Saint Valentine’s Day

valentines-dayThe legends of Valentine’s Day inseparably blend fact and myth. Most scholars believe the holiday grew out of the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. The pagan celebration provided an occasion for all sorts of excess—think Mardi Gras on steroids.

In 496 A. D., Pope Gelasius of Rome attempted to transform the pagan festival of debauchery into a Christian celebration of love. He created a new holy day named in honor of two church martyrs. Both men were named Valentine.

The first Valentine was a priest beheaded in 269 A. D. for assisting persecuted Christians. Three years afterwards another Valentine was executed because he converted a Roman family to the Christian faith. The church later canonized both men as saints.

Today, February 14th celebrates romantic love. Cupids, hearts, candy, flowers, and cards express undying affection for one’s beloved. Even the “Saint” in “Valentine’s Day” is usually missing. Apparently, Pope Gelasius’ attempt to replace a secular holiday with a Christian holy day largely failed!

Our society needs to recapture the spirit of Saint Valentine. In a culture of narcissistic self-gratification and disposable relationships, these saints remind us of love’s true nature. They exemplified the Christian virtue of love in life and death. The martyrs named Valentine understood the selfless nature of love. They put others’ welfare before their own.

Love is not love until it costs something; and true love costs a lot. Real devotion demands costly action. More than a sentimental journey, Christian love is an active, selfless, and sacrificial willingness to seek out the best for others.

Godly love is not based upon feeling but willing. Deep love is not an emotion of the heart but a discipline of the soul. Warm, fuzzy feelings can carry us only so far. Christian love is much deeper and sterner stuff. We love because God first loved us. With such confidence, we can risk loving others.

While most of us will never be martyred for the faith, we can lay down our lives in daily service to others. Simple, daily acts of kindness and thoughtfulness are the most common expressions of love. Hardly the stuff of newspaper headlines, but practical acts of love can transform ourselves and others.

What Valentine’s Day gifts will we give and receive this year? Allow me to suggest something beyond flowers, candy, and cards.

This week we could forgive a grudge, visit someone who is sick, listen to one’s spouse, read to a child, give blood, deliver a meal, provide a break for a care giver, or call someone who is grieving.

Actions that cost us time, energy, and effort are true expressions of Christian love. Such love is both costly and priceless. Anything else is only lip service to an unrealized ideal.

Happy Valentine’s Day—I hope it costs you a lot!

Get Clark Smart

clark-howardClark Howard is America’s profit prophet, master miser, preeminent penny pincher, supreme skinflint, and chief cheapskate. For those unfamiliar with the name, where have you been?!? The consumer advisor preaches ways to save more, spend less, and avoid getting ripped off.

Howard’s syndicated radio show can be heard on WSB 750 AM. He also has a web site that is creatively named

Clark Howard is the consummate consumer commando. His expertise spans the spectrum of economic issues. On one phone call, Clark addresses faulty dipstick tubes in hot water heaters. Then in the next segment he knowledgeably discusses 401K plans and Roth IRAs. In between, he talks about legitimate investments and illegitimate frauds.

Howard proudly admits that he sometimes goes to extremes, pinching a penny until Abraham Lincoln screams. He once appeared on national television dressed in a dollar suit bought at a thrift store. The radio personality will walk a mile rather than pay for parking. He also refuses to shop at malls because of the high overhead.

Some simple truths underlie Clark Howard’s consumer advice. Spend less money than made. Save more money than spent. Avoid get rich quick schemes. If it is too good to be true, then it is probably too good to be true.

However, Clark Howard’s advice is nothing new. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, also gave consumer advice. The Anglican priest believed that financial faithfulness was a mark of Christian discipleship.

Wesley gave this simple admonition to parishioners: Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

LESSON ONE: Make all you can.

No one would argue with this tenet. One of the most misquoted verses of the Bible is: “Money is the root of all evil.” What 1 Timothy actually says is: “The LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” Material resources are a good gift given by a loving God. It is not a question of whether we have a little money; instead, it is a question of whether a little money has us.

LESSON TWO: Save all you can.

Here is where the financial train often leaves the tracks. Spending has a way of expanding to meet or exceed income. People have a difficult time distinguishing between “needs” and “wants.” We are bombarded with credit applications and product enticements. Only the truly disciplined can spend less than they make in order to save.

LESSON THREE: Give all you can.

We are stewards of God’s wealth. We brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out. When have you ever seen a U-Haul trailer in a funeral profession or a hearse with a luggage rack? Humanity is entrusted with God’s goods in order to help others. We should give until it hurts—then give more until it feels good.

All of us need to get Clark smart and Wesley wise. Make all you can. Spend less. Save all you can. Avoid getting ripped off. Give all you can.

It just makes sense . . . and cents.

I Sat Alone and You . . .

Our church offers a weekly Wednesday night supper. We enjoy a good time of food and fellowship followed by programs for all ages. People love catching up with family and friends. However . . .

Fellowship in the church always possesses a shadow side.

We seek to create environments and small group settings where people form life-giving relationships. These very friendships, however, can lead to inhospitable environments and closed groups. The ties that bind can also repel newcomers.

Case in point:

Last fall a crowd of over 200 people gathered for the final Wednesday night supper before Thanksgiving. A raucous, joyful crowd loudly enjoyed one another’s company. Some groups pulled together two or three tables to expand their table fellowship. However . . .

A special needs adult sat at a table by himself.

I watched for several minutes, hoping someone would notice. He might as well have been wearing Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility. No one sat down with him much less acknowledged his presence.

I joined him for five minutes, and we discussed our holiday plans. Then someone called me away to deal with another matter. I checked later, and he was gone.

Ask anyone there that night—a good time was had by all. Delicious food and interesting conversation. However . . .

Fellowship in the church always possesses a shadow side.

Spiking the Ball

I grew up watching football on TV. At holiday family gatherings, the menfolk would gather around the tube to watch the games. I learned the sport through osmosis, listening to my elders discuss strategies, formations, and plays.

I played more baseball than football growing up. However, the managers and coaches all taught similar lessons about good sportsmanship and fair play. We shook hands with the opposing team after the game and always downplayed our own accomplishments.

I nostalgically recalled those days recently while watching an afternoon of NFL football. In the course of the game, a wide receiver performed a dance in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. A running back dramatically pointed downfield after gaining a first down. A lineman struck a body-builder pose after sacking the opposing quarterback. These moments occurred against a backdrop of high fives, fist bumps, fanny pats, and helmet slaps.

According to Wikipedia (the place of all true knowledge), Homer JonesSpike Football.png made the first touchdown “spike” in 1965. In 1971, Elmo Wright  performed what some believe was the original TD dance. Today it’s the exception rather than the rule to see a player modestly hand the ball to the referee.

I could write a paragraph that bemoans the devaluing of good sportsmanship. I could lament professional athletes’ extravagant displays for simply doing their jobs. I could pontificate about the value of humility.

Instead, consider this simple point. Football teams are called TEAMS for a reason. No player single-handedly scores a TD. No running back makes a first down alone. No defensive lineman penetrates an offensive line by himself.

If you think about it, one player vainly glorifying himself for the accomplishments of an entire team seems rather silly. Our coaches always said there’s no “I” in “Team”; however, there are several in “Idiotic!”

Inauguration Day

On Friday, January 20, Donald John Trump will be inaugurated as the inaug-dayforty-fifth president of the United States of America. A global audience will view the solemn ceremony. Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. will administer the oath of office on the west steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. After the playing of Hail to the Chief and a twenty-one gun salute, President Trump will address the nation in his inaugural address.

The glitz and glamour of the inauguration may mask the most significant part of the day. We will once again witness the peaceful changeover of power in our republic. Such an ordinary transition is extraordinary in the history of the world. Our nation settles political disputes with ballots rather than bullets, and the people’s will ultimately rules.

Although I closely follow national news, I seldom discuss politics from the pulpit. I certainly possess strong convictions. In fact, those who know me best suggest that I am occasionally in error but never in doubt! However, a sporadic spirit of humility allows me to concede that the Almighty’s viewpoints might differ from my own.

I sincerely doubt that the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth fully endorses the political platform of any particular party. History is filled with people who mistook their political beliefs for God’s will.

The Democrat presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, campaigned vigorously to win her party’s nomination and the nation’s support. In her concession speech, Clinton called for all Americans to unite in their support of the candidate elect.

She said:  Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.

I echo Secretary Clinton’s words. On Friday, Donald Trump will become OUR president. We pray that he will be a faithful leader for ALL Americans.

In 1 Timothy 2: 1-2, Paul wrote: I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Let us be faithful to Paul’s admonition. This Friday I encourage all Christians to pray for the leaders of our community, state, nation, and world.

May God continue to bless America—land that we love.

God is Good–All the Time

 God is good all the time. All the time God is good.

This “call and response” Affirmation of Faith is often used in the African-American church tradition. The leader proclaims: God is good;  and the congregation responds: All the time. Then the leader echoes: All the time; and the congregation answers: God is good.

On our BEST days, we believe this. On our WORST days, we doubt it. Most of life is lived somewhere between the two extremes. Like most Affirmations of Faith, we profess it on the good days so that we can claim it on the bad days. And there are days when we are like the man who said to Jesus: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

We are first called to profess that God is good in the GOOD times; and this is the easiest part of the affirmation. There are grace-filled moments in life when we recognize just how blessed we truly are.

The sun is shining. Our health is good. The family is well. Work and school are prospering. Life is GOOD. It feels like we are living life in the midst of a doxology, praising God from whom all blessings flow.

However, it is challenging to affirm that God is good in the bad times, too. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul did not write: Rejoice in the Lord in the good things, and again I will say, rejoice.  Instead, he wrote: Rejoice in the Lord always.  For the hard of hearing, he repeats: Again I say: Rejoice!

Let me honestly say to you that there have been times in my life and ministry when thanksgiving seemed entirely inappropriate. Sometimes thanksgiving and praise seem like ill-mannered guests who burst into the midst of our sorrow and pain.

What right does a hymn of praise have to intrude upon our grief? What part does worship play when our world is falling apart? How does our faith support us during an economic crisis with job loss and an uncertain future?

However, remember that Paul was not sitting in a heated office behind an oak desk dictating to a secretary when he wrote this letter to the Philippians. The disquieting truth is that the apostle was in a Roman prison awaiting trial when he penned this epistle.

During his ministry, the man had been insulted, scourged, beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, and imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Ultimately, Paul would die as a martyr, beheaded by the Romans for proclaiming Christ.

Rejoice in the good times . . . and yes, Paul says, rejoice in the bad times, too. Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS. So we affirm our faith by declaring:

God is good—all the time. All the time—God is good.

Happy New Year!

happy-new-yearNew Year’s creates the illusion of fresh starts and new beginnings. Like a lawn covered with freshly fallen snow, 2017 stretches before us without footprint or trail. We can choose anew the direction of our lives and the pathways for our feet.

On New Year’s Day, change seems possible as we resolve to make this year different from the last. So we make ambitious New Year’s resolutions about diets, exercise, habits, church, money, vocation, and more.

Resolutions born at midnight on December 31st, however, seldom survive the first few weeks of reality. Habit is a hard master to overthrow. Even if a rut is a grave with two ends missing, it is still OUR rut, comfortable and cozy.

By mid-January, the new and improved versions of our lives will greatly resemble the old and not so improved models.

After 33 years as a pastor, I have learned two polar opposite truths about fallen human beings:

  • People don’t change.
  • People can change!

The third chapter of John’s gospel describes how Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, visited Jesus at night. Christ told the religious leader: I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

Jesus revealed two vital truths in this passage. First, we MUST be born again. Second, we CAN be born again.

In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, God has formed a new covenant/relationship with humanity. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—and if God gave his only Son, will he not also give us all other things besides?

People tend not to change on their own, but God can radically transform people! Paul wrote: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come!  (2 Cor. 5:17)

We serve a God of fresh starts, second chances, and new beginnings. Today can be different from yesterday; and tomorrow can be different from today. This year can truly be new in more than name alone.