Questions for a New Year

I first posted this article at the beginning of the year 2014. The questions are worth pondering at the beginning of any new year, don’t you think? So here they are once again. 

I spent a good chunk of this morning reflecting with God about the year just past and the new one beginning. I like to start my new year like that. As I ponder the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the dreams and disappointments, the prayers answered and still waiting, I gain perspective, direction, and even some wisdom.

This annual pause for reflection is a tradition for me. It always holds surprises and delights as I see areas of growth, moments of grace, and new possibilities. And it helps to bring closure and peace to the places where things didn’t go the way I’d hoped.

I don’t follow any one pattern or procedure. I’m sure there are many ways a person could undertake a year-end reflection like this. But, in case you’d like to try it, here are the questions I took to God this year.

  • What gifts and graces did You share with me in 2013?
  • What prayers did You answer in this past year?
  • What lessons do You want me to take away from 2013?
  • What did You and I accomplish together in this past year?
  • When were You and I closest in 2013?
  • What dreams and desires do You want me to pursue in 2014?
  • Is there anything You want to say to me about my relationships, finances, health, work, or ministry as we start this new year?
  • Are there any areas you want me to focus on in prayer this year?
  • Is there anything new You want me to go after in 2014?
  • How can I grow closer to You in this new year?

Do you have a way you start the new year with God? Tell me about it! I’d like to hear.

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When Christmas Isn’t Merry

I first published this post on December 24, 2014. It seemed to hit a chord with readers then, and somehow, I sense it might again this year, so here it is once more.

Okay, I’m going to stir things up I suppose, but I’ll just say it: I don’t think the first Christmas was “merry.”

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge. I’m just readjusting my expectations for what Christmas is “supposed” to be. I don’t think it has to be merry in order to be good.

Hollywood and Hallmark paint pictures of perfect houses, perfect families, perfect dinners, perfect friends, perfect decorating, perfect gifts, perfect happiness. But that’s not the reality many of us face.

Not everyone’s kids come home for the holidays. Not everyone has a spouse to share the day with. Some people are challenged by unemployment or debt. Others deal with scary medical situations. Some suffer chronic depression. Many have strained relationships. Some have painful memories of deaths that took place during this season. Others just aren’t great cooks or decorators or party planners. Many are just plain tired and overwhelmed.

As I’ve spent time with the stories of Advent this year, I’ve tried to imagine what that first Christmas was really like. My surprising conclusion is that while the first Christmas was altogether good, it was probably not merry.

Here are some things I imagine.

  • I imagine it was lonely. Sure, Mary and Joseph probably traveled in a caravan. And they went to a town that was bustling. But, as we all know, being surrounded by people is not the same as belonging. Mary, as far as anyone was concerned, was a loose woman. And Joseph’s integrity would have been questioned too. Were Mary’s and Joseph’s parents even supportive of them?
  • I imagine it was frightening. Teenaged Mary was about to give birth. What would it be like? There was no bed waiting for her at the Bethlehem Birthing Center. She had no birthing coach. Lots of women died of childbirth in those days. Would she come through this okay?
  • I imagine the political climate was tense. A first-ever worldwide census? What was Rome up to now? I imagine the talk on the street was nervous and edgy. Oppressed people fomenting for change . . . not exactly the silent, holy, all-is-calm, all-is-bright mood the Christmas songs portray.
  • And then there’s the bunch of coarse sheep herders showing up unannounced to see this new Baby. If that’s not stressful, tell me what is? Did Mary and Joseph think, “Oh, good, a party! Let’s bring out more cider and cookies and sing around the piano”? I doubt it. Mary and Joseph were hardly in a position to receive company, let alone a bunch of strangers.

If Mary and Joseph had expectations for what the birthday of the Son of God should have been like, well, I venture to say it may have turned out differently than they would have anticipated. It was deeply good. But it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. And I doubt it was merry.

What made that first Christmas good? Light came into darkness. The Lord’s promises were fulfilled. Hope was born. A Savior came to rescue broken sinners. The humble were dignified and given holy purpose. Emmanuel came to experience life with us as one of us.

And those are the things that still make Christmas good. If you get to have gifts and food and parties and decorations, that’s wonderful! Enjoy them! Christmas is certainly a cause for celebration! But if you don’t, I hope you will remember that Christmas is good, even if it’s not always merry.

 

 

Peace Re-Energized

One day last week I woke up melancholy.

“Melancholy” is a nice word for “discouraged.” “Discouraged” is a nice word for “depressed.” The state of the world, the state of my city, and the state of some personal circumstances all converged and I felt their weight.

But it was the second week of Advent, the week of “Peace,” so I took my heaviness to God.

I know You are the Prince of Peace, Jesus, but I sure don’t feel much peace right now. The world seems anything but peaceful. How can I enter into Your Peace?

As I sat still and in listening mode, I sensed Him answering with a song, a Christmas hymn that I don’t often hear sung anymore: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I didn’t remember the words and didn’t know its story. So I looked it up. And listened to it. About eight times, one right after the other.

The song was originally written as the poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863. It was Christmas Day, during the height of America’s Civil War. Longfellow felt not only the shared grief of all Americans as the country was being torn apart, but he also felt deep personal loss. His beloved wife had died tragically in an accidental fire, and his son had been just been severely wounded in Virginia during the Battle of New Hope Church. For Longfellow, the idea of “Peace on earth” seemed like mockery—until God showed renewed his vision and restored his hope.

And as I read the words to his poem and listened, over and over to them being sung, God renewed my hope, too. God is not dead! He’s not asleep! At the second Advent of our Lord Jesus, the wrong shall indeed fail, the right shall ultimately prevail, with there will be true peace on earth good-will to men!

If you want to listen, go here: I Heard the Bells . And if you want all the lyrics (the song usually omits the words that reference the Civil War) they are below.

May the Prince of Peace re-energize your peace in this season, too!

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 

 

 

The Blessing Project

Intercessors from my church spread out to the four corners of Colorado Springs last weekend to pray blessings over the city. We had set the date weeks before our city made international headlines—twice within a month—with its mass, fatal shootings.* So the recent tragedies certainly made our time together all the more significant.

I was stationed at the north end of town. We gathered in the host’s living room. He gave simple guidelines. Our goal was simply to bless the north side of town. We weren’t petitioning God for anything specifically. We were just to be agents of His blessing. We were to assume our role as priests (1 Peter 2:9) and bless people with all things God (see Numbers 6:24-26).

It was a bit artificial-feeling at first, as we blessed individuals, families, homes, and neighborhoods with peace, safety, healing, and hope. But before long, the Holy Spirit was infusing God’s mind and heart into the time, and we found ourselves blessing in ways we never would have thought of on our own. We blessed first-responders, nursing homes, families with mentally ill members, the unemployed, children in foster care, people driving on the interstate, and a whole lot more.

We invoked God’s courage, love, joy, and comfort into dark places of our community. We asked God to prosper all wholesome businesses, to bring abundant fruit from Christian ministries, to unify and grow Christ-honoring churches, and to restore broken families. We asked for God’s presence to be tangible in our community and for people to recognize Him and be drawn to Him.

It was a whole lot of fun! (Is it okay to say it was fun? Maybe it’s more spiritual-sounding to say “It gave me joy.” And it certainly did that, too. But it was fun.) I felt kind of like Santa Claus, doling out gifts right and left to people who weren’t even expecting anything.

On Monday, I was invited to share at a small group meeting in the north part of town. I didn’t know anyone in the group, and had never been to the hosts’ house. So I could almost hear God chuckling when the GPS led to a home just one street over from where we’d met for our blessing party on Saturday.

After meeting everyone, I told them about what I’d done two days previously. “We prayed for you and blessed your house,” I told them. Obviously surprised, they asked what I meant. So I explained. Then the hosts told me about the incredible roller-coaster weekend they’d had—which had been hard, but filled with God’s presence, and had climaxed in a miracle of healing. They wondered if our blessing project had had anything to do with it.

I wonder, too.

At any rate, if you want to have a great time connecting with God and friends and making a difference in your city, I highly recommend that you have your own blessing project. And let me know how it goes!

*The first shooting took places on the street in downtown Colorado Springs October 31 and resulted in four deaths. The second happened November 27 at a Planned Parenthood clinic and took the lives of three people, including a police officer.

 

Rx for a Troubled Spirit

As a young adult, I once feared I’d committed the unpardonable sin. I couldn’t have told you exactly that sin was, but whatever it was, I was sure I’d done it. Mercifully, after days of urgently calling out to Him, God gently eased me back into the sea of His grace.

However, not many years later, I had another spiritual panic attack. A friend challenged me to read John Calvin and I complied. The effect was terrifying. I became convinced that I was not one of God’s elect. I’m sure neither my friend nor John Calvin intended that result; nevertheless, fear consumed my thoughts day and night.

God met me on that one, too—in fact it is the most powerful experience of His presence I have ever had. He called to me in the middle of the night, whether audibly or in my spirit I cannot say. I only know it was Him. He said just four words: “Accepted in the Beloved.” But the power of those words, which I located later in Ephesians 1:6 (KJV), freed me from oppressive fear.

I’m glad to say that I haven’t had spiritual panic of that magnitude for a long time. But that’s not to say I’m free from spiritual struggles. These days, I occasionally swing on a pendulum between spiritual perfectionism and spiritual sloppiness. What I mean is, some days I find it difficult to believe that a perfect, holy God could ever be pleased with a sinner like me—while other days I barely acknowledge my sin to myself, Him, or anybody. Both extremes entirely miss the point of grace. I know this. Still, it’s hard to keep my heart from wandering there sometimes.

But God is helping me with this, too. In her book The Way of Discernment, Elizabeth Liebert discusses the Christian’s identity: We are “loved and saved sinners.” That’s not an earthshaking statement—it’s basic Christian theology. But the exercise she offered to help readers grasp that concept was powerful for me. Here it is, in case you also need some spiritual Rx.

First, ask God to ground you in His loving presence. Liebert suggested reading Psalm 139. (Romans 8:32-39 is what the Holy Spirit used with me.) Meditate on God’s love until you are sure of His presence with you.

Then, review your entire life with Him. This sounds overwhelming, but it needn’t be. Do it in two parts. First, ask the Holy Spirit to bring to mind things you have done or failed to do that have hurt God or others, or that have caused you to experience shame and regret. Without judging yourself, write each one down and release it to God with a short prayer of sorrow. [My own note here: the point is not to make an exhaustive list. Don’t probe, don’t wallow. Just let God remind you of any sins, even previously confessed ones, that still cause you grief. Acknowledge them, and move on.]

Next, ask the Holy Spirit to remind you of the ways throughout your life that you have experienced God’s unmerited grace and blessing. As you note each of these, pray a short prayer of gratitude.

Finally, compare the two lists and talk to God about what you notice.

I was surprised by what God showed me. Although I had made my lists side-by-side, I saw that they were unrelated. God’s blessings—and there were many—were completely independent of my actions. I had done nothing to deserve those blessings, neither had my sins caused Him to withhold them. God’s generous grace outweighed my substantial failures—by far.

As I talked with Him about this, a new understanding of His forgiveness and grace washed over me. I am an undeniable sinner. But I am a loved and saved sinner. I can’t make God love me any more or less because, well, as He told me a long time ago, I am “accepted in the Beloved.”