OUR WORST ENEMY

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. [James 1:14-15 (NLT)]

white ibisThe book of Numbers tells of Balaam, an unscrupulous prophet-for-hire, who was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites.  Although he tried to do just that, the Lord intervened and Balaam could only say the words God put into his mouth. The prophet ended up blessing the Israelites and cursing his own people. Although he escaped with his life, needless to say, Balaam wasn’t paid for his work.

The Israelites’ biggest threat, however, was not from pagan curses, Moab, Midian or even Jericho; it was their continual failure to remember their God—the God who delivered them from Egyptian slavery, brought them safely through the wilderness, and even protected them from Balaam’s curse. While they were camped on the plains of Moab, the men had sex with the local women who then persuaded them to make pagan sacrifices and bow down to the Baal of Peor. The Lord grew angry with them and commanded the death of all who’d defiled themselves by participating in the sacrilege; 24,000 men died in the violent plague of judgment.

Prevented from cursing the Israelites, it turns out that Balaam may have found another way to get his reward from Balak by getting them to bring a curse upon themselves. It was the prophet who instigated the women’s invitation to fornication and idolatry. Even though Balaam set the stage for the seduction of the Israelite men, no one forced them to respond; that responsibility fell squarely on each man’s shoulders.

Balak didn’t need a curse to kill any Israelites; they did a fine job of doing that on their own! The story didn’t end well for Balaam and the Midianites, either. The Lord commanded Moses to take vengeance on them for their seduction of His people; a brutal massacre of the nation followed and the prophet Balaam died in the carnage. Nevertheless, the Israelites’ fall to temptation reminds us that our greatest battles are not against enemy armies or pagan prophets but against Satan and our own sinful natures. God, however, has not left us defenseless. While our worst enemy is self, our strongest ally is Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Beware of no man more than of yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us. [Charles H. Spurgeon]

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. [Galatians 5:16 (NLT)]

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. [Ephesians 6:10-11 (NLT)]

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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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SLOW THINKING

sliders - turtlesBut the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

Someone has a small rubber ball tucked into the palm of his hand and you have just one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball away from him. What would you do? If you were an inner city youth, chances are you’d start by trying to pry his hand open. Your efforts may even escalate into a wrestling match. I’m not sure you’d have to be an at-risk youngster to have that same response; my husband responded the same way. Imagine his reaction when learning that all he needed to do was ask for the ball and it would have been his!

That is just one of the exercises in a program called “Becoming a Man”®, a cognitive behavioral program offered in cities like Boston and Chicago. Knowing that small slights often can lead to pulling a trigger, the program is designed to help young men avoid life’s pitfalls and develop the social and emotional skills necessary for success: integrity, accountability, positive anger expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal setting. Young women are not exempt from needing life skills and a similar program called “Working on Woman”™ cultivates the core values of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting, and leadership.

Instead of life skills, as Christians, we might call these faculties “Christ skills”, as does a local Christian school in my town. Instead of a formal code of conduct, the school’s teachers make a covenant with the students to live up to ideals listed as Christ skills: trustworthiness, cooperation, truthfulness, courage, organization, curiosity, patience, effort, perseverance, flexibility, pride, common sense, problem solving, caring, resourcefulness, personal best, responsibility, no put-downs, sense of humor, active listening, initiative, friendship, and integrity. With the goal of growing more like Christ, students learn to evaluate their choices and their consequences based on these skills.

All of these programs teach youngsters that there is power in slow thinking—in living deliberately rather than impetuously. Automatic thinking, such as assuming we have to force the ball out of a person’s hand, can mean the difference between life and death in the inner city but it can have bad consequences everywhere. Our typical weapons of anger and irritation may be less lethal than a gang member’s Smith & Wesson but none of us are exempt from needing to learn to think before acting or speaking.

We don’t need to live in the inner city to know it’s an angry, rude, intolerant, and violent world: a world of road rage, air rage, middle finger waving, swearing, bullying, pushing and shoving, domestic violence, tweet rants, peaceful demonstrations that turn violent, school shootings, child abuse, heckling, bickering, heated arguments, fights between students in school, fights between fans at the game, indignant outbursts, name calling, and a “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of mentality. Perhaps we all need a course in cognitive behavioral therapy or a list of desired Christ skills to emulate.

Even so, under our own power, we still will tend to act impulsively and heedlessly. On our own, we’ll never be the people God means for us to be. Maybe, instead of a list, we need a whole lot more of Jesus and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and a whole lot less of self. Along with the power of slow thinking, let’s tap into the power of the Lord!

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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CHUTZPAH

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [Luke 18:1 (ESV)]

pink peony“Lord, you’ve got to…” I started, but got no further in my prayer. “God doesn’t ‘got to’ do anything!” said a still small voice. Whether it was the Holy Spirit, conscience, or even God himself, I don’t know, but the point was well taken. “What chutzpah!” I thought, using a word borrowed from my Jewish friends that has moved from Hebrew into Yiddish and now English. Often defined as audacity, presumption, cheek, arrogance, or impudence, the way I started my prayer was all of those and more.

Some say that chutzpah is when a man kills both his parents and begs the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. One computer executive defines it as, “calling up tech support to report a bug on pirated software.” Neither example, however, captures the essence of the word. Chutzpah includes fearlessness, pluck, mettle, and boldness in its request and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Abraham’s chutzpah when he argued with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It certainly took chutzpah for Moses, an eighty-year old expat Jew who was both felon and shepherd, to demand that Pharaoh let his enslaved people free. Moses then had chutzpah enough to argue with God over the destruction of those same stiff-necked people! Esther showed chutzpah when she approached King Xerxes, David when he said he’d fight Goliath, Daniel when he took Belshazzar to task for his dreadful behavior, and even Jesus when he cleared the temple of money-changers.

I would think the parable of the resolute widow who pestered the unjust judge for justice until it was received tells us that some chutzpah in our prayers in the way of boldness, fearlessness and persistence is a good thing. As one pastor friend says, “Ours in an audacious God; we should honor Him with audacious prayers.” On the other hand, in my prayer, I was not asking for justice, peace of mind, healing or even forgiveness. Mine was the beginning of a disrespectful, brazen and impertinent demand much like that made by a selfish petulant child in a toy store.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman says, “To be a good Jew, you need two opposites: A sense of shame that prevents you from acting with chutzpah to do the wrong thing, and a sense of chutzpah that prevents you from being ashamed to do the right thing.” I think that’s true for Christians, as well, but we should use it properly. While we should step out for God with chutzpah, we always must come before Him with humility and respect.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (ESV)]

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you!  Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! [Psalm 141:1-2 (ESV)]

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OFFENSE

Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults. … Overlook an offense and bond a friendship; fasten on to a slight and—good-bye, friend! … Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget. [Proverbs 12:16,17:9,19:11 (MSG)]

giant swallowtail butterflyOur sermon series was titled “Cage Fighting” but, rather than learning about fighting one another, we were learning about the ways Satan attacks and keeps us in his stronghold with things like shame, doubt, fear, and unforgiveness. While chatting with the pastor before church, I asked about the day’s topic. When he said offense, I immediately thought we’d learn how to take offensive action against the enemy.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the program and read the above proverbs. What did they have to do with spiritual weaponry? I was annoyed that I’d been misled until I realized I’d misunderstood the pastor. While I was thinking about taking the offense and attacking, the pastor would be speaking about taking offense and feeling attacked! He’d be talking about the kind of offense that leaves us feeling outraged, insulted, or (in my case) annoyed. My error that morning illustrates why we’re easily offended; I had a preconceived idea, misunderstood what I heard, and didn’t ask for an explanation.

In this day of political correctness — when BC (before Christ) has become BCE (before the common era), Christmas trees are called holiday trees, no one is quite sure how to refer to a disability, and The Journal of Animal Ethics says calling pets “pets” is demeaning (they’re now “companion animals” to their “human carers”) — mistakes are bound to happen.

Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity but never giving offense is nearly impossible. In reality, most people don’t mean to be racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, narrow-minded, impolite, or behind the times but sometimes they are. We can give offense inadvertently simply because words may have different connotations to different people, many words have changed their meaning over the years, or we don’t know the history of a symbol or phrase. For example, since my black postman wears a pith helmet, I didn’t know it was considered by some to be a symbol of white imperialism until Melania Trump was criticized for wearing one in Kenya.

Although wrong, rudeness and thoughtlessness are part and parcel of modern life. Today’s world offers an unlimited opportunity to both give and take offense and Satan loves it. To fight him, we must act and speak with love and do our best to never give offense, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Nevertheless, just as we must act and speak with love, we must listen and respond with love, as well. Knowing how easy it is to be offensive, we must work harder at not taking offense. Unfortunately, self-involved creatures that we are, we often choose to see bias, insult, or aggression even where none is meant. Taking offense just leads to anger, resentment, and retaliation (some of the enemy’s favorite weapons). Often translated as forbearance, patience is a fruit of the spirit and literally means “long temper.” Indeed, we should be slow to anger, give the benefit of doubt, not respond to provocation, turn the other cheek, love, and forgive.

I actually did learn how to fight the enemy that day, just not the way I thought. While some may say the best defense is a good offense, I learned that the best defense is not to take offense at all! As for me, I’m going to spend my time and energy being offended by the things that really matter: human trafficking, hunger, lack of safe drinking water for much of the world, poverty, homelessness, discrimination and injustice.

Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it. [Rene Descartes]

We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it. [Abraham Lincoln]

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. [Colossians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

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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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