IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – NEW YEAR’S DAY

Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (MSG)]

Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page. Take up one hole more in the buckle if necessary, or let down one, according to circumstances; but on the first of January let every man gird himself once more, with his face to the front, and take no interest in the things that were and are past. [Henry Ward Beecher]

zebra longwingSeveral years ago, one of my children asked if, with the benefit of hindsight, would I do it all over again—leave school, get married at twenty, have three children, and be a stay-at-home mom. Admitting that I had no idea what marriage and motherhood entailed when I did it, I would have enjoyed having had a life of my own, a career, and an opportunity to live without parental responsibility. Nevertheless, I added, in spite of the sacrifices, challenges, and trials over the years, I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve lived or the children God gave me for anything.

Later, I thanked God for not telling us the future or giving us do-overs. Knowing how difficult life is and all that can go wrong, we’d be terrified to do anything. Moses might never have signed on had he known leading the Israelites was a forty year project and that he’d never even step into the Promised Land. Mary might have refused the angel had she known she’d have to flee to Egypt or watch her child die a gruesome death on the cross. Would Paul have become an evangelist if, when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he’d known ahead of time about the brutal whippings and beating, shipwrecks, hunger, poverty, arrests, imprisonments, and betrayals he’d endure for the Lord?

Here we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. Far too often, this is a time of regrets and wishing we could start over again. We’re sure that, this time, we could do it better than the first go around. Granted, if Esau had hindsight, he might not have asked for that lentil stew and, if David had known the ramifications of bedding Bathsheba and killing Uriah, he wouldn’t have brought her to the palace. Had they known how it would end, Sampson wouldn’t have dallied with Delilah and Sarah wouldn’t have given Hagar to Abraham. Be that as it may, there is no doubt they would still have made mistakes, just different (and possibly worse) ones.

I remembered my son’s question when we did our annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey (the Jimmy Stewart character) gave up his dreams to fulfill the dreams of others and, when life goes seriously awry, he wishes he’d never been born. After an angel shows him what life in his community would be like if his wish came true, George realizes what a wonderful life he actually had. As for me—someone else had that exciting professional life about which I once dreamed when I was a girl. Instead, God blessed me with a good man, three wonderful children, great in-laws, five delightful grands, and a life of real purpose, love and joy.

Are there parts of the past that, if given a choice, we’d have skipped? Of course! We all have endured heartache, trials, pain, loss, and wounds we never would have deliberately chosen. Moreover, we all regret things that we’ve done or left undone and the hurt we’ve caused others. Yet, our experiences, both good and bad, are what made us who we are today.

While God doesn’t let us hit the rewind button and start the same life over, he does give us a whole new life when we accept Jesus. Because of God’s grace and forgiveness, the old life is over, done and gone, and a new one has begun. For a Christian, because of God’s grace, every day is a new day, the beginning of a new year, and an opportunity to love better and live wiser than we did yesterday. Instead of regrets on this, the first day of the year, let us have faith—not in the new year but in the One who makes all things new. It is, indeed, a wonderful life and it can only get better. Thank you, God!

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]

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. [Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

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PASS IT ON

Christmas lightsThe Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (NLT)

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s Love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on. [Kurt Kaiser]

Last year, our entire family celebrated Christmas in the Keys and we were able to worship together Christmas Eve. Typical of most Christmas Eve services, everyone received a small candle when entering the church. At the end of the service, the lights were dimmed and the first person’s candle was lit from an altar candle. As we sang Silent Night, the flame from that first candle was passed to the next person and continued to be passed from person to person until everyone’s candles were burning brightly. It was a tiny church with about one hundred worshippers. Nevertheless, even though each individual candle gave off only a little light, by the time the song was finished, the sanctuary was 100 times brighter than when we’d started.

While listening to praise music today, I heard an old favorite from my Girl Scout days: Pass It On by Kurt Kaiser. The words, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going,” got me thinking about those candles. When we light a candle, we can pass along the flame without our own light diminishing. In fact, as the light gets passed along, it only gets brighter! Just as the flame of a candle doesn’t weaken as it is spread around, neither does love—it simply grows larger and stronger. While having more children may lessen the amount of money we can spend on each child, it certainly doesn’t lessen the love we have each one of them. In fact, our love increases so that we still can love each child as if he or she were our only one. That’s how it is with our Heavenly Father’s love; His love is limitless and He loves each and every one of us as if we were his only child.

This year, my family was separated by thousands of miles and we only saw one another on Zoom. Instead of going to a church Christmas Eve, we attended church on our computers. No flames were passed from person to person and no candles illuminated a darkened church as we sang Silent Night. Nevertheless, it only takes a spark to get the fire going and we don’t need a candle’s flame to spread the blessings of God’s grace and love. Let us remember these words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” It can’t extinguish God’s love, either!

The candlelight from last year’s Christmas Eve service was limited by the number of people in the church but there is no limit to the brightness that can be brought into this dark world by Christ’s church. What if every one of us took the light of God’s love with us and passed it on to all who cross our path? Remember, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going!”

I wish for you my friend This happiness that I’ve found;
You can depend on God It matters not where you’re bound.
I’ll shout it from the mountain top;
I want the world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on. [Kurt Kaiser]

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:13-14 (NLT)]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. [1 John 3:23 (NLT)]

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LIKE A NEWCOMER

“Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14b-16 (NLT)]

pipevine swallowtail butterflyWhen we moved to southwest Florida several years ago, everything was new and strange—we didn’t know which farmer’s market had the finest produce, the best routes to avoid traffic, the amenities of each beach, the fun activities available, or where to hike or bike. Rather than be confused and discouraged, we got out the guidebooks and maps and enthusiastically started exploring—churches, parks, theaters, markets, beaches, and museums. Every day became an adventure and, as we got to know our community, we came to love it.

I continue to be amazed at the number of people we meet who’ve lived here for decades or more who haven’t been to the Conservancy, zoo, or free band concerts in the park. They’ve never gone to the county museum or walked the boardwalk through the mangroves, visited the nearby state parks, wandered the old town alleys, or hiked any of the land trust trails. They’ve missed seeing the orchids and butterflies at the Botanic Gardens, the spoonbills at the bird sanctuary, and the giant gingerbread house at the Ritz. Taking the local attractions for granted, many old-time residents have ignored the beauty and opportunities right in their front yard.

It’s not just our surroundings about which we can get jaded; it also can be our faith. While new believers are usually enthusiastic about prayer and Bible study and excited about getting to know Jesus, old believers may get blasé and lax in exercising their faith. Our Bible study can get humdrum, prayer time repetitive, meditation wearisome, and worship unexciting. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it can breed boredom. Jesus, however, is anything but dull and uninspiring

I’ve encouraged my neighbors to look at our town with the fresh eyes of a tourist or newcomer. Perhaps we should do the same with our faith and look at Jesus with the heart and mind of a new believer. Could that be what receiving the Kingdom of God “like a child” means—coming to Jesus with the unbridled enthusiasm of a youngster? Children, like newcomers to town, are fully aware of how little they actually know. Inquisitive and eager to learn, they want to discover all there is to see; they seek so that they can find!

When Mrs. Zebedee asked her boys about their day, I doubt that John and James responded with a bored, “Same old, same old—a big picnic lunch, several healings, and some parables.” Eager to learn more about Jesus, every day was an adventure in faith for them. It can be for us, as well.

If our faith has become lackluster or monotonous, it’s not God’s fault. We’ve just become unaware of His presence, blind to His works, and deaf to His voice. It’s time to open our hearts and minds, renew our acquaintance with Jesus, and experience His glory the way a child or new believer would. We wouldn’t want boredom or indifference to cause us to miss experiencing all that Jesus offers: direction, strength, peace, joy, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation, an abundant life today and an eternal life tomorrow.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. 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 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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A CHANGE OF MIND

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

The Lord afflicts us at times; but it is always a thousand times less than we deserve, and much less than many of our fellow-creatures are suffering around us. Let us therefore pray for grace to be humble, thankful, and patient. [John Newton]

duck potato - arrowheadMy New York Times newsletter has a section called “What You’re Doing” in which readers share how they’re dealing with the pandemic—everything from dreaming up innovative waffle recipes to sending “karaoke grams” to friends on their birthdays. Today, M.B. wrote that she’d started 2020 with a line-a-day diary. Since March, however, she’d filled the diary with “dire COVID milestones, illness among family and friends, anger at deniers, and mourning for the loss of normal life, vacations, and more.” Tiring of her negativity on Thanksgiving Day, M.B. turned that line-a-day diary into a daily gratitude journal and reported having a positive attitude that will carry her through the pandemic.

The conditions haven’t gotten any better since Thanksgiving; in fact, the COVID numbers have gotten worse. The change isn’t in the circumstances because gratitude isn’t found in our circumstances. The change is in M.B because gratitude is found in our minds and M.B. is looking at the world with an attitude of gratitude. In 1919, during another pandemic when the nation was as troubled as it is now, minister and essayist Dr. Frank Crane wrote, “To be thankful simply means that one thinks he is better off than he deserves to be.” Crane went on to suggest that happiness is found in finding a balance between our condition and what we think our condition should be—between what we have and what we think we should have. If we want to be happy, Crane suggested that we whittle down our conception of what we think we should have to match what we actually do possess.

M.B.’s words struck a chord with me. These last few months, the entries in my daily gratitude journal have been sporadic. For example, rather than write I’m thankful that the Pfizer vaccine is about to be approved, I found myself complaining that our government only ordered 100 million doses (enough to inoculate only 50 million people) and it may be June before more is available. When I used an online tool to determine my place in the vaccine queue and learned that at least 118.5 million Americans are ahead of me, I was ready to grumble even more until I remembered Crane’s words. Appreciating that I’m no more deserving than anyone else in the world, I looked thankfully at what I have (health and an eventual place in line) rather than at what I’d prefer. I am thankful that the end is in sight—even if we need a telescope to see it! Yes, gratitude is an attitude and one that often takes a conscious effort to maintain.

We can change our circumstances or change our concept of what it is we deserve and it is great deal easier to change our thoughts than to change the world around us. God will generously provide for our needs but we must remember that He is under no obligation to give us everything we want. We can’t control the pandemic but we can control our thoughts. As bad as things may seem, I think we all would admit to having more and better than we deserve. Knowing we can’t have everything we desire, let’s be thankful for all that we do have!

There is much in this world beyond our control including the nation, the economy, COVID, other people, weather, and the noisy dogs next door. If we can’t change our circumstances, the only option is to change ourselves! M.B. is finding happiness in her new attitude of gratitude—one of recognizing and appreciating all that she has right now. Let us do the same!

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! … Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. … And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4,6-7,19 (NLT)]

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IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES – THANKSGIVING 2020

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)] 

turkeyWhen an irrevocable law was signed that prohibited praying to anyone but King Darius, Daniel prayed! Knowing he’d be thrown into a den of lions for doing so, the devout man went home, opened the windows, and prayed to God just as he always had done. Rather than starting with a fervent plea for God’s help, however, Daniel began with a prayer of thanks. His prayer of thanksgiving showed Daniel’s faith in a good God who was present in all circumstances!

Back in the 1630s, in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War when all of Europe was in turmoil, a Lutheran minister named Martin Rinckart also understood the importance of thanking God in all circumstances. Life seemed hopeless, especially in the walled city of Eilenburg where Rinckart lived. Refugees overcrowded the city, people were starving, and the city was surrounded by enemy soldiers. Poverty, famine and disease reigned. Mercenary soldiers committed atrocities, looted, and extorted tribute. Rinckart had to quarter soldiers in his house and endure their plundering of his possessions and stocks of grain. Diseases like typhus, dysentery, and scurvy already were widespread when the plague took control and devastated the population in 1637. And we think we have it tough in 2020!

Rinkart faithfully served the sick and dying. As the last living pastor in town, he performed as many as fifty funerals a day and buried over 4,400 townspeople, including his own wife. It was during this horrific time, one of the darkest in Europe’s history, that Rinckart counted his blessings and wrote a beautiful family prayer of thanksgiving. We know that joyful prayer as the popular Thanksgiving hymn Now Thank We All Our God. Martin Rinckart, like Daniel, offered thanks to God in the midst of challenging circumstances. Can we do anything less?

I saw a cartoon in which the heavy-set husband, after looking down at his skimpy plate of dieter’s salad, looked up at his wife and said, “You better say grace this time. If I do it, God will know I’m lying.” Unlike Daniel and Martin Rinckart, most of us are like him: blind to the blessings of life and deficient in our thanks to God for those blessings, however great or small. Today, as we celebrate our national day of thanks, let us remember that every day should be a day of giving thanks—even if, instead of sweet potatoes, stuffing, turkey, and pumpkin pie, our plates have only lettuce, carrots and celery!

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed;
and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
the Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven;
the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. [Martin Rinckart)]

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NLT)]

Come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come to him with thanksgiving. Let us sing psalms of praise to him. [Psalm 95:1-2 (NLT)]

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STORIES

Just make sure you stay alert. Keep close watch over yourselves. Don’t forget anything of what you’ve seen. Don’t let your heart wander off. Stay vigilant as long as you live. Teach what you’ve seen and heard to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (MSG)]

Generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts. [Psalm 145:4 (MSG)]

Hedge bindweedStories—everyone loves a good one and we all have stories to tell. My children loved hearing their Grandpa tell stories of boyish pranks like stealing watermelons and tipping over outhouses but it wasn’t just his tales of mischief they enjoyed. They relished hearing about him working on the farm, playing basketball and wrestling, working his way through college, having a victory garden, and starting a business. The stories we never heard, however, are the ones I wish he had shared: the stories of his faith journey. He was a Christian, yet I don’t know how he came to be such a man of faith. I know he met his wife at a church social and they both attended the Lutheran church in our town, but that doesn’t tell me when and how the Holy Spirit truly entered his life. It doesn’t tell me about the times he might have doubted or been afraid or the times he knew without question that God was holding his hand or had answered his prayers.

Accounts of faith journeys are some of the best stories we’ll ever hear. It’s not just from pulpits or lecterns that I’ve heard people chronicle their faith journeys. These stories came from people just like you and me: people who openly shared their wounds and scars and the way God changed their lives. They spoke of mental illness, alcoholism or physical abuse or told of losing a loved one, their health or even their faith. I’ve heard a Gideon tell how the Bible guided him to Jesus, an addict tell how a 12-step program brought him to Jesus, and a minister tell about his time in prison. I’ve heard people tell of reaching the depths of despair when they thought life was impossible and others tell of miraculous healing. These stories had little or nothing to do with what church they attended; they had everything to do with what God did with, for and to them. They were the testimonies that came from their tests and the messages that came from their messes and I am thankful to those who shared their lives so openly.

After ridding him of demons in Gerasenes, Jesus told the once possessed man to return home and tell his story. Can you imagine what it was like to hear his testimony or the testimony of Paul when he told of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus? Can you picture what it was it like to hear Peter speak of walking on water or Bartimaeus tell of regaining his sight? The woman caught in adultery would have had a powerful testimony to the forgiveness of Jesus and Mary Magdalene to His resurrection. Granted, not all of us have stories as remarkable as theirs, but we all have stories about the way Jesus has touched our lives and we don’t have to be missionaries, ministers, or Biblical scholars to share them. We are, after all, disciples of Christ!

What’s your story? Who should you tell?

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love. …
I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
[A. Katherine Hankey]

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the demon-delivered man begged to go along, but he wouldn’t let him. Jesus said, “Go home to your own people. Tell them your story—what the Master did, how he had mercy on you.” The man went back and began to preach in the Ten Towns area about what Jesus had done for him. He was the talk of the town. [Mark 5:18-20 (MSG)]

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