Ready for (another) Roller-Coaster Year?

Oh, how we wished that the pandemic and all its problems would burn with our 2020 calendars. Alas, it followed us into 2021, promising another roller-coaster year. How do you buckle up and ready your heart?

Most of us enjoy a good roller-coaster.  The ride starts with a slow climb, followed by a sudden drop and quick turns at high speed. As you feel the wind in your hair and hear the passengers’ screams, your veins flood with adrenaline and dopamine, leaving your hands shaking and legs jittery.  One group shouts “Let’s go again!” while another cries “Never again!”

Roller coasters leaves you either ecstatic or terrified.

What causes these two groups of people to have vastly different experiences in the same roller coaster cart? It comes down to a sense of security: the ability to trust in the ride designer and the system’s integrity. The ones who trust in the integrity of the seat belt or harness don’t fear for their safety.  These passengers have peace on the track and enjoy the thrill of the ride.

The second or third round on a roller coaster is often even more enjoyable, precisely because you have come to know that you will not fall from the cart. With arms high in the air and eyes closed, you can smile wide and laugh loudly through the tight turns – once you trust the carriage and the rest in the seat belt.

2021 will be our 2nd ride in the Corona Coaster. We would have preferred a more docile track, but this is our ride for the year. How do you prepare yourself to push out the panic and enjoy the thrill that 2021 brings? Is there a harness we can strap ourselves into, to lend the sense of security we need for the months ahead?

A short phrase penned by a Jewish prophet gives us a plan. Isaiah warned the Jews that the Babylonians would lay siege and destroy Jerusalem, taking its people into exile. He promised a rough time ahead for them.  The Babylonians would rip them from everything gave them a sense of belonging and security. Yet the Lord comforted the Jews with this beautiful promise – a phrase that instils comfort, safety and hope in everyone who believes.

Isaiah 54:10

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10

“For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed”

The Lord warned the Judeans of catastrophic changes – both sudden and permanent. They would suffer loss. Mountains speak of safety, security and a sense of permanency. Hills bring a sense of familiarity, normality, and a sense of belonging. These significant changes create anxiety, and the sudden onset thereof brings a panic.

“my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed”

In contrast, the Lord assures them that His constant, loving nature and reliable character do not change. His steadfast love “never ceases” and is always “abounding.” (Lamentation 3:23; Psalm 145) 

In particular, God’s covenantal commitment towards Judah does not change either. It cannot be removed (Numbers 21:12) and is stronger than the bond that draws a mother to her nursing child (Isaiah 49:15).

While these sudden changes create a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, the Lord assures them that His character and commitment towards them for their welfare (shalom) will never change. He is good and promised to do them good, always. Yes, even these sudden changes will work out for their welfare. (compare Romans 8:28)

“says the Lord”

The One who makes this pledge of partnership is indeed trustworthy. He is the LORD, Yahweh – “I AM THAT I AM” – the eternally existing God who never changes (Exodus 3:14; Malachi 3:6).  He is all-powerful yet very personal (Isaiah 40:28-29; Psalm 113).

While everything around them changes, they the Lord invites them to rest in the truth that He does not change, nor his loving nature and covenant with them.  Indeed, Yahweh has shown his goodness and faithfulness to them for generations since He first bound Himself to Abraham by covenant. Israel’s covenant God is trustworthy because of his character and power.

“who has compassion on you.”

God Almighty knows that the coming catastrophic changes would bring pain and panic. Moreover, God cares about them!  Their situation moves Him with compassion so that He would show them kindness. (Compare with Christ Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 1:41 etc.)  What comfort these words must have brought to the vulnerable and fearful Judeans who were plucked from their familiar homelands!

a MIRROR to our society

Isaiah depicts Judah’s calamitous change as “mountains disappearing and hills being removed.” Our generation can easily identify with his passionate poetry. For years we have experienced the stormy disruptions in our social fibre, and local economies and political harmony caused by the tsunamis of globalization, technological advancement and climate change. Now, on top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating social changes, affecting economies and governments at an unparalleled pace.

These rapid changes make us feel unsafe, like foreigners in our own homeland. Like the Judeans hearing Isaiah’s words for the first time, we too need of hope, some assurance that good may come, a reason to march on and direction for the future.  

a WINDOW into God’s Heart

Isaiah’s prophesy reminds us that God knows that big changes leave us vulnerable and insecure. These words reveal God’s compassion for us; his heart is moved because he identifies with us in our suffering.

A reporter asked John and Charles Wesley’s ageing mother, which of her children she loved best.  She replied, “the one who needed it most at that time”. Her compassionate heart was moved with kindness to help the one who was struggling at that time. David says God’s paternal love is the same: “As a father shows compassion to his children… for he knows our frame… he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14). God does not love us less because we struggle in our turmoil or temptation; instead, God’s fatherly love (compassion) is activated by our weakness, urging him to show us kindness. The Lord “is able to have compassion with our weaknesses… so let us boldly draw near to his throne room to receive grace [help]” (Hebrews 4:15).

Isaiah reminds us that God’s steadfast love (character) and covenant of peace (commitment for our good) is unchanging. Through all these changes, God is working out his redemptive purposes work for our good and his glory. This window into God’s heart and plans brings us much comfort.

a DOOR into God’s Kingdom

Isaiah’s prophesy acknowledged the first readers’ uncertainty and invited themto walk with God into their new world. Likewise, this prophesy shows the door into the stable and peaceful world our overwhelmed generation longs for.  The Lord assures us that He is unchanging and his covenant unshakeable. Drawing close to him brings the security and familiarity that is fading in our rapidly changing context.

How do we strap ourselves in to feel safe in the 2021 roller coaster ride?

To cognitively know that “the God of the Bible is loving and does not change” does not bring the deep, lasting peace we pursue.  Instead, recognising and reflecting on God’s loving-kindness and reliability in my own life (and those around me) brings the security and hope I need in this changing world. This text invites me to remember and reflect on God’s steadfast love that I have experienced and how he has faithfully intervened on my life in the past. In a rapidly changing world, I feel safe to the degree that I am rooted and grounded in God’s love and commitment to me (Ephesians 3:14-17).

My friend, strap yourself in for the thrill-ride of 2021. Throw those hands in the air and let out a shout. God is up to something great, and it will work out for your good!

Closing Chapters – Re-visioning your future (part 4 of 4)

“I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, even as your soul prospers.”

3 John 1:2

This is God’s desire for you for 2021. Is this what you expect?

You want to start 2021 on a clean slate, with fresh excitement for the year.  This could be difficult, especially when the new year begins with the same challenges of the old year. In the previous posts, we said that we wrap up 2020 by making a memory and finding its meaning. We look back to review the year’s highs and lows, recognizing the blessings and progress. A fresh start requires a bold look inside to release those who hurt us and also own our share in the pain. After dealing with the past, we need to reconsider our destination and re-vision path.

[A brief video transcript of this post is available below].

Why a need to re-vision my future?

Bluntly stated, you are not the same person you were twelve months ago. Your experience has carved a profound and lasting impact on your life. We like to say experience makes us wiser, but it leaves you more than a data bank of case studies.  Your circumstance changes you.

  • Circumstance impacts your core convictions. My experiences continually test my core convictions to confirm or refine those bedrock assumptions I build my understanding of life upon. These core convictions make up my self-view (who I am, where I belong), my God-view (who He is and how he relates to me), and my world-view (how things work spiritually, socially, and physically). The convictions that hold up are strengthened, while the assumptions that fail are adjusted. These challenge my most profound sense of significance and security, and call for revising my beliefs about who I am, how I relate to God and how the world works.
  • Circumstance impacts your cravings. My desires are shaped by my experience and by the desires of those around us. As I live, I learn that those things I desired do not satisfy, and it loses its appeal.  Moreover, my desires are essentially mimetic, meaning “I desire according to the other” (Rene Girard). We see this in toddlers fighting over toys, in the fashion sense of teenagers and suburban families striving to keep up with the Jones’. The point is that my desires are not static – what I live through impacts not only my head but also my hearts. And as my heart sets the course of my life, it must be examined and recalibrated.
  • Circumstance impacts your calling. What I describe as my life calling, my purpose, or the vision for my future is not static either.  My sense of purpose grows and changes with my understanding of myself, God, and the world. It changes with my desires. And it is informed and inspired by my experiences.  Often my calling is birthed from the pain in my circumstances.
Your experience has a profound impact on your calling.

Therefore, before you embark on writing your new life chapter this year, reconsider where you are now and recalibrate where you want to be headed. Seek for a clear and compelling vision that directs your affections and actions.

God has a vision for your life

You have been created by God, for God (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:15-16). God has purposed and prepared a path set with good works for you (Ephesians 2:10; compare Jeremiah 1:5) and although your understanding of it grows, God’s purpose for you life does not change (Romans 11:29). Moreover, you were redeemed by God at an incredible price; you belong to Him, and your life is for Him (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). Christ’s act of redemption does not only save you from the punishment of your sins – he redeemed you from a destructive life of selfishness to a partnership with Him in the regeneration and renewal of all creation (Colossians 1:18-20; Revelation 21:5).

Your life has meaning, significance. You have been carefully crafted to fulfil a significant part of God’s redemptive purpose of the world, to display and disperse his goodness in this world. In and through you, God is renewing and reconciling all things to Himself, bringing it under His benevolent reign.

Can you picture the good works God prepared for you in this year?

Aristotle said, “a soul never thinks without a picture.” What do you envision for this new year? What is your mental image of “a blessed and prosperous 2021”?  This is the essence of hope: a picture that paints the good things to come. Fear is the opposite of hope: an image that depicts the expectation of bad things.  Our news feeds and conversations overflow with such pictures of doom, filling the world with fear to expect only depression and disaster in 2021.  How do I cultivate hope in such an environment?

The Bible abounds with historical accounts that mirror our own dark days’ sense of dread and despair. Yet time and time again, we see God’s prophets sketch visions of hope that inspire faith-filled acts of courage to bring life to communities in crisis. Renewal always starts with a clear and compelling picture of what could be, fueled by a conviction that it should be. This is the definition of God-breathed vision. Such an image will stir your imagination and engage your will to walk in the good works God has prepared for you.

The power of a clear vision (from Andy Stanley)

Often good ideas and even necessary things go undone due to a lack of a good, clear vision. Andy Stanley states the benefits of a clearly articulated vision (Visioneering, 1999).

  • Vision awakens our passions and unleashes our drive to pursue this promise. A picture of what could be, tugs at my heart and energizes me to make this dream a reality.
  • Vision provides motivation and endurance for the hard work necessary to embody this preferred future. It moves me from dreaming to doing.
  • Vision sets direction, prioritizes values and parameters for decision-making. A clear vision unclutters my life to discern what is important and immanent, and what is not.
  • Vision translates into purpose. A clear and compelling vision gives meaning to everyday life’s mundane tasks.  It gives context to the costly sacrifices required to live the life I want to live.
Purpose arrow

You’ve had dreams and desires which never materialezed. Yet vision is different from such wishes in that it feels like a moral imperativeI ought to pursue this! This type of vision for your begins with a concern – a deep stirring in your spirit that urges you to respond. It fills your mind, overflows in your conversations, and cries out in your prayers. Such a vision is an invitation to partner with God in His work of renewal of all things.

Crafting and pursuing your vision for 2021

In the troubling time leading up to Jerusalem’s fall in 586BC, the prophet Habakkuk set time aside to wait on God for a clear and compelling vision for his people. He resolved:

“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”

The Lord answered: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.”

Habakkuk 2:1-2

A compelling vision begins with a concern, a problem that needs fixing. Vision goes beyond what could happen but describes what should happen – with the conviction that God invites you to act with Him.  These three practical points will help you crystalize such a mental picture of your future.

Vision starts with imagining what could be.
  1. Consider your vision for the year. Take time to dream about the year prayerfully. What does a prosperous 2021 look like for you? If God were to make all things new in your life this year, what would that look like? Briefly describe this transformed future for (a) your work life, (b) your family life, (c) your social life, (d) your spiritual life, (e) finances, and (f) any significant pursuit you have such as studies, sports, or some society. Don’t bother with HOW this will happen – describe WHAT your future should look like. Paint the picture with words.
  2. Clarify your vision. Prayerfully reduce these descriptions to a single, memorable statement of what you dream of embodying in each life facet this year. Can you write it as a solution to a problem?
  3. Chase your vision. Put these vision statements up somewhere you will see daily to pray daily for opportunities to realize this dream. Nehemiah, the cupbearer to Persian king Artaxerxes, prayed this way about his vision to see Jerusalem restored: “O Lord… give me success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:11) When the opportunity came, he saw it and confidently seized it as an answer from the Lord.

Heads up: God’s plans for you are “that you may prosper in all things and be in health, [and that] your soul prospers.” (3 John 1:2) After all, “God delights in the prosperity of His saints!” (Psalm 35:27). You can confidently dream about 2021, knowing that God has prepared good works for you.  Carve these dreams into vision statements that evoke your passion, motivate your actions and direct your efforts. Then hold these daily before God in prayer for boldness and opportunities to renew every area of your life.