By / Dec 29

Can one day really make that big of a difference? The calendar turns 365 times every year, but there’s something special when the last day of the year gives way to January 1. The New Year promises a fresh start. So we review, we dream, we plan, and finally, we resolve.

We do these things with the hope that the New Year will be better than the last one, but ultimately we don’t live for just one better year. Our purpose in life is not limited by time. God created time and placed us inside of it for now—but not forever. When time is no more, we will remain. So we live this moment, this day and this year with eternity in mind.

Annual goals are important, not because they are ultimate, but because they focus our lives on what is paramount. So with a timeless future in view, here are four suggestions for the New Year.

1. Make returning to Jesus a way of life.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he wasn’t asking his disciples for a one-time decision to put him on the top of their to-do list. Instead, he was inviting them to an ongoing relationship based on authenticity, intimacy and sacrifice. He was worth their lives, so he didn’t hesitate to ask for their full devotion.

For us, this devotion is expressed in a love relationship with Jesus where we communicate with him in daily Bible reading and prayer, where we respond to him through personal submission to his will, where we live in community with other believers and where we invite others to follow him through our witness and service. This relationship, however, does not come without a fight.

The world, the flesh and the devil war against us and attempt to siphon our affections away from God. The apostle Paul confessed this temptation in Romans 7. Daily victory required a daily returning to Jesus to set his mind on the things of God rather than the things of the flesh. So practically, repentance is not just for the wayward prodigal living in gross rebellion; it’s for the most devout followers of Jesus who battle with the prodigal still loitering inside of our hearts, tempting us to run away with him.

2. Make plans that build people.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he made a plan to rebuild the wall around the city, then he got to work. Just 52 days later, he finished the wall. It was a remarkable accomplishment. However, Nehemiah’s ultimate goal was not to rebuild a wall, but to rebuild a people. With the wall complete and the city secure, the exiles could return.

God’s redeeming work is still to restore a people to himself for his glory. Any plans we make for any other reason become idols of our heart. Our health, relationships, finances, hobbies and our career are God’s provision for us to display the gospel as we invest in other people. God has not called us to make something of our lives. He has called us to die to ourselves and to live to make much of Jesus and the new life he gives to everyone who will trust in him.

3. Make room for unknown opportunities.

It’s wise to set goals and make plans, but it’s wiser still to place every plan under the subjection of God. The Bible says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). The unmet goals from last year may be the result of a slothful lack of discipline and focus, but some of our so-called failures may be the result of us listening to God and obeying him for something much better than our best made plans.

We pray and plan for the New Year, but we recognize that only God is sovereign. As we seek him first, we make ourselves available to him and adjust our lives along the way. This isn’t a rationale for poor planning, undisciplined living or excuse making. Instead, it’s a humble awareness that our inflexible allegiance to our plan could lead us away from God rather than toward him.

4. Make obedience an action.

Plans are for paper, but listening to and obeying God moves us to act. After the whiteboard dream sessions for New Year planning are over, January 1 asks this question, “Now what are you going to do?” We soon discover that it’s easier to make plans than to act on them. The snooze button wins our attention or the Facebook status distracts us for just long enough to detour us from even the simplest of tasks.

Knowing God’s will, agreeing with God’s will and even celebrating God’s will are not the same things as doing God’s will. We must learn to think deeply on the things of God and to prayerfully seek Jesus first, but the Kingdom advances through those who take the time and make the effort to act.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). Whether the work is majestic or mundane, celebrated or ridiculed, noticed or obscure, we do it with all of our heart. We manage our calendar, eliminate distractions, build relationships that encourage us to fulfill our calling, and then we keep our heart tender toward Jesus. Only he can produce lasting fruit through us. (John 15:5)

Can one day on the calendar really make a difference? When we join the Ancient of Days in his eternal work to redeem sinners and restore the world for the glory of God, every day makes a difference.

By / Jan 11

In previous years, people would ring in the New Year with noisemakers, large crowds, and dropping balls. My husband Steve and I have often taken a quieter approach, spending the days around the start of the new year planning for the months ahead. But after weeks of opening Christmas cards that all sound the same theme––nobody’s plans panned out in 2020––we’re left wondering how we should go about planning for 2021? Should we even bother? 

The book of James offers perspective:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15). 

James tells us that it’s not planning that’s the problem, but presuming––taking for granted that our will is God’s will, rather than the other way around. James isn’t condemning planning for travel or profitable business activity, but rather, assuming that your travel and business will unfold according to your plans, with no regard for how the Lord might move you this way or that. 2020 humbled us. We are not in control. We are small, and circumstances swirl around us, with no regard for how they mess with our plans. 

But this is no reason to neglect planning for the year ahead. Scripture is full of encouragement to consider our ways (Haggai 1:5,7), count the cost (Luke 14:28), seek counsel (Prov. 15:22), understand the times in which we live (1 Chron. 12:32), and recognize how short our lives are in order to grow wise (Psa. 90:12). 

Keep planning, stop presuming

God tells us to submit our plans to him, asking him to guide us in our decisions, to bless us in our endeavors, and to strengthen us to trust him should he cause things to unfold differently that we want them to. In the process, we reap several benefits—unity, intentionality, and living in reality. Let’s unpack these one by one:

Family unity. It takes effort to agree on a shared plan. But the alternative is pulling in different directions all year long. Over the years, we’ve moved from a battle of the wills to sharing a common mission. Whether you can take a couple of days away, or just a few hours in a coffee shop, it’s worth making time to talk through and then integrate your commitments, expectations, and hopes for the year ahead. Working to agree on your priorities for the next 12 months has the potential to produce much clarity, unity, and fruitfulness in your family. 

Intentionality. It can feel overwhelming to realize how much will be required of you in the year ahead––and that’s just the stuff you know about in advance. But agreeing on which items to include at the start makes it less likely that you’ll be sidetracked when distractions arise. Getting your shared priorities down on paper also makes it more likely that you’ll do what you’ve decided is essential and even what’s desirable. Without planning, it’s easier to end up frittering your days away on time wasters, never getting to what was most needed and most enjoyed. Planning helps you avoid the pitfall C. S. Lewis described in Letters to Children:

Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do. (2) Things we’ve got to do. (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of these three reasons…

Reality check. We tend to think we can do more than we possibly can in less time than it actually takes. Looking at just one commitment in isolation, it’s easy to think you can get it done. Writing them all down provides a helpful reality check. When you start compiling a list of all the commitments of everyone in the family––work, school, church, social, travel, etc.––you feel your limitations. You can’t do everything, but rather than defensively responding to whatever happens to be right in front of you, it’s much better to do what you decide is most important. That requires setting priorities.

To do that, we look at our calendars to see what’s coming in the months ahead, talk about what should be most important in the next four quarters, and list the milestones we, and our children, will reach. We’ve found it helpful to ask a few questions to help us identify, and remember, what will be important in the coming months. Questions like:

  • What are our major commitments? 
  • What will we celebrate?
  • Where will we travel?
  • What ministries will we support?
  • What are our health needs and goals?
  • What are our learning and reading goals?
  • What home maintenance or improvement projects should we take on?
  • What are our financial opportunities or limitations?
  • What will our daily and weekly routines look like?
  • Where do we need to grow spiritually?
  • What would shape the year ahead most dramatically?

Do you have a baby on the cusp of potty training? That will require a different focus than  a toddler who will be starting kindergarten, an adolescent who’s a recent convert and is considering baptism, or a son or daughter who’s ready to head to college. How about noteworthy birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or family reunions? Different seasons will require different plans. And the achievement of all these milestones benefit greatly from planning ahead.

After we have a broad outline of what will fill our time, we invite our kids to join the conversation. When they were little, we asked them what they like doing most, as a family, when we have vacations or free Saturdays. Together we would make a list that included things like picnics, neighborhood bike rides, roasting marshmallows outside, bowling, and trips to the library. We also talked about fun activities and tourist attractions nearby we would enjoy visiting in the year ahead. We would tape that list to the fridge and refer to it when we saw free time on our calendar. It gave us shared things to look forward to and cut down on disagreements about how to spend those blocks of time.

Now that our kids are older, they bring their commitments, important dates, aspirations, and expectations, too. Including their input isn’t always seamless. But even imperfect planning is better than none. And it gets easier to plan the more you do it.

The power of routine

Writing a plan is the starting place. But to really get things done, you have to put them into your routine. Is exercise important to you? You likely have a regular time of day and days of the week when you work out. How about family discipleship? If it’s not part of your daily rhythm, it’s not likely to happen regularly. The same thing goes for church involvement, hosting friends, reading the Bible, family meals, budget review, reaching out to neighbors, the list is endless. Whatever is most important to you is what you make time for. And what you make time for is what you will get done. 

The best thing about working to fit priorities into your routine is that inertia begins to work for you instead of against you. Any time you take on a new commitment, your current routine works against you, and it’s tempting to fall back into old patterns, but if you press through to start a new routine, you can begin to see inertia working for you. I remember seeing that happen when we started trying to add family devotions with Bible reading after dinner. The first few nights were a struggle as it disrupted patterns we already had. Our 4-year old, especially, was thrown off and often seemed distracted. But at the beginning of the second week, he surprised us when he went and got the Bible and set it beside Steve’s plate—to have ready for our new routine.

Knowing the power of routine makes a review of our regular patterns a key part of our planning each January. What will our daily, weekly, and monthly routines look like? What will yours?

Plan with prayer

Most importantly, begin your planning with prayer. The evil one is keen to disrupt this sort of intentional work through all manner of distractions: spilled drinks; bickering or distracted children; incoming text messages or Post-Christmas Sale! e-mails; as well as bigger challenges of disagreements between spouses over what the plan and priorities should even be. We have learned, and must relearn––every year it seems––that it’s always wise to ask the Lord for protection, help, and wisdom at the outset. 

No matter how our plans unfold in 2021, God’s good, all-wise plans will stand:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,” (Isa. 46:9-10)

For unity in your family, for realizing your limitations, and for doing what you must and most want to do, it’s worth making the effort to plan humbly and diligently, even in a year that’s difficult to plan. We should work heartily, knowing that we will do this or that, if the Lord wills.

By / Jan 5

For many of us, 2020 was one of the hardest years we’ve experienced as COVID-19 swiftly changed most aspects of our lives. We’ve experienced loss in our nation, our communities, our churches, and our homes. We mourned the loss of too many to this virus. We’ve come face to face with the devastating effects of racial injustice. We walked through an exhausting and tumultuous election season. We’ve lost jobs. And as we enter a new year, it can be tempting to think that a fresh year means that things will go back to “normal” and our pain will ease up. But the new year will likely hold just as many uncertainties as the previous one. 

Below is a sample prayer for personal reflection, families, and churches to use:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of this new day and new year. Thank you for sustaining us through the tumultuous year of 2020. Your Word tells us that your mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23), and we are deeply grateful. But we admit that many of us are entering this new year weary and exhausted. Would you lead us beside still waters and restore our souls (Psa. 23)?

Lord, our hearts are deeply grieved over the losses we’ve walked through this year—the loved ones who have died, the jobs that disappeared, the dwindling bank accounts, the interrupted school schedules, the deferred dreams and plans, the loneliness we experienced, the fractures in our nation, and the reality that looked much different from our expectations. Our hearts cry, “How long, O LORD?” (Psa.13). Bind up our broken hearts with your presence. Spirit, when we are weak and don’t know what or how to pray, thank you that you intercede for us (Rom. 8:26).

Father, remind us of what we know to be true: you’ve set your steadfast love upon us, and you promise to be our refuge and strength, our rock and our stronghold. (Psa. 31; 143) You hear the needy, and we feel so very needy right now. This past year took us by surprise, but it didn’t surprise you because you are sovereign, and you have the whole world in your hands. 

We ask for a renewed commitment to growing in godliness and grace. Help us to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh (Rom. 8:1-11). Teach us how to count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (Phil. 3). Give us a greater love for one another. In the midst of global and national unrest, may we be marked by an extraordinary love for one another, the lost, and the vulnerable.

Help us boldly proclaim the truth of your gospel. And would you bring many into a saving knowledge through your son? 

Your Word tells us that our times are in your hands, and you daily bear us up (Psa. 31:15; 68:19). Teach us to cast all of our burdens and cares upon you (Psa. 55:22). We don’t know what this new year will bring or how many days we have left on this earth, but we entrust each moment to you. 

Lord, we know that one day you will come and make all things new, and we eagerly await the day when you will bring us home and wipe away every tear (Rev. 21). Thank you for your promises and your presence.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

By / Jan 5

Have the challenges, questions, and uncertainties of this past year motivated you to start the next year with a better approach to reading the Bible with your children? January is the time when a lot of Christians try (again) to read through the Bible as a family. But it’s not always an easy task. What’s a good approach to reading the Bible to children? 

We’ve heard lots of suggestions about how to do this. Years ago a pastor friend said simply, “start reading in Genesis 1:1 and just keep going.” He believed the best approach was the direct one. “Just read the text,” he said. We decided to try it. But as we encountered the stories of Abel’s murder, Abraham’s polygamy, Lot’s incest, and later, the moral madness of Judges 19, among others, we didn’t always feel equipped to explain the meaning of the text (Neh. 8:8). Then we ran into the well-known mid-March malaise that can affect even seasoned Bible readers after spending weeks-upon-weeks in Leviticus and Numbers. Add to that our restless toddlers and before long, we found ourselves floundering.

“You need a children’s version of the Bible,” others said, recommending books full of bold, colorful, even artistic illustrations of Bible stories. They were fun to look at with all their graphic art but often contained too little actual Bible. For example, the whole time we were reading through Acts (28 chapters), our youngest child was stuck on two pages. All his storybook Bible included from Acts was a short retelling of Paul’s shipwreck off the island of Malta (and there was nothing from the Epistles).

Other friends expressed frustration with a hit-or-miss approach––reading a Psalm or a Proverb here, a parable there––admitting they were sabotaged by their over-busy schedules and easily distracted offspring. Is there a better way?

A better way to read the Bible with children? 

When author Sally Michael was a young mom, she found herself frustrated with the shallowness of materials written for children. To make up for the lack, she would add to her Bible story reading. “I stopped and asked some questions,” she said, “I pushed them to think critically to discover the implications of what we read and to apply it to their lives.” Eventually, she decided to write the kind of book she wasn’t able to find. 

More Than a Story: Old Testament is the first of the two-volume set she’s written to help children explore the message of the Bible, with their parents, in a comprehensive and engaging way. Each chapter includes large amounts of actual biblical text, key Christian doctrines, realistic illustrations, and discussion questions to start conversations with children about the meaning of the stories and how to apply them. 

As we embark on a new year, let us pray that God will open his Word to our children and that he will open their eyes to behold the wonderful things it contains (Psa. 119:18).

Unlike many children’s story Bibles, More Than a Story shows children the problem of sin against a holy God. “Most children’s and Bible story books don’t teach children their plight,” Michael says, “because we don’t want children to feel uncomfortable. But I want them to feel uncomfortable because I want them to be driven to the cross so that they can be saved!” 

She attributes her approach to her former pastor, John Piper, who says, “You have to know your plight before you can recognize the rescue.” It is only with the realization of the very bad news about sin, that the very good news of salvation makes sense. 

Sally has been instrumental in my view of mothering as primarily a discipleship vocation, and I’ve long admired her ability to make massive biblical truths accessible to children. In More Than a Story, the Bible stories are both well-told and faithful to the original text. It also contains stories that other children’s Bibles tend to skip over. It’s written for children to understand, but not dumbed down; it’s age-appropriate, but doesn’t skip over big truths about God, his wisdom for living in a confusing age, and his unfolding plan of redemption. 

Michael wrote this book for parents, grandparents, and Sunday School teachers to help them introduce children to the big God of the Bible. She says her hope is that God will use this Bible storybook “to lead children to The Book––to give them a desire to read the Bible and know its author; to put their faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sin and the fulfillment of all of His promises toward them, even eternal life.” Her prayer is that this and coming generations of children “might become mighty oaks of righteousness standing firm against the onslaught of untruth in this age.” 

I’m planning to read More Than a Story with our younger two sons in 2021 (the New Testament will be released in the fall). Even though they’re older than the target age, the content enriched my soul as I read it, and I’m 50! 

We can’t save our children. It is God who gives them new hearts and causes them to believe. But he works through means. He creates parents and charges them with the responsibility for teaching his Word to their children (Deut. 6:6-7). As we embark on a new year, let us pray that God will open his Word to our children and that he will open their eyes to behold the wonderful things it contains (Psa. 119:18). 

Make 2021 the year that you prioritize reading God’s Word to your children. Read it with them for their everlasting joy. And yours.

By / Dec 30

This time of year is always good for reflection and planning. And for Christians, one of the things we tend to think about during this time is Bible reading. We assess how well (or not) we stuck to our reading plans, think ahead and set goals for the year ahead, and try to take advantage of the opportunity to read a little more Scripture during the Christmas season. Because of all this, I was intrigued a few weeks ago when I noticed an article in Christianity Today (CT) about the “verse of the year.” As I stopped to read it, mostly because I was pretty curious how such a determination was made, I learned a few things worth passing along. 

Apparently the “the verse of the year” designation came from the popular Bible app YouVersion (which you can read more about here), based on analytics from its users. According to the article, “In 2019 YouVersion users read 35.6 billion chapters and listened to 5.6 billion chapters through its online and mobile Bible app.” Though I didn’t have any sort of baseline, I found those numbers to be shocking, and honestly, really encouraging. Tens of billions of chapters read and multiple billions listened to represents a huge amount of Bible engagement. 

But onto the actual verse, I was not at all surprised to learn which verse was most popular in 2019. CT reported, “In all of this reading, Paul’s advice in Philippians 4:6 was the most shared, highlighted, and bookmarked verse of the year.” That verse comes at the close of Paul’s letter to the church of Philippi and reads: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

It is no secret that we are living in an anxious age. And while none of us can speak definitively about the cause or causes of the massive uptick in anxiety we’ve witnessed over the last decade or so, all around us we see evidence of people struggling to cope. This is why the fact that so many people turned to Phillipians 4:6 this year came as no surprise. And yet I found this news extremely heartening. If anxiety is among the most significant issues Christians are facing today, what better place to start seeking help than the Scriptures?

There is no better balm for the anxious soul than the peace of God in Christ.

I realize Christians sometimes (often?) rip verses out of their contexts or misapply them to situations they were never intended to speak to (e.g., the weightlifter quoting Philippians 4:13 before trying to set a PR). But this passage, and the problem of anxiety, don’t really lend themselves to that kind of misuse. In the first place, Philippians 4:6 speaks directly to the issue of anxiety. Paul is writing to the members of this church about how to deal with their deep concerns over his imprisonment. They are literally anxious over Paul’s circumstances. And secondly, Paul’s counsel to these saints is to give their concerns over to God in prayer. So as Christians turn to this verse, doing so leads to turning to God. And this is exactly the right response to anxiety.

Coincidentally, my local church happened to do a sermon series on the book of Phillipians this fall. One evening, as we were discussing this passage during a small group gathering, one of the members mentioned that her parents helped her memorize this verse when she was young because she struggled with anxiety. She shared with our group that she embraced the habit of repeating this verse as a prayer whenever she felt nervous, whether she was laying in bed before falling asleep at night or in the middle of a challenging situation. Obviously, Phillipians 4:6 has become a verse that many Christians turn to in order to help combat the challenges of anxiety. Praying or reciting relevant Scriptures to address the issues we are facing is a discipline every Christian should embrace.

But perhaps the most important thing I took away from this is gratitude, which is, as the verse points out, exactly the point. For me, anxiety isn’t simply something abstract or far away. I struggle with it myself. And as I seek to deal with anxiety in my own life and to serve those around me, I’m grateful that the Bible has the answers we need. We aren’t left to wonder what to do or how to cope. The Scriptures tells us exactly what to do: look to heaven where we find the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6). There is no better balm for the anxious soul than the peace of God in Christ.

Finally, beyond gratitude, this passage also fills me with hope. As the hymn sung at Christmas reminds us, Jesus “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” One day this anxious age will end (Gal. 1:4). One day Jesus will return. He will turn back the curse. He will fix all that is broken. And the peace of God will reign, not only in our hearts, but across the face of his new creation. And until that day, this year’s most popular verse is there to point us in the right direction. 

By / Jan 7

The start of a new year brings hope. This new beginning delivers the courage to believe that anything is possible. Our past days are behind us, and we anticipate better days are ahead. We boldly step into this new season armed with our expectations for how things will be better this year.

I began 2018 like every other year, with goals and expectations. However, the reality of this past year is almost unrecognizable to the original vision I had for it. Instead of losing weight, I gained. Instead of my plans to not work outside the home, I began working two part-time jobs. I expected to welcome an adopted daughter into our family, but instead was given the bittersweet privilege of grieving her premature death. While those around me spent last year thriving, I spent it adjusting to a reality that I neither wanted nor expected.

Learning to adjust to new circumstances has helped me learn some other things, too. I’ve learned I wasn’t who I thought I was. My heart has a greater capacity for unbelief and sin than I was willing to acknowledge. I learned, like Eve in the garden, that sometimes my enemy’s words sound sweeter than my Father’s. More importantly, I learned new things about my Father. He isn’t who I thought he was either. He is more than I believed. He’s bigger and wilder. He is better.

Last year, I learned to cling to him in desperation. His sovereignty both scared and humbled me. His faithfulness bewildered me. His grace sustained me. His love overwhelmed me. His tenderness unraveled me. In all my brokenness of last year, I was given a new taste for him, and I want more. This insatiable craving has inspired my goal for 2019. I want to chase hard after Christ. I simply want more of him.

Jesus’ words to his disciples tell me how to achieve my goal: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We don’t define the terms of following Christ; he does. He says the way to chase him hard is through daily self-denial and cross-bearing.

Denying ourselves

We are lovers of self. Our default mode is to please, exalt, and nourish our own wills. It is only by the grace of God that we are enabled to deny our wills and choose our Father’s. Amy Carmichael understood this as she prayed, "God, harden me against myself!" This must be the prayer of all who chase hard after Christ.

Christ, himself, is our example in self-denial. Remember the tension between his will and his Father’s as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). “Nevertheless” communicates trust and submission, yet Jesus also made his fleshly desires known. There is no use ignoring this tension; it exists. But, as Christ proved, we can wrestle with our Father in prayer to receive the blessing of desiring his will as we deny our own.

This is how we chase hard, through self-denial. The Bible commands us to reject our selfish ambitions (Phil. 2:3). We resist the temptation to advance our own agendas. By God’s grace, we crucify our self-will.

Bearing our crosses

“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). You can’t be a follower of Christ without going where he went. And he went to the cross. So we must go to our cross and take it up to chase after him. We echo Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Cross-bearing means that we embrace God’s will, no matter the cost. Christ sacrificed himself on a cross and paid the great cost for us. And now, God calls us to adoption in Christ. But that call begins with the invitation to die. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He calls you to bear your cross by dying to your old way of life, to your sin, and to your will.

He calls you to take up your cross every day. But one day, he will call you to a crown. Instead of taking up your cross, you’ll lay it down. You will receive Christ in all his fullness and enjoy his presence and glory forever. Persevere in your cross-bearing.

The daily chase

As you determine your goals for the new year, consider what you really want. If it’s not what God’s Word says you should want, repent and ask him to align your desires with his. Pray for a passion for Christ and his glory on earth. Choose which liturgies you will immerse yourself in daily to direct your passions toward him. Don’t spend your days chasing after lesser things. Choose the better pursuit.

When your enemy tells you your goal is impossible, don’t believe him. Resist the devil and watch him run away from you (James 4:7). And then continue to run to Christ. Persevere. Trust God for the strength each day to chase him hard.

To follow him today, we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses. Tomorrow, we wake up and do it all again. This is our privilege and our calling. Martin Luther said, “There are two days in my calendar: This day and that Day.” May we chase hard this day to receive the fullness of our reward in Christ on that Day.

By / Jan 1

As we welcome another year, our attention naturally turns to the future. We ask questions like, “What will the new year hold?” Or, “What will I accomplish this year?” And even, “What will God do in 2019?” Such future-oriented questions are right and good when marked by humility and dependence upon God. Yet, when the former mercies of God in previous years are forgotten, our confidence in the future grace of God is shaken. So, how can we avoid such forgetfulness in the new year? How can we remain confident in God for the future? I have two suggestions based on Joshua 4, which tells the story of the Israelites crossing over the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

First, we must remember that all future plans and resolutions are dependent upon the Lord and should be submitted to his will.

As the Israelites entered into the Promised Land, the Ark of the Lord’s covenant went before them. The Ark represented the presence of the Lord among His people. As the priests entered the waters of the Jordan River with the Ark, the water was “cut off before the Ark.” The miraculous presence that the people would need in the years ahead was preceding them. This principle reminds the reader of what Solomon teaches us in Psalm 127 regarding how “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

As we enter the new year, whatever our goals and resolutions may be, we must recognize that we are fully dependent upon the Lord to bring them to fruition. The satisfaction of our needs, the fulfillment of our goals, the success of our efforts must be humbly submitted to the will of God, who goes before us in all things. Practically speaking, this means that we must be more concerned with the will of God in our lives.

Moreover, while we might not always know the specific details of God’s will in every situation, we are able to know the principles of His will that should guide our goals and plans in the New Year. As we make resolutions, we must remember that God’s will for us is sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). When we think about the future, whether it be the satisfaction of our needs or the fulfillment of our dreams, growth in holiness should be our priority. Such growth in holiness is completely dependent upon God working in our lives to conform us to the image of his son, Jesus Christ. We do not move on from holiness with each year that passes. Instead, we grow deeper in holiness, just as we have in past by the grace of God.

Second, we must be intentional about remembering the mercy of the Lord in the good times and the bad times.

If you read Joshua 4, you will notice that there are two sets of stones in the story. There are stones taken from the Jordan River to be placed as memorial stones at the place where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land. These stones were taken from the river during the harvest season. We know this because Joshua 3:15 and Joshua 4:17-18 tell us of the overflowing banks of the Jordan during this time. Thus, the memorial stones taken out of the river would be a reminder during the harvest season. Another set of stones, according to Joshua 4:9, were to be placed in the Jordan River. Unlike the stones on the banks of the Jordan, the stones placed in the river would only be visible during the low seasons.

The Lord was giving Israel two reminders of his mercy at different seasons of their time in the land. During the harvest, they would be reminded of God’s abundance. During droughts and famines, they would be reminded of God’s faithfulness. Whatever the season, they could remain confident that God was good and faithful to his people. Similarly, we should also be intentional about remembering the mercy of the Lord. Maybe this year will be the year that alongside your resolutions, you take time to reflect upon and remember the mercy of God in your life.

One of the most practical ways to pursue such remembrance is through journaling. This practice helps us remember God’s work in our lives. As the psalmist tells us, “we must recount the wondrous deeds of the Lord” (Psa. 9). If you are not already journaling but would like to start, I would recommend, if possible, keeping a handwritten record in a nice journal with a nice writing instrument. Take the time to slow down and reflect upon the months, weeks, and days that have passed. If you are inclined to write in your Bible, you can also make notes in the margins as you meditate on God’s Word. Think about how God has sustained you, answered your prayers, given you wisdom, and helped in your times of need. When you are down and discouraged, write those burdens out in a form of petitions to God. Ask him to prove his faithfulness to you in the midst of the crisis and the sorrow.

When the Israelites saw the stones that had been placed in the Jordan River to be seen during the seasons of droughts and famines, there is no doubt that they were living through difficult times. Yet, the stones in the Jordan, much like the words in our journals, can serve to remind us that God is the God of our yesterdays, our todays, and our tomorrows. He will not leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He can be trusted!

In summary, these two simple yet profound principles for the New Year can provide the direction that we need to not only start well but finish well. May the Lord help us all recognize that we are fully dependent upon the LORD for the satisfaction of all of our needs and remember that God is good and faithful in every season of life. If we spend some time this year reflecting upon God’s former mercies, then I believe we will be better prepared and more confident in his future grace.

By / Jan 4

Near the end of his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul includes what may seem to be a mere instruction to a helper: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13, ESV).

But in 1863, the English Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on this verse in which he said,

The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, "Give thyself unto reading." The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men's brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people.

You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master's service. Paul cries, “Bring the books”—join in the cry.

Many of us recognize that reading is a key way to gain wisdom and insight. But it’s not always easy to find the time or motivation to read books. If this is problem you face, consider some of these tips for how you can read more books in 2018.

Set aside 15 minutes: “Most of us don't aspire very high in our reading,” says pastor John Piper, “because we don't feel like there is any hope.” But Piper recommends reading at least 15 minutes per day.

What can be accomplished in that amount of time? Quite a lot, actually. The average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. With 15 minutes a day, you could read 3,750 words. By the end of 2018 (365 days) you would read for 5,475 minutes. Multiply that times 250 words per minute, and you get 1,368,750 words per year.  Most books have between 300 and 400 words per page.

If we take 350 words per page and divide that into 1,368,750 words per year, we get 3,910 pages per year. This means that at 250 words a minute, 15 minutes a day, you could read about 20 average sized books a year. In five years, you could read 100 books; 200 in a decade. All with only 15 minutes per day.

Make a commitment to read for a minimum of 15 minutes every day. No matter how busy our lives may be, we can find a quarter of an hour out of the 24 God has given us to find time to read.

Make a reading list: After you finish a book, you want to have another one ready to start. Make a proposed reading list of the books you want to read. Be sure to include a variety in case you decide that the next book on the list isn’t the next one you want to read. You don’t have to use the list as a rigid schedule, but it will help prevent you from losing days or weeks while you search for new reading material.

Use audiobooks: Yes, audiobooks count as "reading" (don’t let print snobs tell you differently). Audiobooks may not be the best fit for topics you are unfamiliar with or that require close concentration, but they can be a refreshing way to help you “read” more books. They can also help you add more fiction or other imaginative literature to your daily reading.

Have vegetables and dessert: If the only time you read is when you force yourself to “eat your cultural vegetables” (i.e., read books that require serious focus, attention, and thought), you may soon grow tired of reading and give it up altogether. For every “vegetable” book you read, add a “dessert” book to read on the side. Find a genre you enjoy, such as science-fiction, detective novels, or young adult fiction that can keep you entertained. Light reading (as long as it’s not corrosive to the soul) can help keep our minds fit and limber for the heavy-lifting of more serious texts.

Redeem the time: Make a list of all the activities you do every day. Look for areas in which you can trade some time spent on unproductive leisure activity. If you reduced the time spent on watching television or playing video games or browsing social media you’d find you have more time than you thought to develop wisdom and insight by reading more.

By / Jan 1

I was in the middle of a massive crowd at a sold out U2 concert the first time it hit me. The thousands of fans around me collectively stretched out their arms in a posture of worship. Our hearts swelled with emotion. As we sang and praised together, I realized the atmosphere in the amphitheatre felt similar to what I experience during worship on Sunday morning. I looked around at the faces of my fellow concert goers and realized with a gut punch that, in the words of Bono, “[We] still haven’t found what [we’re] looking for.”

Talent isn’t ultimately meant to sell t-shirts. The creative gifts God has placed inside of us were meant for so much more. After that moment, I couldn’t help but see the travesty of talent all around me—gifted thinkers, artists, musicians, writers, and craftsmen who have God-given gifts but, because of the fall, aren’t using them for his glory.

As someone who loves the church with every God-designed cell of my body and who knows that the harvest is ready and the workers are devastatingly few, I can’t help lament the gifts that have been lost to the causes of fame, wealth, and personal achievement. This grief hasn’t primarily motivated me to look at headline grabbers and judge how they use their gifts. Rather, it has led to a near obsession with making sure my own gifts aren’t wasted and to remind others to do the same. As we turn the page on a brand new year, I’m praying that obsession will be a spark that bursts into wildfire.

For the common good

In my role as a women’s ministry leader in my local church, I see the travesty of talent almost daily. The women I lead often don’t know what their gifts are or don’t feel like they’ve been given a permission slip to use them. And so the gifts of teaching, encouragement, hospitality, prayer, prophecy, exhortation . . . go unwrapped. These women aren’t necessarily using their gifts to bend the spotlight toward themselves. They’re simply not using them at all. The gifts meant to equip the Bride for her mission to seek and save the lost become like a forgotten present, left to collect dust under the Christmas tree. The phenomenon isn’t isolated to my church, and it isn’t isolated to women. God’s people have been given remarkable gifts, and far too often, we’ve buried them in the backyard. I feel the loss of it in my bones.

God’s Word is crystal clear: my gifts belong to you. Your gifts belong to me. As the culture increasingly focuses on the idea that our “calling” is to use our talents and abilities to create our own brand, God’s Word speaks a different truth.

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:4-8, emphasis added).

Paul gives us two essential tenets of our theology of gifts in this passage. They’re so simple, we might be tempted to rush past them. As we plan and pray about the year ahead, let’s slow down and listen carefully: We have gifts. We should use them!

We don’t have to wait for the perfect opportunity or to be asked to serve by a member of the pastoral team. As I’ve considered my own role in the body, I’ve started to consistently ask this question: “What gifts do I possess uniquely that the church needs desperately?” As you make prayerful resolutions for 2018, I’d like to invite you to ask the same question and then get busy doing the things that you do best for the good of God’s people.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul gave advice we should all hear with urgency, “Do not neglect the gifts you have” (1 Tim. 4:14). We belong to each other. Paul acknowledged that we are all different in our function but united in our purpose to serve Christ and reminded us that we are “individually members of one another.” This was a drum that Paul beat often.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).

Peter said it this way: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

Your gifts belong to me. My gifts belong to you. We lend our time and talents for the health of the body we are all attached to through Christ. Rather than using my gifts to primarily serve my own needs and pad my personal pet projects, I surrender them for the good of others. It’s a distribution of wealth that works because we’re building something supernatural together.

Treasuring all gifts

As we consider our theology of gifts, it’s worth noting that God has given us “spiritual gifts” but not all of them seem super spiritual. Just ask Bezalel.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you’ (Exo. 31:1-6).

Bezalel wasn’t a pastor. He wasn’t a prophet. He was a craftsman. He worked with his hands, but instead of using his gifts to build a palace for himself, he used them to create a tabernacle so that God’s people had a house for worship. This is a picture of gifts in the body. There aren’t blue collar and white collar gifts here. Just essential gifts to be used to build the church, equip and encourage the saints, and give God glory.

I’m convinced the best of the best in every area of thought, art, industry, and creativity are sitting beside me in the pews on Sunday morning. The travesty happens when those gifts remain unopened, and God’s people have to go without. What are we waiting for, church? Let’s get busy doing the things that we are uniquely gifted to do. Let’s not sacrifice another gift to culture or stand by and let some remain unwrapped. As each of us has gifts (and we do!) let us use them to serve each other.

By / Jan 4

I found it buried in a dusty old box of files, wedged between nondescript folders like “Wells Fargo” and “Car Repairs.”

How did something so precious get stuck here? I wondered.

Eleven pages of single-spaced type, typed on her computer. My grandmother had conquered the basics of the computer in her old age, but that was no surprise. She was a smart, ambitious, classy woman who had survived tuberculosis in the 1940s, breast cancer, a brain tumor and her eldest grandson’s tragic death, among countless other sorrows. Her life had been a hard one, but she had resilience in spades. She was a fighter.

Mama was on her deathbed as I celebrated my wedding in August 2010. Due to the festivities and honeymoon, I’d missed my family’s trip up north to say goodbye to her. I was heavy with regret. And then my mom’s words came, “She doesn’t have long,” and I reached for my phone to call Mama for the last time. I will never forget her weak, labored words, “Are you happy?” She knew my wait had been wearisome, and now on her deathbed she wanted to rejoice with me.

“Are you happy?” This new bride, soaring on the heights of marital bliss, crumpled up on the floor and choked back sobs to tell her how happy I was, how much I loved being married to Eddie. I told her I missed her, wished I could be there, loved her so much. And then she was too weak to talk anymore. I don’t remember either of us saying goodbye. Mama handed the phone to my aunt. I wept. It was her final phone call. Within hours she was gone.

Now, two years later, I held this treasure in my hands: my Mama’s account of her life, told to me in 11 pages. With my son fast asleep, I wasted no time in curling up on the couch to read (and weep) through the precious pages of my grandmother’s story. I was spellbound reading of her early days in Seattle, the friends she lost in World War II, her first job, her first boyfriend. But there were four particular words that made my heart stop and my world spin. She wrote:

My undoing. (Your beginning.)

Those four little words were Mama’s commentary on her marriage to my biological grandfather, Jack. It was a marriage that had unraveled in abandonment and ended in divorce. But the fact that Mama married “the wrong man” way back in the 1940s meant that I would one day exist. And I sat there—at 36 years old, a new wife, an even newer mom—heavy with the gravity of her statement, sobered to hear someone acknowledge that my very existence was wrapped up in their pain and grief.

I spent a majority of my teens and twenties trying to execute perfect decisions, to avoid making any mistakes. My thought process went a little like this:

If I live an exemplary life, I’ll be blessed, respected, and influential.

If I wait faithfully to marry the right man, God will give me an amazing model marriage.

If I serve others and make them happy, all my relationships will be peaceful and life-giving.

People who pursue conceptual holiness and miss pursuing the Holy One—they start smelling strongly of Pharisee. I know, because I once reeked of it. It took me years to realize that ultimately it’s not about me and my perfection. It’s about living a life wholly surrendered to God. It’s about releasing this white-knuckled grip I have on my life’s plans. It’s about returning to the cross and the tomb, to remember where my worth and hope and strength are found.

My life is his, to do with as he pleases.

When Mama came to know Jesus in her twilight years, he rewrote her chapters of divorce and shame and loss. Mysteriously, gloriously, he worked it all together for good. All was covered by his blood, all was finished on the cross. Death gave way to life.

Our brokenness might be big, our scars might run deep, but our God is bigger and deeper still. When all seems lost, God’s plans cannot be frustrated. He thinks and acts on an infinitely perfect scale (while we see only a stone’s throw in front of us).

So, what’s weighing on you in this new year? What have you already been burdened by today? He stepped into it all, came to be with us, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He comes with mercies every morning, and every year.

Let’s take the long view when we look at today’s sorrows or yesterday’s setbacks—for even our greatest undoing, tilled in tears and surrender, may just be the fertile soil where life begins.

Scriptures referenced: Romans 8:28, Isaiah 55:8-9, Job 42:2, Luke 18:27, Psalm 119:56, Luke 1:79.