RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS ALL YEAR LONG

But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10-11 (NLT)]

christmas cactusSeveral years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus in early December. It had just started to blossom and, by Christmas, it was in full bloom and beautiful. A Christmas cactus typically goes dormant by Easter but mine bloomed until mid-May. The next year, it blossomed again at Christmas but the flowers weren’t as spectacular; it was dormant by February and didn’t survive the summer. Regretfully, I’m a neglectful gardener and my record with plants is dismal. The cactus actually lasted longer than any of my holiday poinsettias.

The spirit of Christmas shouldn’t end when we take down the tree, put away the crèche, the flowers drop from the Christmas cactus, or the poinsettia gets tossed! We can’t leave the baby Jesus in the manger and forget that He grew, taught, led, suffered, died, rose, ascended into heaven, and will come again! We need to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts well beyond the time the toys break, the holiday cookies are eaten, the Christmas cactus goes dormant and the poinsettia dies. The spirit of Christmas—its joy and anticipation—the good news of the gospel message—shouldn’t be dependent upon the calendar. It should flower all year long unless, of course, we become neglectful and forget to fertilize and water it with God’s word and prayer. A pastor friend always keeps a small nativity scene in her office to remind her (and her visitors) that the manger is as important a symbol to Christianity as is the cross. If we have Jesus in our hearts, we can be Christmas people no matter what season it is. May the spirit of hope, love, joy and peace, so present during Christmastime, continue in your hearts all year long!

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. [Calvin Coolidge]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

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THE SNOW GLOBE

Steamboat SkiAnd we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

Along with the typical things you’d expect to find on my desk is an odd collection of other items. A small resin figure of the Holy Family reminds me that God deliberately chose to be born of a woman and to live as a man while the small olive wood cross tells me how He chose to end that life. When I see the three-inch square-cut nail, a souvenir from a Good Friday service, I remember how He suffered for mankind while on the cross and a small candle reminds me to let my light shine. My wooden “God box” holds some long-term prayers, Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” and my promise “to face life, not with doubt and pessimism, but with hope.” In the desk’s corner is a small African carving of two people facing one another with arms connected. Made of just one piece of stone, it continues to remind me that, in marriage, two become one and we must never turn away from one another.

Something new has just been added to my quirky collection: a small snow globe. Probably designed to be a baby gift, in it is a pink-cheeked little girl gently touching a lamb and printed on its base are the words “Jesus loves me.” This bit of nursery décor seems rather strange for a woman my age but, along with telling me that Jesus loves me, it reminds me that God answers prayers in unexpected ways!

When filling in for our pastor recently, my message was about God’s grace, the faith necessary for salvation, and the discipleship that comes from that faith. While preparing it, I’d asked God to help me bring it all together with one final example. The following day, I came across the story of Izabella McMillon. Years before she started working for Samaritan’s Purse, she lived in Romania and was the recipient of one of their gift-filled shoe boxes. Having already been introduced to Christianity, 13-year old Izabella had asked God to prove His existence by giving her snow but, after three months of waiting, the girl was ready to give up. The prayer for faith is one God always answers and inside Izabella’s shoe box was a snow globe! As she watched the snow fall through the water, she was assured of God’s presence in her life; it was then that Izabella decided to carry Jesus into the world as His disciple!

God answered my prayer with one woman’s witness about salvation, grace, faith and discipleship! He answered hers with an inexpensive snow globe! That our church was packing 75 shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse was just God’s way of putting frosting on the cake for me! That Izabella received other gifts in that box, gifts that told her not just of God’s presence but also of the love and compassion found in His disciples, was the frosting on hers!

God answers prayers in unexpected ways. When the Israelites complained of hunger and God promised them bread from heaven, I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting manna—something like coriander seeds that tasted like honey and was found on the ground. When God promised a Messiah who would deliver His people, Israel expected a political savior who would free them from Rome rather than a spiritual savior to deliver them from sin. Although the Israelites accepted manna as God’s provision, most didn’t recognize God’s answer to their prayers for a Messiah. Had Izabella insisted on cold wet snow falling from the sky, she would have missed God’s glorious answer to her prayer, as well. While my new snow globe says that Jesus loves me, it also reminds me to expect the unexpected!

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:18-19 (NLT)]

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TRUE CHARACTER

I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. [Romans 7:18b-19 (NLT)]

smooth roseYears ago, we were acquainted with “Henry, dear” and “Mary, darling.” We called them that because we never heard them refer to one another any other way. They always were so sweet and charming in public that halos seemed to hover over their heads. My husband and I often wondered what they called one another behind closed doors and, as we got to know them better, we realized our wariness was well-founded. As noble as they appeared in public, there always seemed to be an ulterior motive behind their kindness and, while “Henry, dear” was patting your back, his other hand probably was reaching into your back pocket. While we never knew what they called one another in private, we knew that what the public saw was not what they actually got.

I thought of them the other day when watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about Fred Rogers. Having read books both by and about him, there truly was nothing artificial or superficial about the man; what you saw actually was what you got. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self,” and that’s exactly what he did!

Recently, my day began with bad news and sped downhill from there. In my frustration, my words and actions were not those of a “church lady.” I may write Christian devotions but what you see is not always what you get and the Fruit of the Spirit was nowhere to be found on my tree! Whether in public or private, Mr. Rogers’ faith was evident in all that he did or said. Mine, however, frequently gets obscured by my reaction to circumstances beyond my control. Like the Apostle Paul, “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” [Romans 7:15]

Both Fred Rogers (and the movie) were clear that, just like the rest of us, he was no saint. The difference is that, while many of us seem to think we can become good people effortlessly, Fred Rogers actually worked at being the very best person that he could be. One of the ways he did that was through self-discipline. He faithfully read the Bible, reflected and prayed every day, and his prayers continued all day long. He was disciplined in the way he cared for his body with healthy habits. He was disciplined about meeting his commitments, remembering his friends, and expressing gratitude. It’s not that he didn’t have emotions; it’s that he was disciplined enough to choose safe outlets for the negative ones. It’s not that he didn’t know any four-letter words; he just was disciplined enough to use words like “mercy, me!” instead of them! Rogers understood that while circumstances may be beyond our control, our reaction to them is not. He was disciplined in his faith, obedient to God, and saw everyone as his neighbor and a valued child of God. He didn’t give lip service to the power of the Holy Spirit; He lived, breathed, trusted and depended on the Spirit.

The difference between the “Henry, dears” and “Mary, darlings” of the world and Fred Rogers is that while they wear masks so they’ll look like good Christians, Mr. Rogers developed the strength of character to be a good Christian! Through self-discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit, he actually became good (or at least a whole lot better than many of us). The church would call that process sanctification. We can’t do it by ourselves and God doesn’t do it for us; rather, it is combining our efforts with God’s power to grow more and more like Christ. Spiritual progress doesn’t happen overnight and sanctification is not a passive process; it requires effort, discipline and obedience. Only then will people be able to say of us, “What you see is what you get!”

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

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CHANGE OF ATTITUDE

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [Romans 12:18 (ESV)]

dilophosaurusThere was a bit of a kerfuffle behind us during church last week; it started during the Old Testament reading and continued to the Gospel. As best as I can figure, a bottle of water had leaked onto the pew. The women behind me sat on the damp cushion and made quite a production of detecting, discussing, and complaining about it first to her husband and then to her neighbor (whose water it had been). There was room enough to move down in that pew and plenty of other pews (with dry cushions) available, but the couple never moved. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the service, I felt the woman’s breath on my neck every time she exhaled another loud sigh of misery.

Upon returning to our pews after receiving Communion, I realized she’d left church rather than go forward for the bread and wine. When her husband returned to the pew, I heard the woman whose water had spilled whisper her heartfelt apology once again. She asked what she could do to make it right. He casually said, “Nothing. Life happens; it was an accident and she has to get over it.” He then confided, “I’m sorry; she doesn’t handle things well.”

I thought of the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. David and his men were hiding from King Saul in the wilderness of Maon when they came across Nabal’s shepherds tending his 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats. Rather than stealing any animals for themselves, David’s men formed a line of protection around the shepherds and animals so that no harm came to them. At sheep shearing time, a time of celebration when the shepherds would get paid, David sent wishes of peace and prosperity to the wealthy Nabal. Explaining that he and his men had warded off both Bedouin raiders and predators, David asked Nabal to share some provisions with his men as payment for their protection. While their services had been unsolicited, David’s request was not unreasonable.

Nabal’s name meant “fool,” and the man lived up to his name; he not only refused but did so by insulting the slayer of Goliath. Upon hearing Nabal’s rude response, the angry David and his army headed out with the intention of killing every man in Nabal’s household. Fortunately, a servant told Nabal’s wife, Abigail, of David’s service and Nabal’s rashness in offending him. The wise woman quickly packed a large quantity of food and wine and went to David. Humbly apologizing for Nabal’s bad manners and offering the provisions to David and his men, she assuaged David’s anger and defused a dangerous situation.

I imagine Abigail frequently had to make amends for her husband’s churlish and stingy behavior and, from the way that husband handled the situation at church, I suspect that he is no stranger to apologizing for his wife’s peevish conduct. Living with someone who makes mountains from molehills, overreacts to minor annoyances, or takes every slight as a personal insult can’t be easy and I immediately prayed for him.

It was not until later that I thought to pray for his wife. It’s easy to pray for the Abigails and Abners—the long-suffering spouses—in situations like that. They have both our admiration and sympathy as they regularly repair any damage left behind by their spouse. After giving it more thought, however, I also prayed for his wife and others like her—the Nabals and Mabels of life. How sad it must be to go through life choosing misery over joy, tightfistedness over generosity, resentment over forgiveness, turmoil over peace, and complaint over praise. May we all be wary of behaving as a Nabal; it didn’t end well for him. When he discovered what his wife had done, Nabal had a stroke and died!

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. [Maya Angelou]

The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult. …The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. …Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. [Proverbs 12:16,17:14,19:11 (ESV)]

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