Preparing for a New Year

For the past 6 or 7 years, Holly and I have done a prayer and planning retreat, usually at the end of the calendar year, or sometimes right at the beginning. We were inspired by some wise, older, mentors who talked about their rhythm of intentionally praying and planning for the new year. (Special thanks to my parents for watching our kids this year, as in recent years.) 

Each year, we’ve done it slightly differently, but there has generally been a progression from prayer to planning. Often, we start by listening, waiting upon the Lord, asking Him if He has a word for us for the new year. This year, to aid our listening, we began by sitting in the beautiful church at the Franciscan monastery near our house. Holly and I found separate corners in the quiet, empty sanctuary for about an hour or so. Holly used the ‘Prayer of Examen’ as a way of taking stock of the year [here’s a short article from Peter Scazzero on how Evangelicals can practice the Prayer of Examen]. I sat and quieted my heart, kneeling in silence. We both read passages of Scripture and journaled.


Over lunch, we talked about some of the things we heard from the Lord. Then we made our way to the retreat center in town where we would spend two nights, and took the afternoon to formulate a ‘Rule of Life’ for each of us [here’s a very thorough website from Steve Macchia on how Evangelicals can create a ‘Rule of Life’]. Many people do this as an exercise in solitude, but we found it helpful to discuss it with one another because it helps us to not be too ambitious or unrealistic. Plus, my wife is an external processor so everything is better when you have someone to talk it out with.

Here’s a sample of my Rule of Life (slightly redacted for the public):

rule-of-life-001

A new practice we did this year was to try to set morning and evening habits (or ‘liturgies’ in the very loose James K. A. Smith sense of the word– or in the sense Eugene Peterson called his ‘liturgical nap’ decades before Smith!). We are both rather poor at consistency, but we aren’t willing to give up because we believe in the formative power of spiritual habits (1 Tim. 4:6-16).* So we talked through the physical, habitual rituals for our mornings and evenings– from a consistent wake time, to work-out time, to prayer, Bible reading, and breakfast (and, dinner clean-up, bedtime prep, reading with the kids, and nighttime prayers). We tried to be realistic and not too ambitious. We also discussed a very simple ‘Sabbath’ practice to try– beginning with a walk, our evening meal, a candle and prayer for others as we gather at the table. We have four kids, so life is far from monastic– but rhythms even with the chaos and mess of real life– can make it feel like there’s music to our movements (and not just madness!).

Our first evening was mostly recreational: we went out to eat, came back and read, and relaxed. The next morning, it was time to go over the calendar for the new year. We tried to put in the things we know: from kids activities (basketball, soccer, dance, etc) to meal groups. Then we blocked out my travel and in-town special ministry events. With a year-at-a-glance, we talked about possible vacations, camping trips, and weekend getaways, circling dates on the calendar that would serve as placeholders until plans are actually made. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t ‘schedule first what matters most’, then whatever comes will fill the spots. Our goal was not to fill the calendar, but to allow ourselves to see what kind of margin we could create. All the wildness and goodness of life happens in the white spaces we leave, right?

The afternoon was mostly reading and doing a bit of personal work– Holly did some homeschool planning, and I did some dissertation editing. Then, we had dinner, watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, and ran out to grab some hot chocolate. I’m telling you all these boring details not because I think you’ll find them compelling, but precisely because they are uninteresting: a prayer and planning retreat is not epic or other-worldly. It is the kind of space in the ordinary for you to breath, and for God to breathe in it.

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One final piece of our annual retreat is writing letters to our children. Years ago, we bought each of them a journal that we write in. Though we may write in it at different points in the year, we make it a point to write in it at this retreat. With some worship music going in the background, we pray for the Lord to give us a ‘word’ or a theme for each child. Then, we write them a letter in the journal, recapping some of what we have seen in them this year, and in what we sense for them in the year ahead. The plan is to give them each their journal when they graduate high school, or something like that. So, they won’t read their ‘word’ now. But, the mere act of journalling a word for them each year allows us to follow up with a personal conversation when we get home, shepherding them into the next season.

Anyway…our retreat is an amalgam of things we’ve learned from others along the way– from the Examen to the Rule of Life to the journalling idea. I’m quite sure none of this is original to us. And it certainly shouldn’t be unique to us. If this is inspiring or helpful to you in anyway, please, use it. If not, forget about it! 🙂


Even if you didn’t get days away to prepare for a new calendar year, here’s a little recap with some helpful questions to guide some reflection on your end:

Spiritual review:

  • Where did you feel God’s joy in your life last year?
  • Where did God’s grace show up in helping you give and receive love?
  • Where did you feel joy drain out of you last year?
  • Where did you fail to allow grace to flow through you by failing to give or receive love?

Spiritual preview:

  • Is there a word or a phrase or a theme from the Lord for this year?
  • What are some relationships the Lord is calling you to be attentive to this year?
  • Are there some projects that the Lord is leading you to step out and attempt this year?

Spiritual habits:

  • What are your repeated actions each morning and evening?
  • Is there a built-in rhythm for rest and weekly sabbath?
  • Are there times during the week where you can be free of your phone (Can you give it ‘office hours’?)?
  • What will guide your Bible-reading this year?

Planning for margin:

  • What activities have you already committed to?
  • What trips have you already planned for work or ministry?
  • Where can you mark out space for retreats and vacations– time for reflection and renewal, and for recreation?
  • Where can you leave margin– unscheduled space– in your calendar?

Paying attention:

  • If you have children, what is the Lord doing in their lives?
  • How can you co-operate with the Holy Spirit’s work in your children or in the lives of those around you?
  • What can you cultivate in your children or in the lives of those around you?

For any of you who have your own rhythm of prayer and planning for your lives and homes…do share so that this can be but the spark for the gathering of collective wisdom in the community of faith.

Cheers to you in 2017!


* For an illustration of how the Holy Spirit works in us to helps us ‘make every effort’ in the formation of character through the training of habits, here’s a 4-min clip from a sermon I gave in 2010! Excuse the scruffy look!

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How Mercy Triumphed Over Judgment

[EDITOR'S NOTE: As a follow-up to my last post, here is a slightly adapted excerpt from Chapter 8 of "Secondhand Jesus". If you like, you might enjoy the rest of the book! :)]

If God’s justice requires Him to judge evil and punish sinners, aren’t we all in trouble? Can’t God simply forgive? After all, isn’t He a God of love?

There is no such thing as simply forgiving, even at the human level. There is always a cost. When someone wrongs you, something is taken from you, a piece of you is gone. Sometimes it’s something physical; more often it’s something intangible, like your innocence, your childhood, your respect, your marriage. Fill in the blank. If you’ve been wronged, you are missing something you once had or should have had. That is why we instinctively feel like saying to the one who has wronged us, “You owe me!” Even our own justice system is based on the old Hebrew law of paying “an eye for an eye”—i.e., making the punishment fit the crime, requiring restitution and replacement where possible. 

We have wronged God and He—because He is just—cannot just forgive us. Someone must bear the cost. 

1 Sam. 6 tells the story of the ark of the covenant finally being returned to Israel on an oxcart from the Philistines. The people were overjoyed at the sight. There were sacrifices and songs of joy. But then the tragic happened unexpectedly.

The men of Beth-Shemesh opened the cover of the ark and looked in at the Law without the cover of blood, and they were struck dead. It's a picture of a rumor about God: that God is pleased with our own goodness; that we can handle the law without the blood. The people of Beth-Shemesh, seeing seventy of their men suddenly slain because of the wrath of God, cried out, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam 6:20a).

This same question can lead us on the road to salvation. In this question is a truth we have missed: God is holy. 

You see, God’s sense of justice is rooted in His holiness. To properly understand His justice, we have to recognize His holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that God is far removed from us not just by degree but in also in kind. He is not the top of the spectrum on which we lie near the bottom; He is on a spectrum wholly different than ours. He is, literally, in a league of His own. That is enough to require a mediator. But to make matters worse, we are fallen, sinful creatures. Adam was the first to attempt a life apart from God, to try to live as God instead of with Him. That sin has been passed on to the rest of us, embedded in our very nature. But we are not passive in this. By our own actions we confirm our sinfulness and our desire to rebel and live apart from God. By our own choice, we have become enemies of God.

This presents a problem on a cosmic scale. Throughout the Old Testament, there are hints and references to a “cup of wrath” waiting to be poured out in judgment on the nations. 

Psalms 75:8 says, “In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.” 

In a prophecy against Judah, Ezekiel warns, "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘You will drink your sister's cup, a cup large and deep; it will bring scorn and derision, for it holds so much. You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, the cup of ruin and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria. You will drink it and drain it dry; you will dash it to pieces and tear your breasts. I have spoken,’ declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ez. 23:32–34).

The book of Revelation gives a glimpse into the final judgment that awaits: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name’” (Rev. 14:9–11).

A cup in Scripture is symbolic of a person’s lot or portion in life. To be an enemy of God is to deserve the cup of wrath, the cup of ruin, sorrow, and destruction. It is our lot, and our coming portion forever. 

But God did the unthinkable. He sent His own Son—who is God forever—to come to earth and drink the cup that was meant for us. It is interesting that when James and John asked—or more accurately, when their mother asked!—if they could sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, He said to them, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matt. 20:22).

Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). And a second time in the Garden, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42).

Let this cup pass. What was Jesus’ portion? The cup of wrath. The cup of ruin, sorrow, and destruction. It was a heavy lot to have, yet it was one only Jesus could bear. Only God could satisfy the honor of God. Only God could be holy enough to take on the sin of all the world and with it all the destruction due to us. Jesus took for us the full blow, the full force of God’s wrath so that we no longer have to taste God’s judgment. 

Instead, our cup, our lot, is now the cup of blessing, symbolized in the cup of communion. The apostle Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16 ESV).

We switched cups! Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath instead of us so that we can drink the cup of blessing. The cup of blessing is ours because of the new covenant. John Stott words the miraculous reversal of roles this way:

"The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be."

Again, I say, "Thanks be to God!"