It’s the End of the Year as We Know It

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Looking Back / Looking Forward”]

JournalOn this last day of 2013, I thought I’d share with you something I’ve been doing for the last few years, which I’ve found extremely helpful. Every year, either right at the end of the year or right at the beginning of the year, I’ll devote some time to looking back at the year that’s been and looking forward to the year that’s coming.

One of the main reasons I think this is a good practice is that it takes us back to the story of God, it reminds us what God is doing, it provides us with an opportunity to see the vista of God’s activity.

[There’s a daily version of this practice, started by Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century Spanish priest. It’s called the Examen prayer, and it’s an exercise of reflecting on the day—usually at the end of the day—for the purpose of seeing God in your day. As part of the prayer, you ask yourself:

  • Where was God at work today and I was able to partner with him?
  • Where was God at work today but I refused to participate—or actively resisted?

It’s a fantastic way of committing every day back to God and, again, a good way of tuning your senses in to the movements and activity and story of God.]

Going back to the yearly-review, I’d say, as you look back:

Do not forget and do not dwell—remember.

Forgetting and dwelling are the two poles when it comes to looking back at the past: forgetting—not keeping in mind what has happened—and dwelling—fixating unhealthily on what has happened.

Everyone has things that happened this year that they’d much rather just not even think about any more:

  • a break-up,
  • losing a parent,
  • a particularly stressful or unpleasant season at work,
  • continuing unemployment,
  • a struggle to make ends meet.

But everyone also has things that happened this year that were absolutely spectacular examples of God in action, and you may have been thankful for a split second and then moved on, and you may have already forgotten:

  • a moment when you did something that scared you but it really blessed someone else;
  • the time you sought to address conflict and disagreement in a healthy manner rather than to run away from it;
  • the random stranger who gave you a hand right when you needed it;
  • the word someone gave you that completely opened your eyes to a particular murky situation;
  • the way God has been working on you to make you a more patient, more gracious, more loving person.

It’s easy to forget things like these and so we often need to remind ourselves not to.

The opposite tendency is to dwell—to focus so much on the past that that becomes what you long to return to or what you’re so caught up in that you lose sight of the opportunities right in front of you:

  • the failures of the last year, like the one that got away, the job interview you blew, the time you messed up royally or let someone down or betrayed someone’s trust; or
  • the victories of the year, like meeting a project goal or starting to date someone—and now you’re just resting on your laurels instead of pushing yourself to continue growing, allowing the Spirit of God to keep refining you, or even worse, you’re thinking that it was all your own hard work that got you where you are.

In Deuteronomy 8, Moses says to the people of Israel:

12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them,  13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied,  14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who [did all these great things for you] … to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.  17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

It’s tragically easy to forget God and where God has been at work this year. It’s equally easy to dwell on certain things that lie behind us and miss what’s right in front of us or what’s right ahead of us. Instead, Moses said to the people:

18remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

So do not forget and do not dwell—remember. Ask yourself:

What is the one thing you want to remember from this year?

Pope FrancisPope Francis said that “the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.” So what was 2013 like for you? What happened? Remember this year. But more importantly, remember the Lord. Remember God’s faithfulness this year. Remember what God did. Remember where he was at work.

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” So, as you live forward:

Do not fear and do not drift—hope.

Fear and drift are the two extremes when it comes to considering the future, the two tendencies when you are faced with the uncertain and the unknown.

It’s almost a natural inclination to fear, to be anxious, to be nervous, to be stressed. And in a certain sense, that’s understandable because—real talk!—you don’t know what’s going to happen this year. Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” You don’t know what a day will bring, let alone a whole year!

You may have some idea, you may have best-laid plans, but you don’t actually know what will happen. Ideas don’t always turn out the way you think and plans often go awry—and maybe that’s what you’re afraid of. You’re afraid that:

  • your relationship or your marriage isn’t going to work out;
  • you or someone you love is going to get sick;
  • your kids are going to turn away from God or from you;
  • parents or grandparents will pass away;
  • you’ll be alone;
  • you won’t pass the bar or find a job or figure out what to do with your life; or
  • you’re going to keep stumbling through life like you have for the last few years.

And yet Jesus says, in John 14, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” He says, “You’re caught up in the wrong things, you’re focusing on the wrong things.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). You’re of more value than the birds, whom your Father feeds; and he clothes the flowers of the field—how much more value have you? “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31-33).

Remember the words of God to Joshua as he was about to enter the Promised Land (1:9):

Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

And then, on the flipside, don’t drift: life was not meant to be a never-ending series of reactions, of being blown to and fro from experience to experience and emotion to emotion, out of our minds and out of control.

A couple years ago, I remember going to the park with Aaron, our lead pastor, and Elijah, his son, and we were talking about life, and I was telling him how everything felt really frenetic, how life was really busy, how I was feeling overwhelmed by trying to put out fires in other people’s lives or trying to please people or trying to experience everything I could as a twenty-something. And Aaron said to me,

You don’t have to let life happen to you.

There are more things over which we have no control than we’d like to admit:

  • whether or not that company hires you,
  • whether or not the other person is interested in you,
  • losing a loved one,
  • impacting the global extreme poverty rate.

But there are actually more things over which we do have control than we think:

  • how you seek to learn and grow and improve as a person that company would want to hire,
  • how you turn your focus instead to becoming the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for would look for (and/or becoming a more joyful single person in the process),
  • how you practice your trust in God,
  • how you choose to respond to and process illness and loss and grief,
  • whether you live life in community or in isolation,
  • how you commit yourself to the work of awareness and advocacy and activism or how you care about justice even if it’s not your fulltime job.

And in these things, these things over which we do have some control, Mother Teresa reminds us, “We are not called to be successful, only to be faithful.”

It is in the nature of the future to be uncertain; and in the face of uncertainty, it is easy to fear and easy to drift. And yet we are called to so much more—so much more is available to those of us who trust in God. In Lamentations 3, the prophet Jeremiah had just seen the destruction of his city and he was in mourning, and yet he said this:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So as you look forward, do not fear and do not drift; instead, hope. John Ortberg writes in his book Faith & Doubt, “Uncertainty is a wonderful reminder of that nagging little detail I often forget, which is that I am not God.” The weight of the world is not on your shoulders; the fate of the universe does not depend solely on your actions; you do not need to—indeed, you cannot—hope in only yourself. Psalm 127 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”

He is the only one capable of not disappointing our hope. The good news that we celebrated just last week, the good news that the birth of Jesus signified, is that our God reigns; that Jesus is Savior, Messiah, and Lord; and that the decisive factor in our world—the Spirit of God—is, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s phrase, “on the move!” So take heart!

C.S. Lewis also said this—and I remember the first time I read this, a couple years ago, when I desperately needed to hear it, where this word was for me a light in the darkness:

There are far, far better things ahead than any you have left behind.

This is the perspective of the person who has hope, of the person whose hope is in God. This is what has sustained Christians throughout the ages. This is how the apostle Paul can say, in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” The Christian life isn’t about sucking it up and putting on a brave face; it’s more than just scraping together whatever remnants of happiness you can find after everyone else has gotten their share.

Life with God is about having a hope and a future, knowing that that hope and that future are safe and secure in the hands of Almighty God, and in that safety and security, being free to live life as it was intended to be lived:

  • without fear or indecisiveness,
  • without paranoia or paralysis, but
  • with passion and gusto and whimsy and excitement and laughter and winsomeness,
  • with friends and family and friends who’ve become family and enemies who’ve become friends,
  • with an open hand and an open heart, putting others before yourself because you aren’t worried about covering your own backside or looking out for number one but giving and serving and loving sacrificially as you seek first the kingdom, trusting that God will provide.

Heather, a dear friend of mine, wrote some thoughts on hope a number of years ago, which she emailed me, and I asked if I could share an excerpt:

… tomorrow awakes with new questions, new challenges, new potential … and again we are faced with the choice to risk in hope or to waste slowly away in degenerative resignation. A choice to be recklessly fully alive or sleep-walkingly-nearly-dead and seemingly safe. We are forced to confront the space in which we hoped last time and were let down—forced, yet again (and despite it all), to choose between courage and cowardice, knowing that we cannot hope partially. For hope requires we launch ourselves recklessly headlong—nothing held back—into the space of uncertainty. And though petrified, something in our soul knows we can do nothing less.

To risk in hope or to waste slowly away in degenerative resignation. To be recklessly fully alive or sleep-walkingly-nearly dead and seemingly safe. To fear and to drift or to hope. What choices will you make for this year? How will you seek God in the coming months?

Ask yourself:

What is your greatest hope for the new year?

Maybe there are some things that God is steering you away from:

  • Unhealthy relationships—commit to a period of abstinence from sex or even dating until you’ve figured a few things out.
  • Unhealthy work habits—learn to practice sabbath and resting, building your life around God and not your accomplishments.
  • An over-reliance on yourself—maybe you need to build the practice of confession into your life because just trying harder hasn’t worked!

Maybe there are some things that God is steering you towards

  • Seek the kingdom first: choose to focus on God rather than your worries and anxieties and fears; choose to love rather than be lazy; choose to forgive rather than to hold a grudge; choose to be grateful rather than to complain; choose to do justly rather than to simply be comfortable.
  • Life in community: learn how to love others, how to deal with conflict, how to be accountable to others, how to walk with others.
  • Boldness in living a life devoted to God, in word and deed. I’ve found that my non-Christian friends respected me more when I was true to who Jesus was calling me to be.
  • Live in love: a number of years ago, I chose 1 Corinthians 13 as my mission statement. I said, “This year, I want to become more patient, more kind, less envious, less boastful, less proud, more honoring of others, less self-seeking, less easily angered. God, will you please do this in my life.” And obviously, that’s an ongoing prayer, but it was pretty transformative to be praying that every day, because it’s all about how you interact with people!

Whatever it is, I’d encourage you to write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it often. Remind yourself. Pray through it every day. Keep inviting God in. And more importantly, keep asking God to open your eyes to see what he sees. 2013 is about to be in the rearview mirror, and “there are far, far better things ahead than any we have left behind.”

Roll on, 2014. Thanks be to God.

Looking through City Hall

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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