It is the end of the year, and I am looking back on the successes I have celebrated and the failures I have endured during this time. I remember starting the year with a certain plan and mindset, working out the particulars of how the year would go, establishing what I’d like to accomplish, and while some projects and goals came to fruition, others proved fruitless and a dead end. Despite the ideas that came together well, I can also remember certain projects that I had great hope and aspirations for, only to see them crashing spectacularly as the year developed. And this is not even mentioning those aspects of my year to which I could not foresee at all, opportunities that crossed my path that I didn’t plan for as they were beyond my possible vision. As the year begins for each of us, it is a time of renewal, a rebooting of our lives as we view the upcoming year optimistically, trying to make grandiose and life-changing plans, but while some succeed, many don’t, and others change in the process. Some plans we make, but God has different ideas. I often tell my students that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. Had I been able to talk to my former self from a year ago, telling the old me how the year would pan out, I might have scoffed and blown my future self off, thinking I knew better. My point is that planning can seem futile in retrospect. We don’t know the future and can make all the plans in the world only to have God let us know that the plans we had for ourselves are not the plans He has for us. In 1 Chronicles 28.3-4, King David talks to the crowd to tell them what his plans were for the temple and how God changed those plans: “Listen to me, my fellow Israelites, my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood.’” David had these tremendous plans, but God stepped in and told him to let go of those plans, making him pass them on to his son Solomon. We plan in one direction, but sometimes God throws us in another. He clearly knows what’s best for us, and desires us to be happy, so how are we then to make plans for our lives? With the New Year upon us, how can we possibly make a plan knowing that things change, we don’t always know God’s plans, and we can’t know the future? In Act V of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the main character is trying to figure out what course of action he should take in his life, and after much reflection and an acknowledgement of God’s will, he concludes that all things happen in their proper time, without our knowledge as to when they will happen, and that “the readiness is all.” We can plan all we want, and if those plans succeed, great. If they fail, oh well, learn and move forward. And if God tells us to let go of our plans, we should concede and move forward accordingly. The only thing we can do is be ready for Him. This year, instead of developing possibly impossible plans for your life, in its place, plan on being ready for Him and His plans. Amen.
Writing from the Christmas season, preparations are daily and seemingly never-ending. Just today (a weekend day, I might add), I spent a lot of time preparing gifts for the people in my life that provide various services for me (i.e. – mailman, pediatrician, vet, newspaper deliverer, etc.) by putting together cards with money or shopping for fruit baskets. The amount of preparing seems overwhelming at times, as the list of gift recipients seems endless, but hey, “tis the season,” and I know I’ve only got so much time left before that big day. If you are anything like me, you spend lots of time before Christmas preparing, so that when the day comes, you will not be caught off guard. My Christmas shopping begins during the summer when I spot the perfect gift and store it away for months later. For me, Christmas shopping needn’t be at Christmas time. When athletes need to be in shape for a season, they don’t start training on the first day of the season. They are working to stay sharp and in shape throughout the year, and by the time the season arrives, they are in top form and more than ready to succeed in their respective sport. Much like an athlete, I train for Christmas well before the season is here, so that I can make it the best season possible. As a season, I also know that Christmas will come to an eventual end, and there will be a time for regrouping. As athletes, they work their hardest during the season. Once the season is over, they may spend some time healing and resting from their efforts, but they don’t get completely out of shape either: they are still preparing for their season. Throughout the Bible, we are warned that Christ may come back at any time, and that we should be ready for Him. This time period may not be the season of His return, but it may be soon. 2 Timothy 4.2 tells us that as Christians we should “be prepared in season and out of season” because His return will be sudden and unexpected. We don’t know the season, so we must prepare out of season. The implication of Timothy’s statement, and of my comparison between Christmas preparation and athletes, is that a season is finite: there is a definite beginning and end to it. Seasons come and go, good and bad. For some, along with the Christmas season, they may be in a season of joy and celebration right now, one where it is easy to praise Him in all things. For others, they may be in a season of depression and frustration, where each day wears upon them, dragging them further down than they thought possible. Either way, Christ desires us to be prepared regardless of the time. Now that’s easy to say, but if you are in the latter of these two described seasons, you don’t feel much like being prepared for Christ. So how can you work towards preparedness if you are stuck in a season of wretchedness and misery? Remember the finiteness of the season. There is great strength, happiness, and relief to be found in the knowledge that a season will eventually end. You may feel completely trapped by the current situation that you are in, thinking about how valueless everything around you seems, but know that there will be an end to that season, and renewal awaits right around the corner. This current season will be over at some point, and you can rejoice in the eventual coming of its end, rediscovering your desire for preparedness in that fact. Amen.
The definition of insanity is repeating a series of actions and expecting a different result. We tend to repeat our faulty actions and mistakes in our lives over and over and are surprised when the result is exactly as it was the first time. We sometimes just don’t learn. Last week, I wrote about a gift delivery of pears to my house from a gourmet company and how they were not up to the usual standards that this company is known for. They were brown, bruised, and slightly moldy. So this week, we contacted the company and let them know of the delivery. With sincerest apologies, they sent us another order of the pears. When they arrived, we opened them with great anticipation, as if the company was making up for their faux pas. However, these pears were exactly as the first delivery: brown, bruised, and slightly moldy. At risk of getting caught up in a viscous cycle, I decided to let the company off the hook or risk being “blessed” with another delivery of bruised fruit. At some point, I knew enough to let go of the issue, realizing that it wasn’t worth going after. Thankfully, I learned my lesson the second time, but too often we repeat the same actions and issues and are shocked at the same outcome, not learning until several repetitions down the road. As Christians, we similarly repeat the same sins over and over and are surprised to find ourselves in the same emotional and spiritual state every time we go through that repetition. We cry victim, but it’s really the result of our own words and actions. We don’t learn as fast as we should, or seemingly as quickly as God would like us to. In Matthew 15, Christ tells a crowd a brief parable about how our words affect others. Afterwards, Peter, having listened to Christ’s teaching for some time now and following Him closely, asks Christ to interpret the parable for him and the other apostles. With great amazement, Christ responds with, “Are you still so dull?” (Matthew 15.14). The use of the word “still” in the verse hints at Christ’s shock that after all they’ve been through, after all He’s taught them, that He still needs to explain to them the meaning of His parable as if they haven’t learned a thing. He can’t believe that Peter and the others still can’t figure it out for themselves. Are we truly not that aware of ourselves and our environments to the point that we aren’t learning anything? How can we be so blind to obvious truths? That same self-delusional poisonous repetition seeps itself into so many of our close relationships. In marriage, a partner complains that the other never listens and that they’ve been having the same fight for years. In friendships, people quickly forget how they hurt each other and repeat those hurts over again. In ourselves, we try to resist temptation but allow sin to get a foothold, and we find ourselves at the bottom once again, struggling to climb out. Thankfully, despite God’s apparent frustration with us, He continues to love us and forgive us every time; when asked how many times we should forgive each other, His numerical response was astronomical. But that doesn’t let us off the hook: we still need to be aware and break the cycle. This week, pray for self-awareness and look for mistakes that you continually make. Pray for clarity to see where these areas are in your life, and with the help of self-reflection and His intervention, you might find the out you are looking for in the loop you are trapped in. Amen.
At the time of this writing, it’s the time of year when my house tends to be filled with the preparations that come with the advent of Christmas. In addition to the multitude of lights, sparkling ornaments, aromatic smells, and sounds of celebration that pervade my December life, fruit tends to be in abundance in and around my kitchen. Not counting the delicious and calorie-filled pies and desserts, our kitchen is filled with fruits that are to be turned into jams, a holiday traditional gift in our household. My wife, ever the talented cook and baker that she is, buys a large amount of various fruits and spends a day making several creative and delicious jams with them. Then, when it’s time to give gifts, I don my Santa hat and walk around my workplace giving out a jam of choice to all the people who mean something to me. It’s a reminder to them of how important and appreciated they are to me. The author of John 15.8 writes about how our actions are similar to an abundant crop: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Quite literally, my wife’s efforts are our appreciation and the fruits of other people’s labors; these fruits are the return on those investments that many have made in our lives. Several places in the Bible make similar comparisons, where the value of the labors of a Christian believer can be seen in the fruits that result. However, one such recent event ran up against this metaphor for me. Each year at Christmas, a distant relative sends us high end pears from a well-known gourmet. This year, when the pears arrived, the fruits must have sustained some harsh conditions en route, as when we opened the box, brown spots, bruises, and emerging mold were overtaking this once luscious crop. My relative’s intentions were very good, but under the wrong conditions, the efforts spoiled, which made me consider: is it possible to produce rotten fruit as the result of our Christian labors? Christians can have the best of intentions, can put forth their best efforts, can know their audience and appreciate them well, but somehow the fruits of those labors turn sour and rotten before they are received. For these pears, perhaps the storage was too warm, the ride was too bumpy, or the time and distance for delivery was too long and far. The point is, that somewhere along the line, the conditions surrounding these fruits caused them to decay. As we work towards maintaining a Christian life, we can have pure intentions with our actions, but various conditions can taint the outcome. Several times, we have all looked back at the results of our actions and wondered why they came out the way they did, as we thought we were working within His plan. Maybe we allow our human hearts to get in the way of His divine plan. Sometimes, our words betray us or our actions may become self-righteous and self-centered. Not being perfect beings, our fruit can spoil. But if we are human, how can we avoid this rot? Humility. Pride can destroy our actions, so instill humbleness. If we humble ourselves, the chances of decomposition significantly lessen. Pray and meditate, frequently checking in with God to make sure that you are elevating Him and not yourself. This week, humbly bring your actions before God and present them to Him for inspection. Much like my pears, if we can improve the conditions of our actions, our fruit will stay fresh longer. Amen.