Looking Back at 2020 with Lament and Repentance

Emmaus Road

This 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, particularly in this devastating last 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…perhaps even all of 2020.

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 2020 with Gratitude

Emmaus Road

The 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/.

Looking Back and Stepping Forward: a new year’s message

 

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached a message, “Looking Back and Stepping Forward,” which was a stand-alone message for the new year. I shared some practices – looking back at the past year and stepping forward into the new year – that have helped me most over the years to close out one year and begin another.

The message was rooted in the psalms, drawing three practices for reflection (giving thanks, lament, repentance) and three practices of anticipation (focus, dedication, praise) together as a rubric for standing at the threshold of changing calendar years.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with other sermon series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more resources or opportunities to connect.

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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.

New Year’s Resolutions?

Man's hand pointing on street mapThis morning, I was chatting over coffee with some guys that I meet with every Wednesday morning. As we were catching up on the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, one guy asked if anyone had any New Year’s resolutions? It was a good question that led us into some meaningful conversation about what is important to us this coming year.

So, I thought I’d ask my online community a similar set of questions:

  • Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
  • Are there certain things that you want to give greater attention to in this coming year?
  • Is there something you are taking on as a theme for this new year?