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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Live Thankful

thankfulEvery year in the US, we mark out a day to reflect gratitude for life and what we have. Thanksgiving Day, in my opinion, is actually one of the few culturally meaningful moments that still exist in our country. In this time, as a nation we actually take time out from work and normal routines to simply celebrate and enjoy the goodness of life. Of course, like all things, Thanksgiving Day can be trivialized by commercialism, but it is still a powerful moment in our country’s experience.

As Christians, Thanksgiving Day takes on even greater significance because of our relationship with the Living God through Christ Jesus. The wonder of the life with God is that each day spent following Jesus propels us into thanksgiving. The abundance we have received from God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is beyond words. Today, we want to come alive with thankfulness.

Throughout the Scripture, we encounter many sacrifices offered in worship of God. In Psalm 50, however, we encounter a different kind of sacrifice:

I have no complaint about your sacrifices
or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
But I do not need the bulls from your barns
or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are Mine,
and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. (Psalm 50:8-10, NLT)

God is familiar with all the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the Israelites, but He is looking for something else. And here is what it is:

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God. (50:14, NLT)

Thankfulness brings life to us. When we make our lives an altar where gratitude rises up to God like a sacrifice, He is pleased. At the same time, offering thanks back to God for who He is and all He has done brings life to us. Thanksgiving brings life to our souls because when we voice our thanks we are forced to reflect on all His goodness toward us. Thankfulness draw us closer to God.

At that same time, we may soon realize in life that thankfulness is not – or at least should not be – limited by our circumstances. Circumstances change with seasons and times of our lives, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Yet God, in all His unchanging faithfulness, never alters in His work in us and goodness toward us. So as Paul urged one early group of believers that they – and we – can learn the way to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Today, why not come to life with God by offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving? You might even want to stop for ten or fifteen minutes right now to thank God for all He has done, for all He has given, and for all the things You may not even know that He is doing right now in Your life.

Praying with Paul: Ephesians 1 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” (Ephesians 1:15-16)

There are two exemplary prayers of Paul in the letter known as Ephesians. The first prayer arises in 1:15-23 and the second in 3:14-21. Today, we will explore the first of those prayers, so open your Bible and read Ephesians 1:15-23.

Although more brief here than in Colossians 1, notice that Paul once again begins his prayer with thanksgiving before turning to his requests. Gratitude is an important entry point for prayer. It shapes our thinking and praying with an attitude of plenty, as opposed to merely an attitude of need. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). There is always something to be thankful for in prayer.

As is often the case, there are many parallels between Colossians and Ephesians, and that is seen in Paul’s prayers within Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1. However, the prayer in Ephesians seems to go deeper in its request for understanding (Ephesians 1:17; cf. Colossians 1:9). This request expands with the penetrating prayer “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” Paul wants the believers to have an inner revelation that comes into their hearts from God. That revelation consists of three things: 1) the hope of our calling, 2) the riches of our inheritance, and 3) the incomparable power of God at work within us.

One of our greatest, recurring problems in life is a lack of understanding. There are many times when we feel confused. Paul knows that it is not just the answer to general questions or getting some sense of direction that we most need. No, what we need even more is a deeper, “heart” awareness of all that God has made available to us through Christ. Paul’s prayer shoots like an arrow into the presence of God on the believers’ behalf toward the bullseye of divine revelation and knowledge.

Near the end of his prayer, Paul gets so carried away with the wonder of what God has given us in Christ, that his words cascade forth into a fountain of praise to God in Christ. It is no wonder that this happens to Paul. He lives in the reality which he is praying will come alive for others. Knowing the greatness of the hope, inheritance, and power of God available to the believer, and ministering out of that place, Paul finds himself regularly overcome by all of who God is and all that God has done.

May our prayers also launch with gratitude into the throne room of God. May we ask for what we most need, which is a divine unveiling of wisdom within our hearts that comes from God. And may we regularly be overcome by the goodness and greatness of God even as we approach him for what we need.

Take a moment here at the end of this devotional to personalize the prayer of Ephesians 1:15-23. Pray it back to God, inserting your own name, and then the name of your local church, into the prayer.

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

Give Thanks to the Lord

Thanksgiving.pngOne of my favorite portions of Scripture is Psalm 136. The call and response of the musical poetry of this psalm is both refreshingly focused and hypnotically reflective. On this Thanksgiving Day, when we focus as a nation on things we are grateful for, join me in giving thanks to the Lord, for He is good. Also, if you have things you want to share about how you are thankful to God and praising Him today, take a moment to write something in the comments below.

Psalm 136 (ESV)

1Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who alone does great wonders,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

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