The God of the Coming Year

20131230-125334.jpg

“…yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” – James 4:14

Yesterday I saw someone post on Twitter something to the effect of –

“I cannot wait for 2014! It’s going to be a great year!”

My first thought was, depends on what you mean by ‘great’ really.

2013 was a rough year for us. There has been a lot of loss and regret. My father died back in April, we were financially wrecked by car repairs, and health issues abounded. And to be honest, I expected the year to open new opportunities for a job for which I am better suited. It never happened. We wanted the year to be different than it was and that seemed possible because we have had years in which we could look back and say it was great. But this was not one of those years.

Maybe your 2014 will be a great year and all your dreams or at least some of them will be realized.

But it is possible the coming year will not be a good one for you.

It is possible you will experience severe emotional and lasting pain because of a tremendous loss. It is possible physical pain will be a large part of your year to come. It is possible you will sin in ways that you never thought possible. And relationships will break like the crisp scorched grass in the heat of August. It is possible you will lose your job and financial ruin will rise like a specter in the dark of every night. It is possible death will visit your door or the home of a loved one.

You may wonder at the species of fish whose belly you inhabit. You may find yourself in sackcloth and ashes guessing the rating of the storm that has taken so much from you.

And Osteen’s books be damned, you may have the worst year of days you have ever seen.

And yet Christ will still be faithful. He will still hold though your grip loosens on him. He will not abandon his people. He will not forsake you. The good news of the King who has conquered our greatest foe is still true in the ruins of this life. His love will still be greater than all our imaginings. He will still reign. The promises of our Sovereign God will remain unspoiled in the heat of our longest days. And even when our palette cannot detect the goodness of our Lord, his mercy will not be moved.

Christ will not cease to be faithful.

Random Thoughts for Thursday

#freesaeed

It is arrogance to say “these are the best books” for a particular year. I do not say this as a writer but as a reader. Better to say, “These are really good books I enjoyed.” Or, “These are the books I enjoyed the most.”

I continue to love Pope Francis despite my Calvinism.

I can hear college students now, “Look professor, the problem here is not plagiarism, it is the pressure you and the University put on people like me to preform to high standard.”

The Christmas story never gets old to me, it always speaks as though alive.

I continue to love sausage despite my baconism.

Just sitting and waiting till pitchers and catchers report.

Hang on loosely to everything but your books.

Humility and mercy are beautiful wherever you see them.

My two favorite novels are Pride and Prejudice and The Road. I can’t explain this either.

My story of serving in an Acts 29 church cannot be told without instances of ghostwriting and plagiarism. One day it will be told.

10 Books I Recommend That I Read for the First Time in 2013

I read a lot of books in a year. Half of them I’ve never read before. It’s easy to read a lot of books when so many of them you are reading again and again. But of all the books I read for the first time this year, these are the ones I think I would recommend the most. That may change.

The last one listed is the one I recommend the most. Outside of that, they are really in no particular order. I may love one and appreciate one more this week that one I appreciated like no other the week before. All of them are worth your time, though.

Enjoy.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor – I waited all year for this one and though it is short, I love it. I love because I’m a writer and a believer. And those two things are hard to work through. And in this short journal, we pull back the curtain and hear a young Flannery O’Connor talking to God.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Recover the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert Wittman – I just finished this one and loved it. Books about art theft are a favorite of mine and this one was perfect. I enjoy reading about art. I enjoy mysteries. maybe that’s the reason I can get lost in books like this, especially one as well done as this one.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor by Jonathan Rogers – An evangelical Baptist writing about a Catholic writer. I tore through these pages. If you have any interest in Flannery O’Connor, I recommend it.

The Pastor As Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes – Some books come at just the right time. And you feel like they were given to you personally. It doesn’t happen much. But when it does, it’s a powerful thing. This is one of those books.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – When I finished this book, I wiped away the tears, got up and walked into my boy’s room and kissed them both and just watched them sleep for a few minutes. I feel about this book the way many feel about books like Catcher in the Rye.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – I’d been listening to Townes Van Zandt for a month nonstop. And I wanted some reading that had the feel and strength of his lyrics and singing. I tried Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. But they were not what i was looking for at the time. And I ran into this one and was able to check it out from the library to read on my iPad. That was late on a friday night. By Saturday I had bought a used copy and was hooked. I finished on Monday.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner – All I can say is that I wish I had read this book many years ago. It would have helped in so many ways.

Secrets in the Dark: A Life In Sermons by Frederick Buechner – This book changed me. One sermon in particular. I read that sermon at least once a week and pray that God will honor the longing that is still there from hearing “Whom shall I send into the pain of this world where people die?” This book above all others is why I want to be a pastor again.

In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher – This is the book I think about all the time. And that to me is the mark of the best books. Well-written, yes. But it has the aroma of being well-lived. I love the stories in this book. Because I love C.S. Lewis and Van Gogh and the stories of martyrs and those who have tasted grief and loss and come out on the other side with a faith that is something to aspire to. There is no book I have read this year that I would recommend higher than this one. And I’ve read some astounding books this year. My review is here.

Christmas Is For Those Who Hate It Most

Four years ago I wrote this little article. It’s my favorite of anything I’ve written. One reason is I hear from people throughout the year about how helpful it has been. Usually it’s around Christmas, but I also hear from folks in July. But really I love it the most because there is so much of me in it – so much of my own hopes. I need what’s in this little piece as much as anyone. This year more than any.

It’s been a hard year culminating in a lot of lessons learned. Christmas will be difficult for a few different reasons. I’ve never not looked forward to Christmas, but this year I’m tempted. So I need to hear this as much as anyone.

——————–

We are now accustomed to hearing how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his problems with the season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe this has always been the case. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy.

Not too long ago, I heard from one of these people about how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was utter hopelessness and devastation. Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of the pain. It’s been a story hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense. Christmas is a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year for one is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year for another. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

I’d like to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss, can easily enjoy the holidays. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen drinking perfectly mixed hot cocoa. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshippers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, most-likely ugly shepherds; beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.

Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when the son wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune – they want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for those who need it. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it the most.

(Art: Blue Christmas Candle from Stushie’s Art)