How to Trust God

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church (Columbia Heights parish): “How to Trust God (or, How to Live in the Kingdom)”, based on Luke 11:37-12:34.]

Here’s what I think: in any given situation, you have a choice; and that choice is a matter of trust. The choice is whether you will trust God or whether you will trust something else. Every time you choose to trust God, you are demonstrating your citizenship, your residence in the kingdom of God. Every time you choose not to trust God, you are pledging your allegiance to some other kingdom and some other ruler. Most of the time, the choice doesn’t seem as clear as that and it’s hard to know what it looks like to trust God, but I’m convinced that most of the decisions we make can be traced back to this root choice.

Here are some ways we can trust God (more):

1. We trust God by trusting what he sees. 1 Samuel 16:7 says:

The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.

If the Lord looks at the heart, we may want to be working, first, on our hearts and not just on the outward appearance that people look at, and second, on the ways we look at the outward appearance rather than the heart. We live in a culture that glorifies the superficial, that celebrates the artificial, that idolizes physical attractiveness, even while things like character and maturity are undervalued and neglected. We look at the outside; God looks at the heart.

Jesus says, in Luke 12:2-3:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

This word is a challenge to me, a challenge to the way I live my life. Many people in our church just get to see me on Sundays, and hopefully whether I’m preaching or leading worship or just greeting you at the door, they’re left with a good impression. But my prayer is that my whole life is pleasing to God, not just the parts that people see. My prayer is that the way I speak to Carolyn when nobody else is around is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I treat the homeless guy on the corner who’s asking for help is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I browse the internet, when no one else is home, is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I spend every dollar I earn and every moment of every day is pleasing to God, whether anybody is there to see me or not, whether I post it to social media or not, whether I’m praised for it by another person or not.

If we trust God, we’ll trust what he sees—that the inside is far more important than external appearances.

2. We trust God by trusting what he says. Because what we say reflects where we place our trust, and where we place our trust impacts what we say. In Luke 12:6-7, Jesus says:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

You are valuable to God. One of the struggles I know many of you deal with is how to be a Christian in non-Christian, and even anti-Christian, environments—whether that’s at school or at work or even in your own family. This is the challenge that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing, persecuted, their very lives threatened—do we fear God or do we fear people? Do you care more about what your boss thinks or about what God thinks? Do you care more about your significant other’s approval or God’s approval? Are you more afraid of your friends turning their back on you or of you turning your back on God?

Now, please don’t hear me saying that this means you should go all gung-ho and start adding John 3:16 to your work email signature or spouting off religious screeds on social media or running roughshod over your loved ones and what they think.

But what would it look like if you were to accept the truth that God says to you, “I love you, you’re mine,” every morning, every night, every moment?

How would that truth—that the God of the universe loves you, that your heavenly Father has got your back, even when you have no idea what’s going on in your life!—change the way you live your life? How would trusting what God says change what you say and do—at work, at home, in your friendships, in your relationships, on social media?

We trust God by trusting what he says, no matter what anyone else says.

3. We trust God by trusting that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

In one of his greatest challenges, Jesus says, in Luke 12:22-23:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Jesus goes on to say, “God provides for the birds and for the flowers. How much more will he care for you? Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink; your Father knows that you need these things.”

A couple weeks ago, we looked at what Jesus said about prayer, about how prayer begins with our understanding of God as Father, as the one who loves us and cares for us and seeks our good and will give us what we need. I love what Jesus says in 12:32:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Your Father knows what you really need, and he is happy to provide it. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

The antidote to fear and anxiety, to greed and worry, is to trust God, to trust that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

  • It may be healing … or it may be strength for the journey.
  • It may be that relationship … or it may be restoration when your heart is broken.
  • It may be the new job … or it may be a context in which to mature.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said:

God will either give you what you ask, or something far better.

Because that’s the kind of God we serve. Because that’s what God is like.

At the heart of life in the kingdom of God, at the core of the eternal kind of life, at the center of the life Jesus desires for us to live is trust of God. Jesus lived this out in his own life. He loved others unconditionally because he trusted in God’s love for each and every person as created in the image of God. He was never defensive, never judgmental, and yet also never afraid to call out injustice and hypocrisy because he knew what God had said—about himself and about the way the world was meant to be. And he lived with few possessions, traveling among the poor, bouncing from house to house, trusting that God would provide, that his Father would give him whatever he needed to survive. He lived his life surrendered to the kingdom of God, submitted to the will of God, and gave his life on that cross, trusting that by his death he might win us life and trusting that God would vindicate him by raising him up from the dead. And God came through. God always comes through.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, a couple of pastors in California, wrote:

the gospel of the kingdom invites us to trust God in everything. Trust is demonstrated by our willingness to act as though what we claim to believe is true. Some will begin their journey with Christ by getting on their knees, praying a sinner’s prayer, and writing down the date, time and location in a journal. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives. … Others will, by the grace of God, begin living as though they really do trust Jesus and their “decision” will be woven into their new actions and choices. They will simply begin to orient their lives around Jesus.

So where will you place your trust?

Happy Broken Face Anniversary!

Today marks five years since my longest-held dream came true, and my jaw was broken.

When I was twelve, my orthodontist uncle pointed out that I was developing an underbite that would eventually need corrective surgery. And from then on, that was the day I looked forward to — more than moving to the UK for boarding school, more than finishing high school, more than graduating college, even more than getting a girlfriend.

I finally began the process to prepare for the surgery in 2006, when I moved to California for seminary, a process which involved getting braces (for the first time in my life) so that my teeth would be ready for when they would break my jaw, push it back, and then re-set it.

Now, on one level, it was a purely functional, purely physical procedure — the underbite needed correcting and the surgery would do that.

But it was so much more. It was the thing over which I had no control: I couldn’t speed up the process of making my bones stop growing so that I could start the process of breaking them; I couldn’t make the decision as to when I was ready; I couldn’t fix myself.

So it impacted me on a mental, psychological, and emotional level too: if this needed fixing, then there must be something wrong with me, because if there was nothing wrong with me, I wouldn’t need to get it fixed! There were days when I would think that it was my underbite that was holding me back from _______ — maybe it was because of the way I looked that I hadn’t had a girlfriend, for instance.

The day of surgery was my Promised Land. Although I may have been able to tell myself that getting my jaw fixed wouldn’t solve all my problems, I felt that way nevertheless.

Only the Promised Land was a long time coming.

From the time I first learned I’d need surgery to that day five years ago, I waited thirteen years — by the time I had my surgery, I’d been waiting more than half my life.

First pic post-surgery
First pic post-surgery

Over the years, and especially in the ones leading up to the surgery, I wrestled with questions of self-esteem and self-worth, how much my appearance mattered or didn’t matter, realized how superficial I was being and, on many an occasion, didn’t really care how superficial I was being because I knew how I felt — at least, that was the emotional process. During those years, God broke off a lot of clinging detritus from my soul, helped me see myself in a healthier way, grew me in community, surrounded me with people who loved me unconditionally and affirmed me no matter what, pruned me of a lot of the weeds that had grown up over years of letting myself believe the lies I (and others) had told myself.

By the time the surgery happened, it still wasn’t purely functional or physical — there were still hopes and dreams attached to the Promised Land of Post-Surgery; but a lot of the extra baggage that I’d attached to the occasion was no longer there. Most importantly, through the process, God taught me experientially what I’d read in Ben Patterson’s book Waiting:

Who we’re becoming while we wait is far more important than what we think we’re waiting for.

I learned how to cling to God during those years because I had to. I learned how God saw me through the love others showed me. I learned how I saw myself as God revealed the facade of my self-sufficiency to me. And, more than anything else, I learned how much God loved me.

It’s strange looking back and thinking that the greatest challenge of my early life — the thing that I felt looming over my head for more than half of my first 25 years, the chapter that felt never-ending as I lived through it — has been done for five years.

Life hasn’t become easy; I haven’t learned how to overcome every challenge that comes my way; I still have things about myself that I’d like to change — as age catches up with me and my metabolism slows down, I still don’t look or feel the way I want to.

But I’ll never forget the feeling of worthlessness. I’ll never forget the sense of helplessness and my inability to change my situation. I’ll never forget the self-doubt and the God-doubt that plagued me. I’ll never forget that particular crucible.

It helps me as I minister to others who are going through difficult times of self-doubt and God-doubt, or those who are wrestling with self-esteem issues or battling things that they don’t know how to explain; it helps me to love out of the love of God, in the same way that others showed the love of God to me.

I don’t know what you’re going through right now. It may not seem like much to others but it may be the biggest obstacle or challenge or impediment in the world. (As you can see from the picture below, the surgery corrected my jaw alignment by … not very much. And yet it was the biggest, most difficult thing in my life for many years.)

My prayer for you is that, wherever you are, you would know the love of God for you. He knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t. Learning to trust in those times when we don’t feel like we can … that’s where our faith grows the most — though we may not realize it till years later.

X-rays

Soli Deo Gloria.

Leave room for the Holy Spirit

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Leave Room for the Holy Spirit.”]

Meadowkirk Tree at Sunset

“Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”

The first time I heard this phrase, it was in relation to a middle school dance and about not getting too close to the opposite sex, it actually carries a deeper truth than that. Zechariah 4:6 says:

He said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”

Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah and the task before him was the rebuilding of the temple, the restoration of the house of the Lord, and this was both daunting and tremendously important because the temple was seen as the place where heaven and earth met, the place where God dwelled among his people.

The word “holy” (as in “Holy Spirit”) means “set apart,” and it refers to the holiness of God, the otherness of God, the set-apartness of God. But “holy” also refers to the work of the Spirit, which is a setting apart, and so I want to make two points:

  1. The Holy Spirit sets us apart from the world.
  2. The Holy Spirit sets us apart for God.

SET APART FROM THE WORLD

When God spoke to Zerubbabel through Zechariah, he said, “You will accomplish this rebuilding not by might, nor by power.” Might and power were how the world worked in those days: whoever had the largest army, the most chariots and horses, whoever had the greatest wealth or the largest empire, this person was seen as the most powerful.

The people of Israel had been on the wrong side of this kind of power: they were returning to a place that had been demolished by the Babylonians, they were returning from an exile they had been carried into by force. They would have understood from their experience that might and power talks, so to speak, and they may even have begun to think that way too.

It’s a perspective that we see even today: the United States spends more on its defense budget than the closest nine countries (including China, the UK, France, Japan) put together. Might and power is still, in many ways, how the world works.

And yet, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us:

The prophets were the first men in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon force as evil. … The prophets proclaimed that the heart of God is on the side of the weaker. God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the widow and the orphan. The heart of God goes out to the humble, to the vanquished, to those not cared for. (The Prophets, 212)

The Holy Spirit sets us apart from the world, not in the sense that we’re siloed into little Christian enclaves, physically apart from other people, not in the sense that as Christians we’re called to stop hanging out with non-Christians, but in the sense that the Spirit of God sets us apart from the way the world does things.

Jesus said:

The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to become first must be your slave. (Matt. 20:25-27)

We’re called to do things differently.

How does the world do business? In a free market economy, everyone is encouraged to seek the best for themselves and to trust that market forces will keep things in balance. Not so with you: in the perspective of the kingdom of God, everyone matters, and you will be held accountable for how you treated the poorest and most vulnerable—how your business decisions impacted them.

How does the world do romantic relationships? Well, you find the person that’s most compatible with you, you find the person that will be the best for you, and you date as many people as you need to until you get there. (Gross overgeneralization, I know.) Not so with you: in the perspective of the kingdom of God, how we treat each other’s bodies and how we treat each other’s hearts reflect our understanding of what Jesus has done for us, and actually maybe our goal in life is less about finding someone who will make us happy than to allow the Spirit of God to make us holy.

“Might and power” also speaks of our own strength. God says to Zerubbabel, “You will not accomplish this mission in your own strength.” And that’s a message we need to hear too: we have a tendency to think we can accomplish anything—that’s part of the American Dream narrative: “if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, anything is possible. Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever problem you’re trying to deal with, whatever mission stands before you, if you do X enough, you will succeed, you will triumph, you will overcome.”

But God does things differently. The foundation of our faith is that we can’t.

We can’t.

The prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people. We can’t.

God says to Zerubbabel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit. You will complete this rebuilding, you will accomplish this restoration, but it won’t be in the way that the world does it; it will be because of my spirit, because of my presence and involvement with you.” The Spirit sets us apart from the world.

But it’s just not about being different for difference’s sake; it’s about being set apart for something greater. It’s about being SET APART FOR GOD.

In the Old Testament, the understanding of the Spirit of God was that God would send his Spirit on a person at a specific time and for a specific purpose. For instance, when David the shepherd boy was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel, “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13). Any time the Spirit of God came upon a person, it was to accomplish something that would require a lot of help: leading a nation, repelling invaders, prophesying a difficult word. In Isaiah 61, the prophet says:

The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me … to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners …

Think about it: what the Spirit calls Isaiah to do is no walk in the park! But the Spirit of God doesn’t come upon us so that we can live more comfortable lives; the Spirit of God comes upon us so that we can live more God-filled lives.

The Holy Spirit sets people apart for God, and in Zechariah’s time, the Spirit only came upon certain people at certain times. But the prophet Joel, who we learned about back in the fall, looked forward to a time when God would do something even greater, 2:28:

In those days, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

This was the promise of God to his people, that he would not reserve his Spirit, his presence, to a small number of chosen ones, but that he would instead “pour out”—imagine that picture of abundance—his Spirit freely and lavishly to all people in all places, on men and women, on young and old.

But, before all this could happen, something else had to happen: the coming of a man named Jesus.

That passage from Isaiah 61—“the Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me …”—Jesus took that as the manifesto for his ministry, his inaugural address, and he actually did all those things—bringing good news to the poor, setting the prisoners free, giving sight to the blind.

Now, it’s easy for us to think that Jesus did all that because he was God but the gospels tell us that he did it by the Spirit of God. It was the Spirit of God that connected him with his Father; it was the Spirit of God that enabled him to heal sickness and cast out demons and discern what people were thinking; it was the Spirit of God that empowered him to live the best, most pure, most beautiful life anyone’s ever lived; and it was the Spirit of God that gave him the strength to say to his Father, “Not my will but yours be done. Not my strength but yours will accomplish the mission you’ve set before me.”

Before he died, Jesus said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

And when the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, they began to prophesy and to heal people and to proclaim the truth of the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ; they began to love in such a way that the divisions of gender and race and past hurts no longer divided them; the rich shared with the poor; people realized that there was no need to be ashamed any longer, that there was wholeness in honesty, and they confessed their sins to God and to one another and found forgiveness and restoration. The world has never been the same.

Any time the people of God allow the Spirit of God to set them apart from the world and to set them apart for God and his purposes, the world is changed.

In summer 2002, I went to Uganda on my first mission trip with a group from my church. I had just come back to faith, just said to God, “Let’s do things your way.” It was a charismatic church, something I wasn’t used to, but I was learning more and more about this Holy Spirit, and learning that life with God is an adventure. I remember, one day, we were visiting a school, speaking to these students about Jesus, and at the end we asked if anyone needed prayer for anything. Kids formed lines in front of each of us—there were seven of us—waiting to be prayed for. Some wanted to know the wonderful love of Jesus for themselves—we prayed and invited Jesus to make them new; others had physical ailments: colds, chest pains, eye conditions—we prayed and they were healed.

In light of my experience, I wonder why I’m so often afraid to trust in the Holy Spirit, to go out on a limb and talk to a stranger, to ask a sick friend if I can pray for healing, to share how much I love Jesus with those who don’t yet know him. I could say it’s fear of rejection, fear of not knowing what’s going to happen, fear of looking weird. But ultimately, it comes down to control. It comes down to the fact that I have to give up control over the way I want things to be; I have to give up control over my life, over my comfort, over my rights. See, I want to be safe and comfortable; I want the path of least resistance; I would rather not have to face risk and uncertainty and difficulty.

But the word for ‘spirit’ in the Bible—ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek—also means “wind.” The winds in the eastern Mediterranean would seemingly appear from nowhere and cause havoc—think of the storms that we read about in the Bible; they were completely uncontrollable. It’s not for no reason that Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). There is something uncontrollable, unpredictable, about God, about his Spirit, about the life that is available to those of us who commit to following him. How sad that we often settle for predictable, comfortable lives!

God says:

I want so much more for you! I have a challenging and difficult mission for you; it is the work of restoration. And you will not do it with the methods of the world or in your own strength, but by my Spirit.

For you, God might be asking you to listen and obey when the Spirit says, “Get out of your comfort zone,” whether that involves getting to know your neighbors, joining a small group for the first time, committing to learn about your neighborhood and your city, committing to live in such a way that the kingdom of God comes a little bit more through your life. 

God has poured out his Spirit on those of us who want him. He has made available a life more full than we could ever imagine; he has promised to grow in us the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; he has offered to partner with us to forge a new and better and more whole way of building friendships, of being in relationships, of loving our neighbors, of making peace with our enemies, of finding fulfillment in our work, of seeking reconciliation and restoration.

This is the work we are called to, the adventure we are invited into, the story we are being written into, if we allow God to be God and by his Spirit to work in and with and through us. So the invitation this morning is this: be filled with the Holy Spirit, and then live by the Holy Spirit. God gives his Spirit to us in order to partner with us to accomplish his purposes; we have a part to play, and God wants to help us fulfill our role. And all we have to do is ask. That’s it.

And whatever lies before us, whatever mission or challenge or mountain God may bring us to, the word of the Lord says that we will not accomplish it by might nor by power but by the Spirit of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God always knows what you need

The Me I Want to Be[God] always knows just what each person needs.

He had Abraham take a walk, Elijah take a nap, Joshua take a lap, and Adam take the rap.

He gave Moses a forty-year time out, he gave David a harp and a dance, and he gave Paul a pen and a scroll.

He wrestled with Jacob, argued with Job, whispered to Elijah, warned Cain, and comforted Hagar.

He gave Aaron an altar, Miriam a song, Gideon a fleece, Peter a name, and Elisha a mantle.

Jesus was stern with the rich young ruler, tender with the woman caught in adultery, patient with the disciples, blistering with the scribes, gentle with the children, and gracious with the thief on the cross.

God never grows two people the same way. God is a hand-crafter, not a mass-producer.

John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be, 49

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