Writing the Next Chapter

Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!

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It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?

Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.

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I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!

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God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.

My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!

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20/20 Vision, Blind Faith, and Prayer

As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.

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The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.

But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.

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Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.

If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV via http://www.biblegateway.com)

This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here:
https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.

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The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.

Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.

When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.

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As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!

Surprise!

Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party?  Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”.  Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration.  (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)

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Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party?  Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father.  It required several months of planning.  We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends.  We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions.  All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing.  Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up.  We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.

 

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Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident.  The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration.  We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead.  With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan.  It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other.  Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away.  From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other.  The first several minutes were surreal and jarring.  But it was also cathartic.  As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt.  Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.

Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother.  Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event.  As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion.  All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time.  Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.

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What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties.  We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.

But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge.  “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party.  But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans?  When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome.  When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences.  What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing.  God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives.  Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.

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If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness.  And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing.  But we learned so many things that day.  We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way.  We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources.  We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt.  But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.

If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom.  If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life.  Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder.  We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.

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God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time.  He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds.  It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation.  Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.

As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way.  And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.

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