AGE IS ONLY A NUMBER

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath! [Psalm 104:33 (NLT)]

wood storkWhile I enjoy being told I look good, I don’t welcome hearing “for your age!” when it’s added to the sentence. If I’m honest, however, I must admit it’s true. I might look good for someone in her seventies but, next to a thirty-year-old, I don’t stand a chance! Nevertheless, it’s little things like that or being called “Hon” or “Sweetie” by a waitperson or nurse less than half my age that remind me of the subtle ageism in today’s society.

When I first learned about Daniel in the lion’s den, my Sunday school teacher used a flannel board to tell the story and flannel Daniel had a full head of brown hair. The coloring page that accompanied Daniel’s story when my children attended Sunday school was of a strapping muscular youth. Even the illustrated Bible I gave my grand showed a powerfully built young man sitting amidst the lions. All of these portrayals were wrong! Because Nebuchadnezzar took only the strongest, healthiest and best looking young men for palace training, we know Daniel was a handsome youth. But, by the time he was thrown into the lions’ den, he had served as a Babylonian officer for seventy years and was well into his eighties. As healthful as his vegetarian diet was, I’m sure Daniel looked good—good, that is, for a man his age! Nevertheless, he was an old man and probably had white hair, wrinkles, and a touch of arthritis. But, as soon as this old man knew a law prohibiting prayer to anyone other than the king had been signed, he went home, opened the windows, knelt down and prayed to God. Knowing he faced mutilation by lions because of his prayers, Daniel was not deterred. Perhaps, he remembered the bravery of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and, like them, knew that God could save him. But, like his friends, he also knew there was no guarantee God would save him. Daniel’s faith was rewarded and, like the furnace threesome, he was saved by an angel.

Daniel was an old man. Then again, so was Abraham; he was 75 when God called him to leave his home, 86 when Ishmael was born, 99 when circumcised, and 100 when Isaac was born. Moses was 80 and Aaron 83 when they led the Israelites out of Egypt. Joshua was between 68 and 80 when he led them into the Promised Land and Caleb was 85 when he drove the Anakites from Hebron. Jeremiah ministered under five kings and was still prophesying until he was killed in his 70s. The Apostle John was in his 70s when he wrote his Gospel and in his late 80s when he wrote Revelation. Sarah was 90 when pregnant with Isaac and the prophet Anna was over 100 when she recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Although we certainly find ageism in today’s world, there is no such thing as ageism or retirement in God’s Kingdom. The men who conspired against Daniel shouldn’t have underestimated the power of an old man who trusts in God; they were the ones eaten by the lions that day!

While ageism probably won’t put us in a lions’ den, we must never make the mistake of misjudging, underestimating or undervaluing the seniors in our midst. On the other hand, those of us in our golden but somewhat rusty years must stop discounting our value, as well. That we’re facing some limitations or challenges due to age simply means it’s time to reevaluate, not to stop! As seniors, we provide strength, stability, and wisdom to our younger brothers and sisters. No matter how old we are, we can always share God’s love and our prayers. God wasn’t finished with Daniel and He’s not finished with us!

Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t. [Richard Bach]

Now that I am old and gray, do not abandon me, O God. Let me proclaim your power to this new generation, your mighty miracles to all who come after me. [Psalm 71:18 (NLT)]

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THE SERVANT SAVIOR

They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” … When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. [Mark 10:37, 41-42 (NLT)]

great blue heron - great egretThe day’s gospel was from Mark 10 and, as the sermon began, the pastor shared having spent three hours earlier that week in a tiresome meeting on evangelism. The speakers had been lauded for the high number of “first public professions of faith” in their parishes. As the meeting went on, the pastor furtively checked his phone to see if memory had served him right. Indeed, his church far exceeded the numbers of the keynote speakers. Part of him (the bad part), like James and John, wanted to boast and be honored but the other part reminded him that ministry is about people and not numbers. He ate a little humble pie and said nothing. As often happens in long meetings, his mind wandered and he thought back to an encounter some twenty-eight years ago when he first came to the parish.

In 1991, both the church and our nation had much less liberal views about alternative lifestyles and homosexuality. An era of homophobia, there often were economic, social, and even physical repercussions to coming out. AIDS was the leading cause of death among men 25 to 44 and, in an attempt to raise AIDS awareness, the Red Ribbon Project had just launched.

That year, Wayne, an elderly retired minister in the parish approached the pastor. “This homosexual thing,” he said, “I just don’t comprehend it and I can’t condone it. But,” he added, “all people are God’s children and are of sacred worth.” Wayne then spoke of the many gay men dying in the area. In those early years, most families abandoned their gay AIDS infected sons and brothers. Fearing contagion, AIDS patients were touched only by hands in rubber gloves and, because of surgical masks, they saw only the eyes of those who attended them. Facing death and without a support system, they felt alone, unloved, and worthless. Reiterating that he neither understood nor approved of homosexuality, Wayne added that he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. He asked permission to serve AIDS patients in the local hospitals. “I don’t want them to die without feeling the touch of a warm hand, seeing a smile, or knowing that they have value. I can’t let them die alone or without telling them that Jesus loves them.” The pastor immediately agreed to Wayne’s ministry of love because being a servant is what Jesus was and what He told us to be.

As the pastor thought back to Wayne’s selfless and loving service, he understood why his church’s growth numbers are exemplary. It wasn’t evangelism techniques, community events, baseball team sponsorship, or advertising; it was that the church and its members serve as Christ’s hands and feet. Through service, they both tell and show people that Jesus loves them.

When the pastor wanted to brag about his numbers, he realized he was being like James and John when they wanted their place of honor in God’s kingdom or the other disciples who were indignant at the thought they might not be honored as well. When he thought back to Wayne, however, he thought of Jesus’ words: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others…” As Christ followers, we don’t need to understand or condone, we just need to serve our brothers and sisters (and all are our brothers and sisters).

One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:43-45 (NLT)]

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SAY IT NOW

Hong Kong Orchid - Hepatica - HibiscusThis is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another.  [1 John 3:11 (NLT)]

Last week, I delivered the eulogy for my 102-year-old mother-in-law at the celebration of her life. The word “mother-in-law” does not adequately describe our relationship. Although my mother died when I was fifteen, at the age of twenty God blessed me with another mother when I got married. Along with a husband, I gained his wonderful parents. My mother-in-law opened both her arms and heart to me and loved me well. It was from her that I learned how to be a woman, wife, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, and friend. I never had a problem calling her Mom; indeed, I loved her as if she had been my very own birth mother.

Four years ago, I wrote a Mother’s Day devotion about Ruth and Naomi titled “Mothers-in-law.” While considering what an amazing woman Naomi must have been to inspire such love, I kept thinking of my mother-in-law and how I was a Ruth to her Naomi. Since my mother-in-law was approaching her 99th birthday that year, I suspected that I would probably use that comparison in a eulogy at her Celebration of Life in the not too distant future. When I delivered my father-in-law’s eulogy nearly fifteen years ago, I had glowing words to say about him; sadly, as happens with eulogies, he never heard them.

Although anyone who would be in attendance at my mother-in-law’s eventual funeral would certainly know from my words how much I loved this beautiful woman, I wondered if she knew it. People say actions speak louder than words and my actions were always kind, loving, respectful and considerate. Yet, in spite of my behavior, I wondered whether my mother-in-law knew that, even in difficult circumstances such as those encountered by Ruth and Naomi, I gladly would say, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” [Ruth 1:16-17 (NLT)] Sometimes, words need to be spoken and it occurred to me that I should share my thoughts with my mother-in-law while she was alive rather than wait to say them to those who mourned her when she’d passed. And so, along with Mother’s Day candy, flowers, and card, I gave her a letter comparing us to Ruth and Naomi and expressing my devotion, admiration and love for her.

When the Apostle Paul told us that eloquent words and generous actions without love were worthless, he wasn’t telling us not to express ourselves but rather to use our words and actions authentically. We often assume that the people we love know it, but do they? The time to express our love is now, when our words and actions can be appreciated, rather than later, when they can’t!

I would rather have a single rose
From the garden of a friend,
Than to have the choicest flowers
When my stay on earth must end.
I would rather have the kindest words
Which may now be said to me
Than flattered when my heart is still
And this life has ceased to be.
I would rather have a loving smile
From the friends I know are true,
Than tears shed ’round my casket
When this world I’ve bade adieu.
Bring me all your flowers,
Whether pink, or white, or red,
I’d rather have one blossom now
Than a truckload when I’m dead. R.D. Richards

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

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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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