A clean slate. A blank page. A do-over. Another New Year. A new decade! As Oprah says, another chance for us to get it right. What will 2020 hold for us?
We all hope and pray for many of the same things: health, happiness, prosperity, peace, and the list goes on. For those of us who are Baby Boomers, a new year is not as easily taken for granted as it once was. We now think of life in terms of how much time we have left. For some of us, a new year may mean the figuring out retirement (although fewer of us are retiring in the way we once imagined). It may mean a second career, a new hobby, or it may bring the beginning of Social Security and Medicare. There may be the lurking fears of declining health and finances. But a new year also brings a new chance to live our lives with purpose and meaning; a chance to do life intentionally.
As a Christian, I believe that God has a plan for my life. Since I am still alive on this dawn of another year, He must still have a purpose for me here on earth. The way to live this year to the fullest is to seek His purpose for me and begin to live it. There is nothing that changes your life more than the discovery of your purpose.
While we may have an over-arching purpose that spans our entire lives, we also have specific purposes at different points in time. What is my purpose now, in my senior years? I want to be all that I am capable of becoming; all that God has planned for me. A friend of mine says the tears that God will wipe from our eyes are the tears we shed as we enter Heaven and see the life He had planned for us that we failed to live.
Whatever wrong turns I have made on this journey, I am confident that He has used them to make me the woman I am. He is still the God of second chances; his purposes toward me are always redemptive. Lord, help me to treasure and not squander the New Year you have put before me.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NIV).
No, dear brothers, I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us. Philippians 3:13-14 (TLB).
We got our Christmas decorations put away over the weekend, and when I say we it was really ninety percent Jerry. I always hate it when it’s time to take down the Christmas decorations. It makes me a little sad. For one thing it’s a lot of backbreaking work. We have to get all the Christmas things put away and back into the attic. Then I have to find all the things that are usually out and remember where they go. I’m still missing a few things but I guess they will turn up. If they don’t then I don’t need them. But those reasons are not really why taking down Christmas makes me sad. You see I really love the Christmas season. I love the celebrations, the music, and the anticipation. And people are just nicer. I guess what really makes me sad is that Christmas is over.
I think the things I enjoy most are the lights. One of my favorite things to do is to have my morning coffee with the tree lights on and a fire in the fireplace. But it’s not just our own lights; I like the lights in our neighborhood and the lights around town.
The best lights of all are the lights from the candles at our church Christmas Eve service. What a beautiful picture of Jesus, the Light of the World, coming into a dark world. It gives me hope. During the Christmas season I can push that dark world back a bit. But when the decorations are packed away, reality comes back. Sunday morning we awoke to the terrible news of an attack at a Hanukkah celebration and then later a shooting at a church. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best:
And in despair I bowed my head There is no peace on earth I said For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men
So my prayer is that the Lord will help me keep Christmas in my heart. Joy to the World shouldn’t be just for a few weeks of the year. The Lord has come! He is with us. Yes, the world is still dark, but He has overcome the world. A few years ago I came across this work by Howard Thurman that beautifully express keeping Christmas:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
When she was a little younger, our daughter ran marathons. She still runs for fun, but doesn’t do the rigorous training any more that a marathon requires. Before she started running I had realized what a fun spectator sport a marathon is. We would go with her to her races to be her cheering squad. We would map out her route and pick strategic spots to wait for her in order to cheer and encourage her. Marathons are fun! There are crowds all along the route, cheering, ringing cowbells, and playing music, even if they don’t personally know the runners. We would see her at the starting line and then drive ahead in our car, or in big cities, take the train in order to arrive at locations ahead of her. Sometimes she would ask us to be at certain spots where she knew she might need an extra bit of support, maybe a particularly difficult segment of the route. And of course we wanted to be at the finish line, to witness her crossing the finish line and to hear her name announced. To see her receive here medal. Proud parent moments.
There are multiple verses in the Bible that compare living our lives to running a race. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to run with endurance the race that is set before us. We each have our own race to run. Parts of it may be relatively smooth, even joyous, while other parts are tough, like running uphill with a strong wind against us. Sometimes it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
I was thinking about these things this morning as we prepare to celebrate the life of a friend who has crossed his finish line. If I use the marathon analogy to think of our friend Don, he could be compared to those special runners called elite runners. They are different from the other runners; they are world-class athletes. And they live their lives differently, spending hours training and recovering, and eating healthy foods. They are committed, keeping at it even when they don’t feel like it. They are dedicated to running well. My friend lived his life differently too, spending hours studying and teaching and living the Bible. He was committed to his Lord. He ran his race well.
As I have been thinking about these things, I have been wondering again what the death process is like. I suppose people have thought about that since the beginning of time. What is it like to cross over from this life into the next? For those of us who are Believers, we know that when we leave this body we go into the presence of he Lord (I Cor. 5:1-8). But how does this happen, what does it look like? In my mind, death is like the last leg of a marathon. The spectators are the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews. They are cheering us across the finish line. In my imagination, those who are waiting close to the finish line are our loved ones who have gone before us, cheering us home. And at the end stands Jesus. Instead of receiving a medal, I want to hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” No doubt, my friend Don heard those very words. Today as we celebrate a life well lived, there is a celebration in Heaven also. A saint has crossed the finished line and arrived at home.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15
It is the Monday morning after Easter. I hope you all had a glorious Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection of our Lord. I hope you had the opportunity to attend a church service. Our church was overflowing at each service, and I suppose your church was full also. Maybe the music was glorious, and moved you as you thought about the amazing sacrifice our Lord made for our sins. Maybe you got together with family and friends, everyone decked out in Easter finery. I imagine there was good food, flowers, and children with Easter baskets, looking for eggs.
But today is Monday. Most of us had to get up and go back to our normal routines. Maybe it’s another Monday of fighting traffic and getting into the Monday morning work grind. If you are a student, it is probably back to school, with finals looming around the corner. Maybe you are a stay-at-home mom with a busy day ahead. The dishwasher and the washing machine are running, you are picking up Easter grass and candy wrappers, and mentally making a grocery list. Easter is in the books for another year. What does it have to do with my Monday?
I was eighteen when I received Christ as my Savior. I knew I was a sinner, and I was grateful, so grateful, that through His death I could be forgiven. I believed that I would go to Heaven when I died. And that was it. I compartmentalized that event and got on with my life. It was about five years later when Jesus began to woo me into a Bible-teaching church. It was there that I began to realize the claim that Jesus had on my life…my entire life, not just my Easter Sunday life. And I also learned the rest of the story. Christ didn’t just save me and leave me to navigate this life on my own. There are so many benefits to Easter in addition to salvation that I’m sure I will only scratch the surface naming them. But even if salvation was the only gift, that would be amazing, incredible, and so much more than I deserve!
The first benefit that comes to mind is the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we receive Christ, His Spirit comes to dwell in us. Think of it…the third person of the Trinity living in me! I talk to Him all day long. And He talks to me though I don’t always listen, and sadly, do not always obey. He guides my steps, He comforts me, and He interprets God’s word to me. He leads me in my daily decisions. If I need to buy a new air conditioner, He has ideas about that. If I am worried about my children, He reminds me that there is One who cares about them even more than I do. When I am concerned about the future, He assures me that He is in control.
Access to the throne of God. He hears my prayers. Because of Christ’s death I have been reconciled to God. We are no loner enemies. And because that temple veil was torn from top to bottom, I can go straight to Him in prayer. At any time, on any day. I do not need a human mediator because I have a High Priest who sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for me. I have the amazing privilege of prayer, and I confess that I am not very diligent about it. It is very hard for me to sit for an hour (or even a half hour) and pray. But I am really good at carrying on a continual conversation with the Lord. We talk all day long.
Death is not final. I have the peace of knowing that when my appointment with death comes, I will slip from this life into the next. And I will be reunited with family and friends who have passed before. How I look forward to that! Sometimes I ask God to deliver a message from me to them. I’m not sure that is scriptural, but I do it anyway.
The church. I have fellowship with other believers. There is nothing like the body of Christ! Not only can you share spiritual things, what God is doing in your life, and prayer concerns, but also your church family cares about your practical needs and will rally around you in days of trouble, sorrow, or joy. Church ladies excel at casseroles and pies!
There are many more benefits, but I just want to name one more big one: The Bible. What would I do without the Word? It is full of God’s promises, it comforts me, and it is “a lamp unto my feet.” The Bible is the main way God speaks to me. It is the story of redemption, for Genesis to Revelation. And even though I’ve read it many times, it is always new! I will never completely plumb the depths of God’s Word.
So today, as you are putting away the things of Easter, the dinnerware, the clothes, the baskets and bunnies, I hope you will put on all that Christ offers you because of Easter. As you go about your workday, on your commute to work or school, as you face the trials of this world, I hope you realize there is One who wants to be a part of every facet of your life. I hope you can celebrate Easter 365 days a year. He is risen. Hallelujah.
I saw something on Facebook the other day that caught my attention. It was a challenge to select a person you know, and starting January 1, to pray for their happiness every day for a month. Sounds like a good idea. I knew immediately who I would choose. This person has been through a season of sorrow and she could do with some happiness about now. And just as quickly, I had another thought. This one had to be from the Holy Spirit because I could not have come up with this on my own, at least not as quickly. “Instead of praying for her happiness, pray for her holiness.” Of course! That is a much better prayer.
God is not as concerned with our happiness as He is with our holiness. If you look at a Bible concordance you will find that the word “holy” is used 650 times in The New American Standard Bible. I did a quick search and found that “happy’ is used a mere16 times, and the word “happiness” is used only four! Clearly God is emphasizing holiness.
Now there is nothing wrong with happiness, and I suppose happiness can be defined in many different ways. I know I am happy when I am surrounded by my family, and as a mom, I am happy when they are happy. For some people happiness may lie in material possessions: money in the bank, a big house, a fancy car….you can fill in the blank here. Again there is nothing wrong with nice things, but I see many people in my psychology practice who have all of those things but they are not happy.
For many of us happiness lies in “if only” and the “as soon as.” If only I had my health I could be happy. I will be happy as soon as I get that job, find someone to love, graduate and get that degree, lose twenty pounds, and so on. If only I had more money, a new car, or no mortgage. We wish our lives away waiting for that thing, person, or situation that will make us happy. Or we spend our lives looking in the rear view mirror, regretting our choices and blaming our unhappiness on the decisions we made. I am not saying that is wrong because most of us have regrets. And we are all only one bad decision away from messing up our lives and throwing happiness away. But defining your happiness or lack thereof on the things we should have done or wish we hadn’t done is a waste. If only things were different we could be happy. I’m thinking of two widows I know who miss their husbands every day of their lives. One has chosen to find joy and purpose, the other cannot find good in anything and is just waiting to die.
Where is God when I am unhappy? When I grieve, when I hurt? Doesn’t He care about my needs? I believe He does, but I also believe His primary concern is for my spiritual needs. God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus standing before me to hear my wish list. Instead, I stand before Him, aware of my utter neediness and spiritual poverty. Without Christ and the salvation He brings, I have nothing but a death sentence hanging over my head. Jesus came to bring me right standing with God and everlasting life. So even if I had nothing more than that (and that is a lot!), I should be happy. Jesus said He offers abundant life, so shouldn’t that abundance include happiness?
If God cares so much about us, why do we go through seasons of anguish? Try to get a mental picture of what is making you unhappy, sad, and stricken with grief. An unhappy marriage, estrangement from a loved one, a financial loss, bad news from the doctor…whatever it is. Now picture that thing as a giant anvil and imagine God has placed you upon it and is chiseling away everything that does not look like Jesus. That is holiness in the making!
Are happiness and holiness mutually exclusive? In the 1600s a man named Thomas Brookswrote at length about the connection between happiness and holiness. He claimed that happiness and holiness were one in the same. That the only way to true happiness is throughholiness. Matthew Henry later wrote that only those who are truly holy can be truly happy. When I started thinking about these things, I recalled stories about those who have been imprisoned and martyred for their faith. The apostle Paul and Corrie and Betsy ten Boom come to mind. Every December I do advent readings, and those usually include letters Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison. In a letter to his beloved Maria he wrote: “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas.” How could he say that from a prison cell? He knew the happiness of celebrating Christmas with empty hands but a full heart.
Every year at this time I look for a verse or a word to claim for the New Year. I think my word will be holiness because God keeps brining it to my attention. I’m guessing I will go through another refining period. And as I think of all holiness means I realize I have much to learn. I’ll keep you posted.
Last night I did something different, something I have needed to do for a long time. Together with some of my friends I began a three-week class called “What Do I Do Now?” It’s a class that not only gives you a great deal of information about what to do when a loved one dies, it helps you organize everything you need and get it into one place.
I promised myself four years ago that I would get things together because that was when Jerry suddenly became very ill and was unable to communicate. In addition to being gravely worried about him, there were things I needed to take care of. Life doesn’t stop when someone becomes very ill or dies. There was information I needed from him about bank accounts, passwords, and ongoing business transactions. I needed to access the contents of his briefcase but I didn’t know the combination. With the help of my daughters I muddled along and happily, Jerry recovered. I wish I could tell you I followed through on my resolution, but once the crisis was past so was the urgency to get things done. This year we have been more intentional and have made inroads, but there is still much to be accomplished. So when this class became available I enrolled.
I have to tell you the first night was overwhelming. I am surprised at my reaction, because I wanted to bolt! The facilitator told us at the beginning of her lesson that last night would be the hardest. “What could be so hard,” I wondered. I’m still asking myself that question this morning. Why was my reaction so strong? This is just taking care of details.
I think it’s a combination of facing my own mortality, revisiting the possibility that I might lose my husband, all the decisions that will have to be made about what to do with my physical remains, my earthly possessions, and even my dogs. Things I guess I am still not wanting to think about. But the harsh reality is that one day Jerry and I will die. “Pass away” sounds so much nicer, but that’s just semantics. We will leave this earth behind and enter into the presence of Jesus. That’s the good news. The bad news is there will be hard things to do in the aftermath. If I go first I want to make things easier for Jerry and my girls, so it will be helpful to have things done in advance. And if he goes first I want to make things easier for me, so having everything in one notebook will help.
This year I am doing a Bible study of the book of Daniel. Instead of approaching the book from a prophetic standpoint, our study is focusing on the sovereignty of God. “God is in control,’ is our overarching theme. So in my lesson this morning I was challenged to consider areas of my life that make me anxious, and write a Bible truth that corresponds to the situation. I didn’t have to think too long. My notebook from last night was sitting on my desk in plain view. The verse I wrote is one of my favorites, Isaiah 41:10:
I might need to tattoo that verse on my right hand. (Don’t worry kids, I won’t!) God’s promise brings my anxiety level way down. It is wise to be prepared, but ultimately God is in control. He knows the road ahead of me, and He will walk it with me.
This is one of my favorite times of the year to look at social media. Facebook and Instagram are loaded with back to school pictures…from first day at preschool to first day of college. There have even been some leaving-home-for-first-job pictures. Keep them coming! These pictures are always bittersweet. I especially love the pictures that show the goodbye hugs, the tears, and the looks on faces of both parent and child. There have even been some blog posts about the struggle of letting go, trusting God with your child no matter what age they are. We keep having to put our babies back in the basket and float them into the future God has for them.
I’ve been thinking about this letting go thing for some time now, and it is a continual theme in my office. I’ve decided that life is a succession of losses, one letting go after another. And oh how we hate that letting go. It’s been many years since I have read Judith Viorst’s book, Letting Go. I’m remembering the central tenant of the book is that life presents us with a series of losses that are necessary to our growth and development. These losses include the loss of a mother’s protection, the losses of impossible expectations for our lives, the loss of our younger selves (OUCH!), and the loss of loved ones through separation or death. Trying to hold on is futile, but we still hang on, sometimes desperately.
I’ve been trying to think of an analogy that demonstrates the struggle involved in letting go. Try to picture your seven-year old self with both fists full of coins. You have been collecting and saving those coins, maybe for something special. These coins are yours, and you finally have enough to fill both of your tightly clenched hands. Now suppose a stranger comes along and offers you two handfuls of diamonds. But in order to receive these diamonds you have to let go of your coins. Maybe as a seven-year old, you don’t realize the value of diamonds. And you are very suspicious of this stranger. He might not have your best interest at heart. So you refuse the offer and keep your coins. But you have done so at the expense of great treasure.
At the heart of letting go is loss of control. We think if we hold on we can protect and keep. But control is just an illusion. We only have control over our choices, not the outcome. We can exercise, eat the right foods, have regular checkups, and faithfully brush our teeth, but cancer may get us anyway. As for letting go of our children, that was the whole goal from the beginning. You do your best as a parent. You provide them with all the basics and many of the luxuries. You try your best to teach them to be kind and respectful, to be contributing members of society, and to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. But the window of time for this training is brief. When you look at eighteen years in the rear view mirror, it seems like it went by so fast. And it goes by even faster with grandchildren! We have to remind ourselves over and over that those children we poured ourselves into were never ours to begin with. They belong to God and were on loan to us for a short time. We also must remember that God loves them even more than we do. I remember a long-ago conversation with God when I heard Him say, “How can I be God in her life if you keep trying to be God?” Moms and dads, here is a little secret: The empty nest is also wonderful. Seeing your baby hold her baby is priceless! Watching your son teach his son how to hit a baseball is special! You wouldn’t want to miss out on that. Growing old with the man you have loved for a lifetime is a hard-to-put-into-words blessing. We need to understand that there are different kinds of good. Holding on to what is already gone keeps us stuck, and it keeps us from enjoying our new chapters, new seasons. You will get through this, and a year from now things may look entirely different (see photos above and below.)
There are daily losses I must reckon with, and more losses to come. A look in the mirror is a reminder. I now know from experience that every loss comes with a gain, a hidden gift. But oh how I hate losing firm skin! Even the worst of losses, the death of a loved one or our own death, is a necessary loss. We try to hold on to people, positions, possessions, and even our own lives, but these are things that keep us earthbound. I need to open my hands and let go of the coins because diamonds await!
To everything there is a season…a time to get and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away. Ecc. 3: 6.
I have to give my sister credit for this one. We were talking on the phone a few mornings ago. She is in New York visiting her daughter, my niece, Jacque. Apparently the part of New York where my niece lives (Long Island) produces hydrangeas in abundance. I can’t even get mine to bloom! My sister told me that Jacque went into the yard one afternoon to cut some hydrangea blossoms, and brought them into the house and put them in a vase of water. They quickly drooped, and by the next morning they were gone. That is when my sister gave Jacque a tip our grandmother had given us. She always cut her roses in the morning and quickly put them in the bucket of water she carried. Jacque followed this procedure the next morning and the hydrangeas lasted for days.
I became curious about why this technique works so well. I’m so glad I live in the Google age, because one can research anything. And I can’t pick up the phone and call my grandmother anymore. It seems that early morning is the best time to cut flowers because they have had the benefit of a cooler night and their stems are full of water and carbohydrates. As the day heats up, flowers lose moisture, their stems are less firm, and the blooms become limp. They have a hard time recuperating when they are cut and brought into the house.
So as my sister and I were talking about our grandmother’s advice, she pointed out the parallel of having a quiet time early in the morning, before the day heats up. I know my day goes better when I start it with the Bible and a conversation with God. And many times, if I don’t do it in the morning it just doesn’t happen. There are too many distractions during the day. I am reminded of the last part of Proverbs 8:17: those who seek me early shall find me. There are other places in Scripture that encourage us to be still and alone with God before our day gets hectic.
I knew there had to be a physiological reason why God would tell us to seek Him early. So again I did a little research on one of my favorite subjects, the brain. I found out that our brains are actually bigger in the morning! Researchers using MRI scans found that the brain shrinks during the course of the day, returning to its full size the next morning. What causes the brain to shrink? Dehydration! Just like hydrangeas, the brain loses water during the day. And at night our brains rehydrate. Think of a sponge. When it is dry it is not nearly as big (or useful) as it is when it is fully hydrated. One theory of this mechanism is that fluids from the lower parts of our bodies are redistributed when we are lying down. Another explanation is that the time of day has something to do with hydration.
Our brains are about 85% water, and brain function depends on having that water. Water is necessary for the brain’s production of hormones and neurotransmitters, and essential for removing toxins. When our brains are fully hydrated, we are able to think faster, be more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity. We are more alert. And who knows this better than the God who created our brains. Maybe that is why he encourages us to seek Him early, when we can concentrate, when we can fully attend His word, when we can hear Him.
Isn’t our God amazing?
“My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up”– Psalms 5:3