What to Do at New Year

Happy New Year!

This past Sunday at White Fields we continued our series Be Set Free, in the Book of Exodus, seeing the people of Israel now on the other side of the Red Sea after having been set free by God.

Their situation there on the far shore of the Red Sea parallels what it means to be a Christian today: they had been set free from bondage, but that wasn’t the end of their journey, it was only the beginning! God was taking them to the Promised Land. 

As the people of Israel stood on the bank of the Red Sea, they sang a song of thanksgiving and praise, which had 2 aspects:

  1. They sang in response:  They looked back and remembered what God had brought them through and gave thanks for God had done for them.
  2. They sang in faith:  They looked forward to lay ahead and what God had in store for them in the time to come.

This is a great model for us as we come into this new year.

I encourage you to look back and give thanks to God for His faithfulness and mercy that you experienced in 2016 — for the answered prayers, for the abundant grace and for salvation in Jesus. Be like the one former leper in Luke 17:11-19, who returned to Jesus to give thanks, rather than the nine who didn’t.

Once you’ve done that, I encourage you to look forward to this coming year and seek God about what He might want this next year of your life to be like — and then make plans and take steps accordingly, so that those good intentions actually become reality.

What does God want this next year to look like for you?

Start with what you already know is His will and His desire for you: 

  • Walk with Him and serve Him. Seek Him in His Word, in corporate worship and study and in community with other believers.
  • Honor Him in your work and with your finances.
  • Honor Him in your relationships, particularly in your marriages.
  • If you have kids, lead them to Him and in His ways.

Determining to do things which are in line with God’s heart and His desires, then planning and working toward those things is an act of faith and obedience. So let this new year be filled with godly goals and pursuits.

I pray that this coming year would be one in which you experience His work in you and through you in a greater way than ever before!

Why You Should Make New Year’s Resolutions – and How to Actually Accomplish Them

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I never thought I would be a New Year’s resolution type of person, but over the years I have learned a few things about myself and about New Year’s resolutions that have changed my mind.

Here are some quick statistics for you:
One study shows as few as 8% of people accomplish their resolutions.
However, that same study shows that people who make resolutions are as much as 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t.

People who make resolutions are as much as 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t

In a way, the New Year is a strange holiday. We aren’t celebrating a grand event in the past which changed the course of history, as we do at Easter or Independance Day. We are not celebrating the birth of a great figure as we do at Christmas or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We are not celebrating a class of people as we do on Labor Day, Veterans Day or Mothers Day. All we are really celebrating is that the Earth went all the way around the sun again; which we could theorertically celebrate any day of the year. We have gotten to the end of our calendar, which begins on an arbitrary date.

However, I have come to greatly appreciate this holiday, because it gives us something to measure time by. And albeit slightly contrived, it does give us the sense of a new beginning, a fresh start.

On my desk in my office, I have a book stand, and on that stand is a notepad. For the past 2 years, I have been writing down several goals for the year, ranging from personal goals, to items related to my marriage and family to ministry and prayer topics, which I would like to see come to fruition in that coming year. Then for the rest of the year, I leave that notepad right there, always in constant view, so that I see it every day when I sit down and get to work.

The reason I started doing this was because I read somewhere that goals which get written down are much more likely to be accomplished. I think there’s more that goes into accomplishing goals, but that’s a good start.

Over the past 2 years that I have been doing this, I have been amazed how at the end of the year, almost all of the things which I wrote down have become reality. 2016’s list had about 20 items on it, and at the end of this year, only 2 of them remain unrealized. Those items will be rolled over into 2017’s list, but even those are not to be considered failure, as having them on the list for the past year led to them being topics of prayer that I brought before God almost daily and asked for His will to be done.

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

Why You Should Make New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. If you set a goal and write it down, you are 10x more likely to do it than if you don’t.

  2. If done right, it can guide your prayer life and help you to see and rejoice in God’s faithfulness.

  3. If you set God-honoring goals, planning and working towards them are acts of faith and obedience to God.

    Setting goals which you cannot accomplish on your own keeps you on your knees and dependent on God, pushing forward and asking Him to do great things.

How to Actually Accomplish Your Resolutions:

  • Make Decisions.

Without a strategy, your resolutions will likely only remain a good intention, and we know what those pave the road to… This Forbes article points out that the huge difference between “intentions” and “decisions”: stating that most people don’t follow through on intentions, but they do follow through once they’ve actually made a decision.

This year one of my goals is to run a half-marathon. Rather than just writing it down, I’ve also gone online, picked out the race I want to run, signed up and paid for it, and signed up for a training program. Whatever your goal is, don’t let it remain only a good intention, make a concrete plan for how it is going to become reality.

  • Use Your Calendar.

Time is kind of like money: you’ve only got so much of it, so you’ve got to budget it. Be strategic and schedule things that are important to you into your calendar. If you want to pray and read the Bible more, scedule it into your day. If you want to spend more time with your kids, schedule it into your day. If you want to read or write more, schedule it. You can still be flexible, but at least having it on the calendar will give structure to your days and keep your on track towards your goals.

Top 16 Posts from 2016

These were the top 16 posts on this blog from 2016, based on views and shares:

  1. The Impact on Kids of Dad’s Faith and Church Attendance
  2. Evangelism and Street Witnessing Now Illegal in Russia
  3. 2 Thoughts for U.S. Christians in the Wake of the Election
  4. A Refugee Story of Our Own
  5. Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity
  6. Debt Free!
  7. 4 Strategies for Families Divided by Politics
  8. One Day
  9. Vacation and Russian Novels
  10. The Etymology of God
  11. The Effect of Woundedness
  12. Was Paul Suicidal?
  13. When Linus Dropped His Blanket
  14. What Running Has Done for Me
  15. The US Election and Some Reasons to be Hopeful
  16. Going Back East, Way East

A Modern Myth

51vrjuzftllI just finished reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He is a great thinker and while I may not agree with him on everything, I do appreciate his writing. Here’s a quote from How God Became King which I found particularly insightful and encouraging regarding the “modern myth” of the failure of Christianity and the attempts to relegate it to the realm of private religion rather than the revolutionary message it truly is.

“The failure of Christianity is a modern myth, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of telling the proper story of church history, which of course has plenty of muddle and wickedness, but also far more than we normally imagine of love and creativity and beauty and justice and healing and education and hope. To imagine a world without the gospel of Jesus is to imagine a pretty bleak place.

Of course the reason the Enlightenment has taught us to trash our own history, to say that Christianity is part of the problem, is that it has had a rival eschatology to promote. It couldn’t allow Christianity to claim that world history turned its great corner when Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again, because it wanted to claim that world history turned its great corner in Europe in the 18th century. “All that went before,” it says, “is superstition and mumbo-jumbo. We have now seen the great light, and our modern science, technology, philosophy and politics have ushered in the new order of the ages.”

That was believed and expounded in America and France, and it has soaked into our popular culture and imagination. So, of course, Christianity is reduced from an eschatology (” this is where history was meant to be going, despite appearances!”) To a religion (“here is a way of being spiritual”), because world history can’t have two great turning points.

If the enlightenment is the great, dramatic, all-important corner of world history, Jesus can’t have been. He is still wanted on board, of course, as a figure through whom people can try to approach the incomprehensible mystery of the”divine” as a teacher of moral truths that might, if applied, actually strengthen the fabric of the brave new post-Enlightenment society. But when Christianity is made “just a religion,” it first muzzles and then silences altogether the message the Gospels were eager to get across.

When that happens, the Gospel message is substantially neutralized as a force in the world beyond the realm of private spirituality and an escapist heaven. That indeed, was the intention. And the churches have, by and large, going along for the ride.”

(N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, HarperOne: 2016, pp.163-164)

When Linus Dropped His Blanket

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Like many families, there are a few movies that we like to watch together at Christmas. One of them is Elf, the other is A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This past Sunday I preached a message titled “Paradoxes and Promises” from Luke 2:8-38. The beginning of that text is the famous Christmas passage about the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds who were watching their flocks in a nearby field – the same text that Linus reads at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I mentioned in my sermon some interesting things I had learned about the film, particularly that Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, was a devout Christian,  and when he was asked in 1965 to create a Christmas special for CBS featuring the Peanuts characters, Schulz agreed… with one caveat: he would only do it if they would let him include the story of the birth of Jesus.

CBS executives were hesitant about including this, but because Peanuts was so popular, they conceded and agreed to allow Schulz to include it in the show. However, both the producer and the director tried hard to dissuade him from including it, first of all because they thought it would be boring to have a scripture reading in a television program, and secondly, because even then it was considered controversial. Schulz refused to budge. He reportedly said at one point, “We must tell this story! If we don’t do it, who will?”

Schulz won out, and as a result, for the past 50 years, millions of families and scores of children have watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and heard the story of Jesus and “what Christmas is all about.”

After service, a friend came up to me and told me something I had never realized about that scene where Linus tells the Christmas story: He drops his blanket – his security blanket.

Linus NEVER drops his blanket. This is the only time in the history of Peanuts that Linus ever let go of his security blanket – and it was intentional.

While sharing the message of “what Christmas is all about,” Linus drops his blanket at the exact moment he says the words, “fear not!”

Here’s the video of that scene, check it out:

The message it communicates is that because Jesus has come into the world to be our Savior, we can let go of the things we have been clinging to and looking for security in, and we can find true security in Him.

If you look again, that’s not the only subtle message Charles Schulz put into the scene. Notice how when Linus starts speaking about Jesus, that message takes center stage, and gets put in the spotlight. 

May that be true of us this Christmas as well: that we put Jesus at center stage, and give Him the spotlight, and as we do so, may we find true peace and security in Him.

Always Winter, Never Christmas

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis’ classic first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, tells the story of 4 children: Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie. The setting is World War II, and the the children have been sent to stay with family friends in the English countryside because of the German attack on London.

As they are exploring and playing in the house, Lucy hides in a wardrobe, only to find that it is a portal to another world. As she passes through the portal she finds herself in Narnia – a cold place, covered in snow. She meets some creatures, who tell her about the bleak condition of Narnia: it is a land under the curse of an evil witch. Every day is as if it is “always winter but never Christmas.”

This is perhaps one of the most apt and poetically concise descriptions of hopelessness ever written: “Always winter, but never Christmas.”

2016 hasn’t been a great year on some fronts. Terror attacks in Europe, death and destruction in Syria. Maybe you have experienced some things in your own life, that make you acutely aware that you are living in a land that is under a curse – where it feels like you dwell in perpetual winter.

As Lucy and Edmund found themselves in Narnia, suddenly the children heard the sound of sleigh bells approaching. They figured it was the evil witch, so they hid. However, it was not the witch, it was Father Christmas!

Having been held captive by the witch, he had finally gotten free. “I have broken through at last,” he says. “She has kept me out for a long time, but her magic is weakening. Aslan is on the move! A merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”

We live in a world where there is a curse, where there is winter and cold and darkness, where there is pain and hardship – yet ever before us is the promise of Christmas: that Jesus has come to the world to save us.

Advent isn’t only about looking to the past, it’s also about looking to the future – to the fact that the curse is being broken, that the True King is coming and the winter will one day be over and the warmth and life of Spring will come.

Relient K wrote a song a few years back about this very thing:

Preaching While the Bombs Fell

Just a few blocks from Buckingham Palace and a short walk from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is a building which has been used to influence London and the world greatly.

Westminster Chapel, pastored by G. Campbell Morgan and then by Martin Lloyd-Jones has served as a light to the city of London and to the UK for over 150 years.

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It was G. Campbell Morgan who invited Martin Lloyd-Jones, who had studied to be a medical doctor rather than a minister, to come and serve with him and be his successor at Westminster Chapel.

Lloyd-Jones was from Wales, and had been serving at a small village church there. At the time, doctors were considered the true heroes of society, whereas Christianity was already in steep decline in Britain. To give up a career in medicine to pastor a small church was considered a fools errand by many, but Ll0yd-Jones’ decision to become a pastor rather than work as a medical doctor had been aided by something he had witnessed from one of his mentors as he was studying to be a doctor:

He witnessed a doctor who was at the top of his field, the most respected position in that society, who supposedly “had it all” – and yet he had fallen into despondency, hopelessness and depression because of a failed marriage. Having witnessed this, Lloyd-Jones would later say, helped him to decide that he wanted to help people in a way that went beyond just caring for their physical bodies, he wanted to be a doctor for the soul.

Martin Lloyd-Jones became the pastor of Westminster Chapel in 1939, right before the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The people of Great Britain knew what was coming: they had seen the aggressiveness of the German military, the how the Luftwaffe had no qualms about bombing highly populated areas. They knew that soon the war would probably come to London, and they were right.

In 1939, Martin Lloyd-Jones preached a series of sermons which prepared his people for the war. He told them that whether the German bombs killed them or not, they should be prepared to stand before God, and he urged them to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as their hope.

Throughout the war, as people evacuated London, Martin Lloyd-Jones continued to preach to those who gathered at Westminster Chapel. On one occasion, a bomb fell only a few yards from the church during a service, causing the plaster from the roof to fall on the heads of the congregation. When the bomb hit, Lloyd-Jones was praying. He paused for a moment, and then finished his prayer, and went on to preach his entire sermon.

Theologian J.I. Packer sat under Lloyd-Jones’ ministry and called him “the greatest man I ever knew – not just brilliant, but wise.”

Westminster Chapel continues its ministry in its efforts to be “a prophetic voice to London, the UK and the nations.” Their website here.

A documentary was made about Martin Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry a few years ago called Logic on Fire. Here’s the trailer for it:

Want Your Marriage to Succeed? Harvard Study Shows What Can Help

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A recent study by Tyler VanderWeele, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, on the topic of the relationship between religion and health, shows that there is a direct link between church attendance and lower rates of divorce.

The study shows that married couples who regularly attend religious services together are 47% more likely to not get divorced, than couples who don’t go to church.

You can read Tyler’s thesis here.

Want your marriage to succeed? Attend church regularly.

A few months ago I wrote about some of the “bad church statistics” that go around, one of them being that the divorce rate amongst evangelical Christians is just as high as amongst people who are not Christians (roughly 50%). The conclusion that is often drawn based on this incorrect statistic is that being a Christian really makes no practical difference in the way people live. This statistic is, however, incorrect. As this new study out of Harvard shows, the more a couple attends church the less likely they are to see their marriage end in divorce.

Not only is it good for your marriage, but it’s also good for your kids. The more a couple attends church, the more likely their kids are to have faith of their own when they grow up. (Those statistics and more on this topic here)

VanderWeele’s study also linked church attendance to lower rates of depression and suicide.

In an interview with the Christian Post, VanderWeele said,

“Religion is, of course, not principally about promoting physical health or decreasing the likelihood of divorce, but about communion with God. However, it turns out that the pursuit of this goal also has profound implications for numerous other aspects of life, including health and marriage.”

“religion is about both communion with God and the restoration of all people to their intended state of complete wholeness and well-being. The evidence suggests that it can indeed accomplish both,”

“The religious community provides social support, a constant reinforcement and reminder of the religious teachings, family programs, and a communal worship and experience of God.”

On a personal note, I believe in the Church. I believe in it not only for practical reasons, but for theological reasons. Even if I were not a pastor, I would be committed to church; in fact, it was my belief in and commitment to and service in local churches which led me to become a pastor – a path which I had never sought after or imagined for myself.

I believe in the church because I see in the Bible that it is something which was ordained by Jesus, built by Jesus, and commissioned by Jesus, not only to spread the gospel, but also to start more churches!

It isn’t because church “works” that church is true, it is because church is true that it works.

What the Bird Said Early in the Year – a Poem

In my last post about my recent trip to England, I shared how I took my family for a walk along Addison’s Walk, the footpath at Magdalen College in Oxford (click here to read that post)

CS Lewis taught at Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges which make up Oxford Univeristy. On the grounds of Magdalen College are a deer park and an island, upon which is found Addison’s Walk.

Along the path, there is this plaque dedicated to CS Lewis, which contains one of his poems, titled “What the Bird Said Early in the Year.”

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I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn one year older by the well worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart.
Quick quick, quick, quick – the gates are drawn apart.

C.S. Lewis

This poem reflects the longing and the expectation of CS Lewis’ Christian faith; as he wrote elsewhere: “all the leaves are rustling with the rumor” that one day, the “new day” will dawn and the promise and hope of the gospel will become reality.

For more on this, check out this message I preached this past Sunday at White Fields titled, “The Dawn of a New Day.”