By Tammy Fleming (Kiev) with Julie Desouza (London)
This is an undeniably unique New Year’s Day – no matter what we did or didn’t do last night (or last year) that might have met (or might not have met) our expectations for whatever New Year’s Eve (or 2019) was “supposed to be,” we’ve woken up this morning to a new decade. A futuristic-sounding date, maybe. Nevertheless, we are all arrived here, together, this morning.
Often, January first is a natural time for looking back and taking stock as we prepare to move ahead. I’ve spent these Christmas holidays in the home where my husband grew up, and so we’ve had lots of conversations about both recent and distant past, what used to happen here, when the kids were little… when Mimi and Poppa were first married…when great-uncle Oliver first bought the land on which this house was built. There are great-grandchildren crawling around the floors now. It feels a bit like the ghost-memories of the past, both friendly and menacing, are constantly hovering nearby, beckoning especially earnestly today, while thoughts and plans about what needs to be done later this week, this month, demands of work and health and relationships, crave attention now. And somehow now can so easily get lost, even on January first.
I need my relationship with God now more than ever before. This “now” is a place I’ve never been before: we’ve never seen January 2020, before. I’ve never before been the age I am now. Never before met the challenges I will surely face in coming weeks and months. There are lessons hidden in those ghost-memories, the ones from yesterday as well as from long ago, that I need to harvest. “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side” -- one of the memorable quotes from The Rise of Skywalker film, released a couple of weeks ago -- reminds me not to be afraid to look directly into the face of my disappointments. If I don’t, I may notrise up as strong spiritually as I could.
I was reading in Judges this morning (it’s where I happen to be today in my regular read-through of the Bible) and was struck by God’s stark honesty and his clear expectation for his people to learn from their pain, from their mistakes, and to grow in self-awareness. God basically says in Judges 2:1-2, Look, I made you a solid promise that I would deliver you, save you, protect and guide and bless you. I have done that. I brought you into the land I promised to give your forefathers. I made a covenant, that I would never break my solemn promise to take care of you and provide for you. I asked you not to make a similar covenant with the people around you who worship other gods, and I asked you to break down their altars. You disobeyed me and failed to do this.“Why have you done this?” God asks.
I need to make time for self-reflection, now. I need to make time to connect with God, my Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, my refuge and my strength, my honor, my righteousness and my salvation now. Can I answer God’s loving question, “why?” Why do I feel…anxious? Why do I feel…“less-than”? Why do I feel… numb? Why do other people feel these things? If any of these questions resonate with me, if they’re hard to answer – I need a deeper connection now,with God, my Rock and my Strength.
One of the happy ghost-memories that beckons this morning is from a New Year’s Day a few years ago, when we were on a church retreat in a beautiful, old, country boarding school mansion in the middle of England. My good friend, Julie Desouza, who’s a women’s ministry leader in the East Region of the London church, was leading a group of women of all ages in a quiet time devotional that I’ve gone back to many times since then.
She began with 2 Corinthians 5:9, “So we make it our goal to please [God]….” and followed with Hebrews 11:5: “By faith, Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.”
In my prayer this morning, I confessed to God my weakness in a list of things that feel very hard for me to do. I wrote to God, “I CANNOT succeed, navigate, manage, [this particular relationship]. [this project].” I know that He can. I also know that without him, I cannot.
It is impossible for us to please people. That truth stings me still, even as a faithfully-repentant people-pleaser.
But it IS possible for us to please God!
How?! I want to cry out. If I can’t even please people – even my friends, sometimes – how in the world can I hope to please the Almighty, Perfect, Holy GOD?
Hebrews 11:6 reads, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” My “less-than” self-talk wants to say, “wow, you really need to have faith to please God. You probably don’t have very strong faith at the moment, so it’s probably impossible for you to please God.” I tell it to shut up, and I keep reading my notes from Julie’s devotional.
Hebrews 11:36: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.” Julie’s notes continue: faith involves enduring through a challenging time. Whew, I think to myself, this I believe I can do. And then, in my notes, comes this equation, with its explanation:
Recipe for Successful Change:
Dissatisfaction. Here’s God’s loving, prodding question, “why?” Am I dissatisfied with my default-Christian-life? I wrote in my notes. Why?
1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
Paul declares himself The Worst of Sinners and yet he is not negative, overwhelmed, burdened, low, or anything remotely like that.
Revelation 3:17: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
How self-sufficient am I, generally? How quick to fall on my knees, to turn to God when I know I need help? God hates it when we go in our own strength, relying on self instead of on him – not because of any humanistic egoism we might wrongly attribute to him, but because of his great, unfailing love for us, his holy character always wanting the best for all of his children.
I need to embrace whatever it is in me or around me that gives rise to any sense of dissatisfaction. There’s no reason to fear what I might discover. Now is a great time to think about this.
Vision. What is my vision for my future? Am I fearful about the future? What is God’s perspective about my future? Surely God’s vision is the vision I want to become my reality. His is the vision I want to feed.
2 Peter 1:3 “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Acts 17:25 “God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
Romans 15:14 “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Julie chose these scriptures to inspire and shape our vision on that New Year’s Day. Reading them now, I feel eager to read my Bible so that I can grow in my knowledge of God. How amazing to think that I already have everything I need to be able to do that! I have the Scriptures to teach me more; I can learn as much and as often as I want. I have God himself helping me -- he who gives me everything I need and needs nothing from me. By his Spirit, he has inserted me into his family (1 Corinthians 12:13, John 1:13). Even though that family in my local church around me is imperfect, God is still big enough to work through it – he is the one who makes us competent to instruct one another; he is able help me realize the vision he has put on my heart.
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