Stepping Forward into 2020 with Dedication and Praise

Emmaus RoadThis week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.

Stepping Forward with Dedication

Related to this focus on God is a dedication of our lives from the inside out. Psalm 86 is a one of my favorite psalms. Verse 11 has become particularly important for me.

11 Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
(Psalm 86:11)

That phrase about God giving us “an undivided heart” is a powerful picture of what it means to live with focus on God and dedication of life. It means that the center of our being – our heart; the place from which our life flows – is dedicated to God entirely. There is a unity – an integrity – to it.

Francois Fenelon describes that in this way:

What God asks of us is a will which is no longer divided between him and any creature. It is a will pliant in his hands…which wants without reserve whatever he wants and which never wants under any pretext anything which he does not want.[1]

The New Testament describes this a life given over to God with the word “discipleship.” Discipleship has God as its focus, and gathers our desires around God in such a way that our everyday living is ordered by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. We live dedicated to God from the inside out, both in our desires and in our decisions.

Dallas Willard says:

The priorities and intentions – the heart or inner attitudes – of disciples are forever the same. In the heart of a disciple there is a desire, and there is decision or settled intent. The disciple of Christ desires above all else to be like him…[and there is] the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ.[2]

So we enter into this year not only with focus upon God, but also with our whole lives dedicated to God.  We want an undivided heart – a life that has integrity in the fullest sense – both in the form of our desires and our decisions as disciples of Jesus.

So we can ask ourselves, “How will I order my life as a disciple of Christ this year? How will I bring my desires to God as part of my discipleship? How will I make decisions this year that reflection my discipleship to Christ? Is there any area of my life that is held back from Christ, such as time, finances, relationships, work?

Jesus said this: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).

Moving Forward with Praise

The final word of the psalms, as seen in Psalm 150, is praise. Psalm 150 provides the capstone of the entire structure of the psalms. It is a psalm of high praise.

Praise the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
(Psalm 150:1-2, 6)

As we head into the year, we remember that this is more than the passing of time, more than the setting of priorities or establishing of resolutions, and more than the lament, confession, or thanksgiving. All of life, according to Scripture, is worship. We live in the daily presence of the Living God and He is worthy of praise. The end of our days, according to the book of Revelation, will rise up in the heavenly scenes of worship in the presence of God.

Julian of Norwich says,

All of the strength that may come through prayer comes from the goodness of God, for he is the goodness of everything. For the highest form of prayer is to the goodness of God. It comes down to us to meet our humblest needs. It gives life to our souls and makes them live and grow in grace and virtues. It is near in nature and swift in grace, for it is the same grace which our souls seek and always will.[3]

The sum total of our life is a response of worship to God. As the calendar turns from December 31, 2019, to January 1, 2020, we continue to respond to the ultimate goodness of God with a life of worship.

And so, perhaps the end of the year can be more than just a celebration of an apple sliding down a pole in Times Square or a thronging party with friends and family. None of this is bad, but might we remember there is something more: worship of the Eternal Creator who has made us for Himself.

So, what are your plans for the New Year? In the midst of all that is happening as we count down the days and hours into the new year, let me suggest setting aside some space and time in our lives to look back and step forward.

 


[1] Francois Fénelon, “A Will No Longer Divided,” in Devotional Classics, ed. Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 49.

[2] Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” Devotional Classics, 15.

[3] Julian of Norwich, “The Highest Form of Prayer,” in Devotional Classics, 77.

Stepping Forward into 2020 with Focus

Emmaus RoadThis week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.

Stepping Forward with Focus

Just as we look back at the previous year gone by with thanksgiving, lament, and repentance, it is important to step forward into the coming year in a personally engaged and meaningful way.

First, let me encourage us to step forward into the new year with focus. Psalm 63 is a beloved psalm reflecting both our need for God and the power of right focus upon God.

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)

The psalmist is apparently in a difficult time, an important moment, but it is clear that the psalmist is stepping forward into that moment with focus on God.

Some will say that the most important thing we can do is to put “first things first.” As we step into this year, there is nothing more important – nothing that should more truly be a first thing – than God Himself. Our focus must be on Him.

Jesus also emphasized this when He said:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

Entering into the new year, we must consider how to keep our focus on God. We need to consider what it looks like to prioritize relationship with God in the midst of all the relationships in our lives. We want to establish some specific ways to do that this year that more than a resolution, but is a prioritization of the Living God in our live.

A good question to ask ourselves is: what is one thing I will do to prioritize life with God this year?

Looking Back at 2019 with Lament and Repentance

Emmaus RoadThis week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.

Looking Back: Lament

Sometimes, however, when we look back over the year, even while we’re trying to give thanks, we remember experiences, events, or relationships that we’d rather not have experienced. The options or more than we’d like to name: that diagnosis, that job loss, that divorce, that death, that financial hit, that relational rupture, that opportunity that disappeared…

In times like this, our gratitude is mingled with sorrow. There is a space for this in the life with God that is exemplified in the psalms of lament. Lament offers us the space to express our sorrows and griefs in the presence of God.

Psalm 13 is one example of lament. The first few verses say:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
(Psalm 13:1-3a)

Lament is a valuable way to look back at the past year. Sometimes we need to name the painful areas of our lives in the presence of God without papering over them with false positivity or wishful thinking.

Writing about lament, Martin Luther said:

“What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid the storm winds of every kind? . . . Where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself…. And that they speak these words to God and with God, this I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life.”[1]

I want to give permission to each of us to look back over our year with God and lament. We may need to name something in our life as a source of great sorrow or wounding, and also bring it to God from the depths of our souls.

Perhaps you may do this verbally or, as I often do, you may want to write out your own personal psalm of lament. There is something powerful about laying it out in words, and giving that to God in prayer.

Looking Back: Repent

But it is not just painful things that have happened to us that we must bring to God, but also the painful things we have done that we must bring to God. We do this so that we can name them, confess them, and turn from them. The biblical word for this is repentance.

Psalm 51 is an extended prayer of repentance that is well known. It references a time of deep crisis in the life of King David, when he has committed adultery with Bathsheba, had her husband, Uriah, killed, and then tries to cover it all up. Nathan the prophet confronts him about it. Psalm 51 is the repentance response that David offers in response to his failures.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)

Here is the naming of wrongs David has done. And it is followed by the request for forgiveness, cleansing, and turning away from sin.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

We all recognize that there are things in the past year that we have done to others and ourselves – ways that we have fallen short of God’s best for us. Let me suggest that it is not the best thing we can do to carry these things into the next year with us as a burden. It is important to lay them down in prayer with God, like burdens laid at the foot of the Cross.

Jesus taught His followers to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). Although I think this is a good practice daily, I also believe the end of the year is a good time to draw near to God and name our sins – our wrongs – before God, to ask for forgiveness and cleansing, and to turn from them in our hearts.

Something I’ve done in the past is to write certain sins on  notecard or piece of paper, and then (safely) burn them as a sign of these sins being forgiven and cast away by God.

We receive assurance in many places in Scripture that God is forgiving, most notably in 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

 


[1] Martin Luther, Word and Sacrament, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. E. T. Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 255 –56.

Looking Back at 2019 with Gratitude

Emmaus RoadThe end of the calendar year provides a good opportunity for us look back at the previous year and to look forward at the coming year.

Oftentimes, we try to set New Year’s resolutions. I am not against the practice but much research shows that the majority of New Year’s resolutions, about 75%, are never upheld.[1]

At other times, we end up passively looking back at the previous year, letting Google’s “Year in Search” or “YouTube Rewind” tell us what happened in the past year. But this is inactive and impersonal approach to the cusp of the year doesn’t leave us with much ownership of what has happened or what is coming.

We need something different here; something more. Because all of our life is a gift from God, I’d like to suggest we need something more, which enables us to meaningfully, personally, and actively direct our attention to God as we stand on the final moments of one year and embark upon a new year.

I’d like to share out of some of my own practices for this in two direction: 1) looking back at the previous year and 2) stepping forward into the coming year. And I’d like to root that in the psalms, where we have been spending a good deal of time over the past month.

Looking Back: Give thanks

There is so much we can do with the year that has gone by, but one of the best practices is to look back with thanksgiving to God for who He is and what He has done. Psalm 136 is an extended prayer of thanksgiving, and serves as an example of thanksgiving for us. Here are the first few verses:

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.
(Psalm 136:1-3)

Psalm 136 is a catalog of thanksgiving to God. There are a lot of ways we can think about our previous year, but gratitude does something powerful to us. It reshapes our outlook from negativity to positivity. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”[2]

One simple way I have found helpful in looking back over my previous year with gratitude is to simply look over my calendar for the previous year, taking time to thank God for the ways I saw Him at work in my life. Some are simple, like the visit from a friend or a surprise guest who lifted my spirits. Others are more in-depth, like big projects I was able to complete or key life transitions like a milestone birthday for me, a friend or family member, or a surgery that someone made it through successfully. As I look over that calendar, I simply offer thanks to God for what He has done.

Another thing that has helped me, and is even easier in the current technological era, is to look through my pictures from the past year. Visually, I can see the experiences, events and relationships that easily become sources of gratitude. As with the calendar, as I look at those pictures, I offer thanks to God for what He has done and the gifts He has given me in this past year.

Sometimes, I have found it particularly helpful to write a list of thanksgiving to God. It can be as simple as pulling out a piece of paper, writing “Thank you, God:” at the top, and then writing a bulleted list of at least 10-20 things that I am thankful for from the past year. You may find, like me, that the list becomes longer than you expected.

 


[1] Ashira Prossack, “This Year Don’t Set New Year’s Resolutions,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashiraprossack1/2018/12/31/goals-not-resolutions/.

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/5-quotes-from-g-k-chesterton-on-gratitude-and-thanksgiving/.

New Year: Questions for growth, reflection, and prayer

crossroadsMany of us make resolutions for growth and change in the New Year. Unfortunately, statistics show that most of these resolutions do not hold for long or really make much long-term change. I believe this is in large part because we do not include the Living God in this process of resolution, and also because we do not let our resolutions penetrate deep enough into our vision for the year and the transformation of our will. The following series of questions are intended as a tool for reflection upon the previous year and resolution into the coming year.

Reflecting back:

What am I most thankful for from the past year (5-10 items)?

How have I most seen God at work in me or around me this past year (3-7 items)?

Who am I closest to in my life and how has that proved true this past year (2-3 items)?

In what ways am I experiencing a lack of resolution from this past year in my personal life, my relationships, my endeavors, or my life with God (2-3 items)?

What must I confess to God or repent over from this past year (2-3 items)?

Gather all these responses up in prayer before God, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

Looking forward:

What am I most looking forward to in this coming year (5-10 items)?

What do I sense are my greatest desires or needs for growth with God this year (2-3 items)? What are the practical means by which I will pursue that growth daily, weekly, or monthly?

Who do I want to become this new year?
What must I let go of in order to grow in this way (2-3 items)?
What must I grab ahold of in order to grow in this way (2-3 items)?

How are my relationships helping or hindering my growth with God or my development as a person (2-3 items)?
What relationships must I prioritize and how will I practically do this daily, weekly, and monthly in this coming year?

In what ways do I sense God is inviting me to serve Him by serving others this year (3-7 items)
How will I do that practically on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?

Gather these responses up in prayer before God, trusting His providence for your life, relinquishing control of your life, and yielding your will actively to the Holy Spirit for strengthening. Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer.

Singing Our Faith in Advent

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Advent is one of the times I remember most clearly from my early years. My parents would gather my older brother and I around the Advent wreath each night to light candles and sing hymns about the coming of Christ. That tradition is one we have continued in our own family, since the time our children were young until today.

When our children were younger, they couldn’t read the words of many hymns, so we always sang the first verse and chorus of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” together. They quickly caught on and, during their earlier years, made up their own hand motions to parts of the chorus. I don’t think they make the hand motions anymore, but we still sing that song regularly in the evenings of Advent as we light the candles before reading Scripture, a devotional, and praying together.

There is something powerful about singing our faith. We experience that when we sing with others in corporate worship, whether in formal worship services or informally with a few friends or family members. Singing engages our minds and our spirits in worship. We both consciously and subconsciously enter into the meaning of the songs with our whole being. This depth of engagement is enhanced when we return to the same songs again and again, year after year. That may be why we find tears in our eyes when we sing a song that brings back memories of dear friends or family members like “How Great Thou Art” or “It Is Well (With My Soul).”

I didn’t think of it this way when my children were younger, but I realize now that we have been singing our faith into our lives for years. Every Advent, we again gather in this simple ceremony of singing, candle-lighting, Scripture, and prayer. There is not much to it at one level, but there is much more happening beyond what we see. The fabric of faith – Jesus has Immanuel – is being woven into our lives one strand at a time. The symphony of God’s story is rising up and we are joining in with it one note at a time.

So, let’s sing our faith during this season of Advent. No matter whether it is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” or some other song, may we be caught up into the symphony of God’s good story with our voice and in our lives.

The 30-Day Minimalism Challenge

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This past weekend as I preached a message at Eastbrook Church on “Sacrificial Generosity,” I spent quite a bit of time talking about simplicity.  I believe that simplicity is the twin brother of generosity. Paul the Apostle writes:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)

Contentment is something I struggle with greatly. I believe it is a difficult trait to develop in our lives, particularly when we live in a culture bent on acquisition and consumerism. We consume music, movies, food, books, clothes, and more.

Simplicity is a key to attaining contentment, and it is a key to developing generosity in our lives as well. In Philippians, the letter known as “the epistle of joy,” Paul writes while imprisoned about contentment:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  (Philippians 4:11-12)

In the month of August, my wife, Kelly, and I participated in something called the 30-day minimalism game. It was an opportunity to simplify our lives and get rid of the clutter of stuff that happens to all of us. Every day of the month we would get rid of different things. On the first day we each got rid of one thing each. On the second day we each got rid of two things. On third day, three things. We did this all the way to the end of the month. We gave things away to others, dropped things at Goodwill, sold stuff online, and more. By the end of August we had both shed nearly 500 items.

Now, here is what was amazing: our life was not that different afterwards. We have more than we need. But this 30-day minimalism challenge taught me some important things:

  • I don’t need a lot of the stuff I think I need.
  • It’s hard not to want more stuff.
  • I don’t become more happy by having more stuff.
  • Contentment is sometimes easier when you have less, not more.

Generosity requires us to engage with simplicity in one way or another. Simplicity helps us learn that contentment is more about something inside us than something outside us. Simplicity helps us escape from letting our stuff own our lives. And in that place, it prepares us for generosity.