that was still. Although the Morpho’s upper wings are a vivid blue color, their undersides are a dull brown. When its wings were folded, I mistook the Morpho for another large brown butterfly: the giant owl. It was only when it spread its wings in the sun’s light that I recognized the Morpho by its vibrant blue color.

As Christians, we are called to love and, just as its blue iridescence identifies the Blue Morpho, our love identifies us as Jesus’s disciples. But, if we just sit in the shade and never move out in the world, we’ll look like everyone else. Wings are meant to be spread and Christian love is meant to be shared. If pilots can spot a butterfly from the air, people should be able to see evidence of a Christian’s love wherever we are!

What I later learned is that while the dreary colors of these butterflies’ undersides are produced by pigments that absorb and reflect light, the brilliant blue of their upper wings has nothing to do with pigment. That color comes from the way light reflects off transparent microscopic scales on their upper wings. There’s an involved scientific explanation but (in layman’s terms), when light hits ridges on those scales, something called “constructive interference” happens which cancels out certain wavelengths of light. As a result, when light hits the upper wings of the Blue Morpho, our eyes perceive them as being a shimmering blue.

Looking at my pictures, it’s difficult to comprehend that the Blue Morpho’s dazzling iridescence isn’t real. The blue is merely an optical illusion resulting from the architecture and arrangement of transparent scales on its brown wings. I guess we could call it a fake since it doesn’t show us its true colors. It’s a little like the Pharisees: those men Jesus criticized because they did everything for show. Their faith and righteous were but an illusion because their hearts were filled with hypocrisy and evil. Unlike either Blue Morphos or Pharisees, however, there should be nothing illusory or deceptive about a Christian’s love; we are expected to be true blue to Jesus and His command to love one another.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. [1 John 4:20-21 (NLT)]

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NUMBERED, WEIGHED AND DIVIDED

Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. [Romans 14:12 (NLT)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn 539 BC, thousands of Medes and Persians were digging outside Babylon’s walls. Thinking they were futilely trying to undermine the city’s impregnable walls, Babylon’s King Belshazzar was unconcerned. While carousing with 1,000 of his nobles, he gave orders to bring out the gold and silver cups that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from Jerusalem’s temple 47 years earlier. The revelers were drinking to their false Babylonian gods with vessels dedicated to the one true God when a human hand appeared and started writing on the plaster wall. No longer so arrogant, the frightened Belshazzar called for his astrologers and diviners but, when the pagans were incapable of deciphering God’s message, Daniel was called to interpret the words.

The three words on the wall were MENE, meaning numbered, TEKEL, meaning weighed, and PARSIN, meaning divided. The words meant Belshazzar’s days as king were coming to an end, his reign had been weighed and found deficient, and that Babylon would fall and be divided. Even though I don’t rule an empire, I wondered if those three words might apply to me, as well.

Numbered—yes, our days are numbered. That we don’t know how many days are allocated to us doesn’t mean they are limitless. While Belshazzar’s number was up (he died that very night), he wasted his last day in blasphemy, idolatry, and drunken revelry. How will we choose to spend our remaining days?

Weighed—like Belshazzar, our lives will be weighed (on God’s scales, not ours). Of course, no mortal can ever balance on His perfect scales. Nevertheless, God will hold us accountable at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Have we been good stewards of His gifts? Have we served selflessly or selfishly? Belshazzar dishonored God with gold and silver goblets; have we dishonored Him with our own form of idolatry? Do we love fame, wealth, home, career, possessions or beauty more than Him? Would God find us wanting because we’ve been short on grace, forgiveness and love?

Divided—like Belshazzar’s, our personal kingdom will be divided when we’re gone. After the government and bill collectors get their share, our heirs will divide the rest. All of those possessions we worked so hard to obtain and thought so important in this life will be divided among those we leave behind. Much of what we thought so valuable will end up at flea markets, resale shops, on eBay or in a landfill.

I’m not a pagan king, hosting a drunken orgy and committing sacrilege while his nation is under attack but those three words—numbered, weighed, and divided—hit home when I read them this morning. They are a vivid reminder to look carefully at my priorities. Much of my life can be described as stuff and nonsense. How about yours? Are our days spent wisely? Do we appreciate every day with which we are blessed? Will we be found lacking? Do we honor God with our words and actions? What will remain of us when we’re gone? While things are meaningless and will disappear, memories of us and the influence we’ve had on others will continue. Will the kingdom we leave to others consist of stuff that’s divided or love that multiplies?

Numbered, weighed, and divided: what do they mean to you?

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

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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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