Are You Ready for 2022?

May be an image of fire, outdoors and text
The image my friend Scott McMillan posted on his Facebook this morning.

Here in this last week of the year, most of us are thinking ahead, wondering what 2022 holds in store for us. I have no special insight into what will happen in our nation, our world, or in your own personal life over the next twelve months. But I would like to help you get ready for these days. Whatever they hold, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves, so that we can truly rejoice in the good things and grow through the storms. There are four questions I believe each of us needs to answer as we head into a new year:

  1. How will I feed my soul?
  2. How will I pray?
  3. Who will I invest in?
  4. How will I change?

Psalm 1 says that the person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” will be like “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.” When we feed our soul on the Word of God, we are like a tree planted by a stream; even when we go through droughts, we are fruitful. So let’s make a plan today to feed our souls daily on the Word of God.

The first decision is when and where will you read God’s Word? I find the best time is first thing in the morning. That way, my day is set, and I can think about what I’ve read the rest of the day. If I wait until later, inevitably, things come up that lead me to say, “I’ll get back to it tomorrow.” So set your alarm clock fifteen minutes earlier. If you are non-functional early in the morning, you might want to set your time later in the day. Perhaps on your lunch break, or at night, when everyone else has gone to bed. Some even find it’s best to listen to God’s Word on their morning commute. Just make sure you do this in a time and place where you can be completely alone with God and His Word.

The second decision is what you will read. It’s key to have a plan. Here are some options:

Through the Bible in a Year This plan includes daily readings from the Old and New Testaments.

Through the Bible in two years A more realistic goal for most people.

Through the New Testament in a Year This is what I recommend for first-time Bible readers.

If you’d like some commentary with your Scripture reading, Tim Keller has written excellent one-year studies of Psalms and Proverbs.  And if you’d like to spend a year focusing on the life and ministry of Jesus, here’s a link to my book Finding Jesus.  I also have some copies in my office if you want to pick them up there.

I highly recommend the Youversion app for your smartphone. It has virtually every Bible translation, multiple reading plans, and other great resources…and it’s free. Biblegateway.com is also a great site to use. 

Question #2: How will I pray?

At first blush, this one seems like a no-brainer. Prayer isn’t complicated. We simply talk to God, sharing with Him our fears, desires, hopes and concerns. Hebrews 4:16 contains an extraordinary promise. It says that because Jesus is both our Great High Priest and our ultimate sacrificial Lamb, we have access that would have been unthinkable before: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

For a child of God, prayer is simple. So why don’t we pray more often? Why do so many of us feel like our prayer lives are fruitless? I believe it’s because we don’t have a plan. If you were invited to visit the White House, wouldn’t you think ahead of time about what you were going to say to the man in the Oval Office? God is infinitely more powerful and important than any earthly ruler. Yet how often do we plan how we will approach Him? Prayer is simple and free, but that doesn’t mean God should be taken lightly!

How do we plan our prayer lives? Here is a suggestion that has been helpful to me: At least once a day, listen to God before you pray. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to pray without ceasing, which implies a constant contact with the Lord, praying over every situation you face. But I believe that sort of life is easier when we start the day in focused prayer. And the best way to focus is to listen first. Here’s how I do it: As I do my daily Bible reading, I identify some truth, some promise, some command that I want to apply to my life. Then I pray it back to God: “Lord, thank you for sending Jesus to be my Great High Priest,” for instance. Sometimes, that thought becomes the essence of my entire prayer. I set aside my prayer list, and just pray over that one thought, asking God to help me live it out more effectively. Often, it’s just the beginning of my prayers. But either way, it’s a reminder that the purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind or plans, but to shape us to His will. You don’t have to use my plan, but you need to make a plan that works for you. Whatever you must to do slow down and focus on Him as you pray–remembering this isn’t a going-through-the-motions, it’s talking to the King of the Universe—start doing that.

Question #3: “Who will I invest in?”

Ask the average churchgoer what is distinct about the Christian life, and they will likely say some version of: “We avoid certain vices and go to church on Sundays.” Yet when Jesus was asked to sum up the Christian life by naming the most important command of God, He said it all comes down to loving the Lord and loving our neighbor. By “love,” he didn’t mean a warm, sentimental feeling. He meant action. We know this, because He illustrated the point by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The hero in that story went out of his way to help someone in need, and it was someone that society didn’t expect for him to care about. Ask yourself: If you interviewed non-Christians in this country and asked them the question above—“What is distinct about the Christian life?”—do you think the predominant answer would be, “Going out of your way to help people no one expects you to care about?” No, I don’t think so either. If we ever become known for that, there won’t be room in our churches for all the people who will want the Jesus they see in us. 

At First Baptist, our goal is to invest in others, especially the people no one expects us to care about. We call those Transforming Relationships. So in your prayer time today, ask the Lord to show you who He wants you to invest in this year. It might be a friend who is walking through a difficult time. Or perhaps a neighbor you’ve never really gotten to know. It may be a co-worker who isn’t a believer. It might even be someone who has been openly hostile to you in the past. Whoever they are, start praying for them today. Ask God to show you how to meet some need in their life. And wait for Him to open a door—create a divine appointment—to show love to this person. Please tell us about it, too, by filling out one of our Transforming Relationship cards: click here. When our lives become about loving others, that’s when we’re truly following in the footsteps of Jesus.  

Question #4: “How will I grow?”

Every year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Most are health-related, and I endorse that. Getting healthy physically is a very good thing. But it pales in comparison to the need to grow spiritually. Remember, your baptism was not a finish line; it was a starting line. You are supposed to be on a journey with Jesus that ends with you becoming like Him. Philippians 2:12-13 commands us to “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you…” It’s telling us that only God can change us, but He will only change us if we’re willing to work alongside Him in this great renovation project. Our part in that project consists of repentance. And repentance is more than acknowledging our sin. It’s more even than feeling sorry. It’s doing a U-turn. It’s taking tangible steps to change.

So what should you repent of in order for 2022 to be different from all the years in the past? And what steps will you take in order to ensure—by the grace of God—you are closer to the character of Jesus Christ, more loving toward your family and friends, more winsome to unbelievers—this time next year than you are right now?

Some of you already know the answer to those questions. You know what to do; you just haven’t done it yet. You need to have that difficult conversation with that person you hurt. You need to take practical steps to stop that bad habit. You need to start treating that loved one differently.

Others of you don’t know what to do. Perhaps the idea of discipleship as a continual life of repentance is new to you. You need to pray that God would show you the areas of your character He wants to transform first. Or perhaps you know what needs to change, but you don’t know how. Make an appointment with a pastor. Go see a Christian counselor. Take real steps to address that part of yourself that stands in the way of full commitment to Christ. Don’t ignore this. Don’t close this email and walk away unchanged. Now is the time to obey, and see what God can do.

None of us knows what will happen over the next twelve months. Some of us will make new friends. Others will have to say goodbye to loved ones. Some will experience personal triumphs, while others will feel the sting of bitter disappointment. Some will be healed, and others will be blindsided by unexpected health issues. We can’t control most of what happens in the world around us. But we can commit ourselves to God, no matter what comes our way. I hope you’ll answer the four questions I’ve outlined here. I think it’s a good idea to write these things down: Get a slip of paper or type it out. You can use any words you want, but here is my suggestion:

In Ephesians 4:22-24, we’re told to “put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life…and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Imagine a man who works a hard, blue collar job, then comes home every night in his sweaty, dirty clothes. Now imagine he gets married. He begins a new habit: Every night, when he comes home from work, he sheds those dirty, smelly garments, takes a shower, and then sits with his bride in the evenings, clean and fresh. That’s the life of a disciple. We continually acknowledge our dirt, and by the power of Jesus, we cleanse ourselves whenever it’s needed. We do this not because He’ll be disgusted with us otherwise; we do it, like that newlywed, because it brings us joy to please Him. So pray right now that God would help you in 2022 to continually put off the things associated with your old self, the “2021 you” and put on a new you, which is a little more like Jesus every day. I am praying for you today, too, that the coming year would bring you closer to Christ than you’ve ever been. I can’t wait to see what He’ll do!

The best books I read in 2021

I love to read, but I have a rather eclectic taste in books. Hopefully you can decide based on my brief description of each book whether or not you’d find it interesting. Please leave your comments/questions/alternate recommendations below. Happy reading in the New Year!

What if Jesus Was Serious? Skye Jethani

Even before I became a pastor, I was bothered by how Christians seemed to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus’ longest continuous message, found in Matthew 5-7). The attitude about such radical teachings as “love your enemies”, “turn the other cheek” and “do not look at a woman with lust in your heart” seemed to be, “That’s too high a standard for ordinary people to meet.” Some even openly declared that Jesus was intentionally setting us up to fail so that we would know we needed grace. To me, that didn’t seem like Jesus at all. Skye Jethani obviously agrees. As his title indicates, it’s about what it would like to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. This is a great book for all ages of Christians, including people who aren’t big readers. It’s short, broken up into two-three page readings. Jethani includes humorous “doodles” that make the teachings more memorable. But it’s also extremely challenging. Jesus WAS serious, and if we begin to take His words more seriously, we’ll become the kinds of people who draw others to Him.

Broken Signposts, NT Wright.

Wright is one of my favorite Christian writers and an excellent Bible scholar. This is his study of the Gospel of John. Instead of a straightforward, verse-by-verse Bible study, Wright structures the book around seven “signposts” that he says humanity has been struggling to find since history began: Justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth and power. The Gospel of John, Wright says, shows us the only way to truly find these signposts and experience life as it was meant to be lived.

The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, by Brett McCracken

Are our smart phones killing us? Maybe not, but they seem to be driving us insane. Multiple studies have shown that levels of depression, anxiety and rage began to spike when these devices became widespread. But it’s now nearly impossible to function without them. So what should we do? McCracken offers a good answer: Instead of unplugging completely, we treat the internet and smartphones the way dieticians want us to treat foods that are high in sugar and fat: We consume them sparingly, strategically. Using the metaphor of the old food pyramid we learned as kids, McCracken suggests changing the media we consume: Scripture, our local church, good books, nature and enriching entertainments should (in descending order) fill our minds more so than social media and the 24-hour news cycle. This is a very practical, challenging book that I recommend to everyone.

Dominion, Tom Holland

If you love history, you should read this one. It’s long, but Holland is a skilled, entertaining writer. What he has done here is remarkable: He’s written a history of Christianity that shows how the values that we treasure in Western culture–human rights, the inherent dignity and worth of all people, etc–come from the Gospel. What makes this even more remarkable is that Holland, although raised in the Church of England, is not a believer. Yet he offers us a powerful reminder of the unstoppable, advancing Kingdom of God, and how those who trust in Christ are the light of the world.

So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger

Enger’s “Peace Like a River” is one of my favorite books of all time, so this one had a lot to live up to in my eyes. It’s narrated by an author who had one successful novel, long ago, and has struggled to finish another book since. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and young son (Enger does a great job of making the family environment vivid and compelling) in the mid-twentieth century. Then he meets an older man who is a fugitive from the law. The outlaw and the author become friends, and together begin a cross-country journey to find the woman the older man left when he fled from justice all those years ago. Along the way, they are pursued by a relentless lawman who reminded me of Les Miserables’ Javert. This is a story of adventure and hard-won redemption. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I love reading stories of how people came to faith, and this one is particularly relevant in our highly divisive times. Rosaria Champagne was, by her own description, a lesbian radical feminist college professor who often wrote editorials in the local paper about the damage caused by Christianity. This led to receiving stacks of hate mail. But then she got a different sort of letter, from a local pastor and his wife. That led to a friendship that ultimately led Rosaria to Christ. Not only is this book very well-written, it’s honest. Things in her life didn’t immediately get better, and in fact, were in many ways more complicated after she was saved. Christians in her story haven’t all behaved well. But it’s a story that will inspire us to invest in our neighbors–including the ones we assume have no interest in friendship with us.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, by Preston Sprinkle.

The messages from our popular culture about gender have changed so rapidly over the past ten years, it’s hard to know how Christians should respond when their neighbors, co-workers, and family members suddenly announce they are gender-fluid or trans. Sprinkle writes as a Christian academic who has many friends who are at various points on the gender spectrum. He helps us understand how to communicate in a loving, respectful way without compromising biblical truth.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Don’t let the title fool you. This is not a Christian book. Haidt is a well known social psychologist who is very good at communicating with ordinary non-psychologists like us. The main takeaway from this book is Haidt’s image of the Elephant and the Rider. Here’s my short version: When we’re talking to someone (in person or online) about politics or religion, we make what we think are fool-proof arguments, and cannot understand why they stubbornly hold onto their beliefs. Haidt’s theory is that the rational part of our brain (the part that carefully weighs arguments according to the evidence) is like a man riding an elephant. He has some influence over the direction he travels, but in the end, that elephant is going to go where he wants. So what is the elephant? Our intuition–the stuff inside us we don’t ever think about, and may not even be aware of–like our hidden prejudices and presuppositions, our loyalties to the groups we belong to, experiences we’ve had (“The Christians at my high school were judgmental jerks, therefore Christianity is a lie”). There’s a lot more in the book (and I certainly don’t agree with Haidt’s theory of how religion began). But Haidt helped me see that changing someone’s mind is more about building a relationship with them than it is about arguing, debating, and sending them internet memes.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (podcast), Mike Cosper

Yes, this is a podcast, not a book, but I wanted to recommend it here anyway. Mars Hill was a church planted in Seattle in the late 90s, which quickly became a megachurch and made its teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll, an evangelical superstar. Then, it all collapsed seemingly overnight. Driscoll could be crude at times (I first heard about him as “the preacher who cusses sometimes”–how I wish that was his biggest flaw), but evangelicals celebrated him, buying his books, downloading his sermons, inviting him to countless conferences, because of his meteoric success. He was a mesmerizing, entertaining speaker who preached solidly biblical messages. And his church was reaching young people by the thousands in one of the least-churched cities in America. We were willing to ignore Driscoll’s flaws because the results seemed so “anointed” by God. The podcast is excellent first because it pulls back the curtain on the toxic things that were really happening at Mars Hill (including interviews with many former staff and church members), but also doesn’t overlook the genuine good that happened there. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of assuming that someone who is gifted and dynamic should be given leadership responsibilities, even if he/she hasn’t shown the character necessary to lead. Along the way, it helps us understand where the “Christian celebrity culture” came from, and why we need to wean ourselves from it.

A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, by Scot McKnight and Laura Berringer

This book is timely, considering the phenomenon that was The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (see above). However, McKnight and Berringer (McKnight’s daughter), were inspired to write this book not by that church’s collapse, but by the disgraceful end of Bill Hybels’ ministry at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, where the authors are members. If you’ve ever been puzzled by why pastors so often stumble, and churches so often split (or drive away once-faithful members who swear “I’m never going back to a church again”), and what can be done to stop it all, McKnight and Berringer have some interesting ideas. I certainly didn’t agree with all of them, but this book reminded me that a church should be about producing truly good people, not just growing larger.

The Hope and The Glory, Herman Wouk

I became a little obsessed with the history and culture of Israel this year. I even got addicted to an odd little show on Netflix–Shtisel, shot in Hebrew, about a family of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem (which I recommend). I also watched CNN’s series on the history of Jerusalem (which was not great). These two books, by the author better known for The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, take us through the history of modern-day Israel, starting with the nation’s founding in 1948. It centers on three extended families that helped defend the territory granted to Israel by the UN against the Arabs who were incensed at losing land on which they had lived for generations. The books then move forward through various crises to come, like the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the hunting of the Munich terrorists. The battle scenes are exciting, but Wouk even manages to make the political details (like conversations between a main Israeli character and various CIA and military contacts in the US) interesting. Along the way, there are plenty of cameos from famous historical figures. These characters seem very real, and I found myself very invested in them. But the book also was a great reminder of what an unlikely miracle the modern-day state of Israel is.

The Source, James Michener

To continue my obsession with Israel, I found this book, written in the sixties, about the entire Israel story, from pre-historic times, through the biblical era, to modern day. Michener’s format here is like the one he used in Texas (the only other book of his I’ve read): Use a modern-day story as a framing device to walk through the history of a region. In this case, the modern-day story is about three archaeologists (an American, an Israeli, and an Arab) who are working on a dig in Israel. With every artifact they find, the story switches to the past, and shows us what was happening in that town in that era. Like with Texas, I thought the modern-day portion was much less interesting than the stories in the past. On the good side, it helps frame the arguments about the Holy Land in a way I found enlightening and relevant, even though it was written fifty years ago. But the stories of Israel’s past are fascinating. Michener has an economical way of writing, which enables him to bring hundreds of characters and dozens of eras to vivid life in a very short span of writing. Don’t get me wrong…this book is really, really long. But it’s extremely interesting, and I learned a great deal about Israeli history.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

This is another book I’ve been meaning to read for years, ever since it was on some Christian writer’s list of “Great non-Christian novels with Christian themes.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I know it’s not going to appeal to everyone. The narrator grows up in a New England town, raised by his aristocratic grandmother after his beautiful mother is killed by a foul ball at a little league game. That ill-fated ball was hit by Owen Meany, a dwarf with a genius intellect and some strong theological beliefs, who is the narrator’s best friend. From that point forward, Owen believes he is chosen by God to do some BIG thing. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Owen is right, but how his destiny ultimately gets fulfilled is something I certainly didn’t see coming. This is definitely NOT a Christian novel. But the narrator starts the story by telling us, “Owen Meany is the reason I am a Christian today,” and by the end of the book, I believed him. PS: I listened to the audio book, and the reader did an excellent job of capturing Owen’s unique voice, which added to my enjoyment of the story.

Where the Light Fell, Philip Yancey

I saved my absolute favorite for last. That seems odd to say, since this is such a disturbing book at times. Yancey is my favorite writer; Books like The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Soul Survivor and many others have challenged and inspired me for the past twenty years. In this, the memoir of his childhood and family, we see why he is so determined to ask uncomfortable questions of Christians like me. Yancey grew up in a devout Southern Baptist home, raised by a single mother after his father (who planned to be a missionary to Africa) died of polio. Yancey’s mom promised the Lord her two boys would take their father’s place on the mission field, and her determination to fulfill that promise eventually drove both sons away from faith. Philip ultimately found his way back to Jesus, but his conversion story is only a small part of the book. Mostly, it’s the story of the fine line between genuine, committed Christianity and toxic fundamentalism, and how bad we tend to be at knowing the difference (and how tragic the results can be). I know that doesn’t make the book sound like fun, and its not. But it is a very involving read, and in a time when so many of our young adults and teenagers are walking away from faith, I think it offers us some lessons on why…and what can be done to change that. For that reason alone, this is the book I read this year that I most highly recommend.