CARPE DIEM – THE NEW YEAR

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

Hibiscus trionum - Flower-of-an-Hour
Several years ago, a young woman with Parkinson’s told me, “Every day I wake up, I realize that I’m the best I ever will be and it’s only downhill from here.” Rather than complaining, she was explaining how that knowledge made her determined to seize and delight in each day. Unlike her, I’m not suffering from a degenerative disease (other than age); nevertheless, her words continue to haunt me. No matter how healthy or happy we may (or may not) be today, we have no guarantee that tomorrow will be any better. Life is precarious and our tomorrows are uncertain. Yet, we so often squander the hours and days we’re given.

We regularly called a friend whose remaining time was counted in weeks. Having exhausted all treatment options, he was painfully aware of being on a steep downhill run. Like the woman with Parkinson’s, however, he refused to let that knowledge steal his joy in the present. In fact, his awareness of life’s fragility seemed to give him more appreciation of every moment with which God blessed him. Thankful for every morning he saw, he was determined to make that day his best one by rejoicing in its simplest gifts. Of course, being a man of faith, he knew that death does not have the final word and had no fear of what lay ahead of him. Nevertheless, until that time came (as it did last week), he continued to seize the day with all the joy and gusto he could muster.

A new year is fast approaching and, as I started making plans for 2023, I thought about the uncertainty of our tomorrows, not just for my friend, but for all of us. Why do we waste a single breath with anger, regret, resentment, or complaint? Why do we fritter away even five seconds in self-pity or worry when they should be spent in thankfulness and joy? Why do we see the day’s imperfections with twenty/twenty vision when we’re blind to the day’s blessings? The old saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is only partially true. We all have expiration dates and today well could be the last day of our lives here on earth. Shouldn’t we make it the best one we’ll have?

Perhaps we can learn from the Hibiscus trionum. Called “Flower-of-an-Hour,” each flower blooms during a single sunny day and remains open only a few hours. Nevertheless, the flower makes the most of its brief time by turning to the sun, getting pollinated, providing pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies, and sharing its leaves with caterpillars and rabbits. Why don’t we make the most of our time in the sun? It shouldn’t take cancer or Parkinson’s to make us realize that today is the best day of our lives! It is the day the Lord has made—the precious day the Lord has given us in this precarious world—and we should rejoice in each and every moment of it!

Father, forgive us when we fail to make the most of the days with which you have generously blessed us. Help us to seize today with joy and thanksgiving and be glad in it. No matter what the future may bring, may each day be our best one ever!

The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today. [Harriet Beecher Stowe]

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is. [Psalm 39:4 (NLT)]

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PEACE ON EARTH

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. [Isaiah 9:6-7a (NLT)]

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” [Luke 2:13-14 (NLT)]


Isaiah prophesied a Prince of Peace, the angels proclaimed peace on earth to the shepherds, and Jesus promised us His peace but one glance at the news tells us that peace certainly doesn’t reign in our world today. We have wars, injustice, prejudice, intolerance, hate-filled speech, anger, abuse, violence, greed, and indifference.

In a world filled with conflict, it looks like God reneged on His promise of peace. It wasn’t God, however, who failed us—we are the ones who failed Him. Far too often God’s gift of peace is like a book we’re given but never take the time to read or a gift card we lose when tossing out the wrapping paper. While peace is His gift, we are the ones who have to implement it. Unfortunately, all too often, we allow fear, pride, bigotry, bias, arrogance, resentment, apathy, exasperation and wrath to shove peace right out of our hearts and lives.

Inner peace hinges on having a relationship with God. The angels brought their message of peace to the world because Jesus’ presence enables mankind to have peace if we are in relationship with Him. Inner peace, however, is not enough. For peace on earth, we must have peace with others and therein lays the problem. Our egos just can’t seem to accept the humility, selflessness, and devotion required to love the unlovable, touch the untouchable, turn the other cheek, treat our neighbors as ourselves, pray for our enemies, forgive, or have compassion on those in need (especially if they don’t look, talk, or act like us). As a result, true peace escapes us. If there ever is to be peace on earth, it must begin with us!

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the gift of peace that came wrapped as a baby in Bethlehem. Forgive us for the way we’ve ignored this precious gift. Help us resolve the differences in our homes and families, community, nation, and world by bringing a portion of your peace to everyone we encounter. As we become your peace makers, may there be peace on earth.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. [St. Francis of Assisi]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NLT)]

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SELFIES

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. [1 Peter 3:8 (NIV)]

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. [Romans 12:15 (NIV)]


I watched as the couple extended their selfie stick and posed. Focusing only on themselves, they were oblivious to others on the beach and the beautiful sunset behind them. In love and on vacation, for the moment the world revolved around them and nothing else mattered.

It’s not just when we’re in love that we think the world revolves around us. When encountering difficulties, we frequently get out an emotional selfie stick. Focusing on ourselves and our particular situation, we often end up throwing ourselves a pity party while whining things like, “Poor me…my life is so difficult…I hurt…it’s unfair…no one understands my situation…I’m miserable…nobody cares!” Fixated on what we’re feeling, we can’t see God let alone anyone else!

On the other hand, if we put aside the selfie stick and turn the camera around, we can move beyond our limited self-awareness and interest. By zooming out or using the panoramic setting, we get an entirely different perspective. When our view widens, we begin to see people with problems of their own, and, in many cases, those problems are far worse than ours. With better perspective, we cease being the center of the universe and our difficulties cease being the center of our lives.

According to NASA astronauts, seeing the earth from space causes a profound change in their awareness. When astronaut Ron Garan viewed his home planet from space, he was in awe of its overwhelming beauty. By viewing the earth without borders, he also was struck both by the oneness of the world and by the inequity existing on it. He felt a deep sense of sadness as he thought of the billions of people on earth who suffer from things like hunger, lack of clean water, social injustice, conflicts, and poverty.

We don’t need to be astronauts to step back far enough to realize how many people suffer and suffer far more than do we on even our worst days. The pain and problems in our lives are just a small part of the interconnected and continually evolving drama of life in this world. We are but one of more than 7.8 billion people on earth and only one of the nearly 335 million people in our nation. Those numbers are humbling—and a gentle reminder that life does not revolve around us!

Oddly, when we recognize the pain of others, our pain is lessened, not because they might hurt more than we do but because we become united with them in our anguish. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, widening our perspective allows empathy and compassion to emerge. No longer alone in our suffering, we become connected with others in this flawed and troubled world of ours. No longer isolated in our distress, we move from focusing on the “me” to caring about the “we.”

Father, open our eyes to you and to the world around us. Broaden our view so that we see the purpose in pain, the lesson in loss, and the meaning in misery. Give us compassionate hearts and peace filled souls. If we are to cry, let our tears be for others and, if we are to mourn, let our mourning be for all who grieve. Please strengthen and comfort us so that we can strengthen and comfort others.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. [Viktor Frankl]

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. [2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NIV)]

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SHOUT WITH JOY

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy. Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. [Psalm 100:1-3 (NLT)]

water lily
For those who wondered—I weathered Hurricane Ian with nothing more than minor inconveniences and some yard work. Sadly, most of Southwest Florida was not so fortunate. Frankly, it’s even worse here than the photos you’ve seen and the stories you’ve heard. The death toll is rising, rivers still are flooding, more damage is being revealed, the loss is astounding, people’s lives are shattered, nerves are frayed, and medical staff, first responders, repair crews, and volunteers are exhausted. Sunday morning, in spite of the day’s sunshine, things looked dark.

Even though my church meets outside at a beachfront park, like many other churches, we lost our place of worship. Park facilities were destroyed, the beach was decimated, and the area is closed because of hazardous conditions. In a return to Covid days, our Sunday service was online.

Early Sunday morning, however, I read Psalm 100. Perhaps because there is nothing somber or vengeful in this psalm, it is one of my favorites. Chanted by Jews on their way to the Temple thousands of years ago, this call to know and worship God is a perfect psalm for Sunday mornings. After reading its words to shout with joy, worship with gladness, and come into God’s presence, I felt a desperate need to worship with others. Wanting to make a loud and joyful noise to the Lord, we skipped the online service and came into His presence at a nearby church.

As the organist began with J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, I knew we made the right decision. When the trumpet joined the organ in this beautiful composition, tears of joy filled my eyes even though my heart cried for the hundreds of thousands affected by this horrific storm. Bach’s familiar melody reminded me that we have a God who loved us so much that He gave us His only son to die for us so that we could be saved—not from hurricanes, ruined homes, and flood waters, but from sin and death.

His Name is Wonderful was the first hymn we sang and, with its words, “His Name is Wonderful; His Name is Counselor; His Name The Mighty God, Jesus my Lord,” we accepted Psalm 100’s call to worship with gladness. Our joyful noise continued as we acknowledged the goodness of our God with the familiar words of How Great Thou Art: ”Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: How great thou art! How great thou art!” We offered thanksgiving as we shared His body and blood during Communion. We acknowledged His magnificence, unfailing love, and faithfulness when we closed the service with the hymn Majesty singing, “So exalt, lift up on high, the name of Jesus. Magnify, come glorify Christ Jesus the King. Majesty, worship His majesty. Jesus who died, now glorified, King of all kings!” My heart was lighter and the day much brighter after entering His gates with thanksgiving!

Curious about the inspiring music that opened the service, I learned that the composition we know as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a chorale in a much larger work called Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). Bach took the text for this song from two stanzas of a hymn by Martin Janus called Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne (Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss). It was only when Dame Myra Hess transcribed this portion of the cantata for solo piano in 1926, that we came to know this beautiful melody as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. You might find a hymn by the same name in your church’s hymnal. It’s words, however, were written by Robert Bridges who, rather than translating the original nineteen-stanza hymn, wrote a much shorter version.

I’m closing today with a translation of the two stanzas Bach chose to include in his awe-inspiring music. Indeed, even if we’re sick or sad, homeless or heart-broken, despairing or discouraged, frustrated or frightened, drained or disheartened, bewildered or broken—even then, we are blessed because we have Jesus! No matter the circumstances, may we always enter His gates with thanksgiving and His court with praise!

Blest am I, that I have Jesus! O how tightly I cling to Him,
So that He delights my heart when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me and gives Himself to me as my own;
Ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus, even if my heart is breaking.

Jesus shall remain my joy, my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow. He is the strength of my life,
The delight and sun of my eyes, the treasure and wonder of my soul;
Therefore I will not let Jesus go out of my heart and sight.
[Martin Janus (1661)]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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WHAT IF?

What if the Lord had not been on our side? Let all Israel repeat: What if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us? [Psalm 124:1-2 (NLT)]

mottled ducks
My husband and I, our three children, their spouses, and the five grands recently spent a week together in Idaho and every minute of it was amazing and wonderful. During a quiet moment, I looked down at my wedding ring and asked myself, “What if?” What if an odd set of circumstances hadn’t occurred in October of 1966 and I hadn’t met the man who is my husband? What if his original date hadn’t gotten ill and what if my sorority sisters hadn’t insisted on fixing me up with him? I really didn’t want to go; what if I’d refused? What if he hadn’t relentlessly pursued me or called that one lonely night and asked me to go for ice cream? If a variety of events hadn’t come together in just the way they did, I wouldn’t have met him, let alone married him, and those children and grands wouldn’t have entered my life. What if we hadn’t somewhat foolishly (and hastily) gotten married while we both were in school? My father died only a few months after our wedding and, had I not been married, I would have been completely on my own at the unwise age of twenty. But, in God’s perfect plan, I wasn’t alone; He’d already given me a new family in my husband and his parents.

“Whew, that was close!” Surely, you’ve had times like that—occasions when you’re sure God’s hand delivered you—the split second that kept you from being a traffic fatality, the chance encounter that led you to the solution for which you’d been searching, being one of the 5% who beat the prognosis, or the time your toddler’s close encounter with a car was only that—close. “What if…?” we ask ourselves. What if He hadn’t protected me from my enemies? What if God hadn’t stopped me when He did? What if He hadn’t saved me from myself? I’m not much for looking back and regretfully asking “What if?” but, when asking it reinforces our confidence in God’s deliverance, it’s a good question to ask.

Think of the times you’ve been in the right place at exactly the right time and the times you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, the times everything miraculously fell into place, and the times you escaped trouble and tragedy by a fraction of an inch! That wasn’t due to happenstance, good luck, or even our own skill. Give credit where credit is due—that was God’s hand touching our lives.

In Psalm 124, David asked the people of Israel to consider what might have happened if the Lord had not been on their side. After reviewing God’s past deliverance, he declared his confidence in God’s future faithfulness. When I ask “What if?” I see a God who loves me and is committed to my welfare—a God who has been right beside me even when I didn’t know it—a God who put together the pieces of my life in an inexplicable but wonderful way.

As David found, when we ask, “What if the Lord had not been on my side?” the answer will reassure our confidence in God’s future faithfulness. Indeed, “Our help is from the Lord!”

They would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger. The waters would have engulfed us; a torrent would have overwhelmed us. Yes, the raging waters of their fury would have overwhelmed our very lives. Praise the Lord, who did not let their teeth tear us apart! We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap. The trap is broken, and we are free! Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:3-8 (NLT)]

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THE GAME OF LIFE

“What does God know?” they ask. “Does the Most High even know what’s happening?” Look at these wicked people—enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply. Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain. [Psalm 73:11-14 (NLT)]

Even before my children could read, we played Chutes and Ladders, a simple board game for youngsters with a goal of moving around the board and being the first one to reach the final square. Players who land on a good deed space get to take a shortcut up a ladder to see their reward. Players who land on a naughty square, however, face the consequences when they lose ground and slide down a chute. Planting seeds, for example, leads up a ladder to a pot of flowers but eating too much candy sends the player down the chute with a tummy ache. The game is supposed to reinforce the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad behavior has consequences. While a good lesson, we grown-ups know that not every good deed is rewarded and not every bad one gets punished. Perhaps that other children’s game, The Game of Life, is closer to reality since, regardless of how virtuous the player is, he can still be fired, have a mid-life crisis, or experience a stock market slump. Yet, in that game, the player with the most money wins and, while we all like money, we also know that no amount of money makes us winners in this life (or the next).

Milton Bradley’s original game, The Checkered Game of Life, seems to reflect the unpredictability of life a bit better than either of the two games mentioned. A morality game pitting virtue against vice, Bradley’s 1860 version was not for preschoolers. Players moved ahead when landing on squares like Honesty or Influence but backwards on squares like Idleness. While School led to College and Perseverance to Success, Gambling led to Ruin and Intemperance to Poverty. Players earned points by landing on virtue squares like Wealth, Happiness, or Honor and lost them by landing on vice squares like Disgrace, Poverty, or Crime. If they had the ill-fortune of landing on Suicide, they were completely out of the game! Even the most virtuous of players had to navigate around or through those troublesome vice-filled squares before accumulating the 100 points needed to end the game at the final square: Happy Old Age.

We don’t have to play a game or read the Book of Job to know that life can seem as arbitrary as the spinner in a children’s game. None of us can control nature, time, chance, or other people. Like Job, we’ve all had had times when life seemed incredibly unjust—when we suffered from bad things we neither caused nor deserved. Like Solomon, we can’t understand how it is that bad people can have smooth sailing while good people often struggle to keep their heads above water. Nevertheless, there were times we benefitted from life’s capriciousness and escaped the consequences of our own poor behavior. Even though we should have, we didn’t slide back down the chute or take the trip to Disgrace.

When we play a game, once there’s a winner (or the kids get bored), the game is over. Fortunately, our game of life is not the sum total of our existence in this world—it is simply the prelude to the real one that will last forever. All that seems unfair or wrong here on earth is only temporary. In the end, something very bad will happen to those who don’t know Jesus and something very good will happen to those who do! Moreover, as Christians, we know that, no matter how the game ends in this life, we are winners in the next!

I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. [Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (NLT)]

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