2014 – The Year of Grace

Theologically speaking, grace is God’s righteousness at Christ’s expense.  It is what is given to us on account of our faith.  It is what is needed for salvation.  And absolutely everyone needs grace because we’re all sinners.

More generically though, grace is unmerited favor.  Grace is something that is given to us that we didn’t earn and can’t possibly repay.  We need grace for salvation but God’s grace doesn’t stop at just salvation.  And that is my focus for this year.  I need more grace in my life.

Taking a cue from a friend who placed a theme on upcoming years, last year I declared it to be a year of Jubilee.  This didn’t turn out anything like I expected but God was still praised and celebrated in 2013 as I wrote about in my previous post.

The reason I decided on making 2014 a year of grace is because I could really use some unmerited favor.  Now, this may just sound like I want to rub a genie’s lamp and expect to have some wishes granted.  That would be great but it obviously isn’t happening nor would I want it to be so.

Instead, I want grace because more and more I’m beginning to realize that I have little control over what goes on in life.  Certainly there are aspects that I can control.  With regards to my health I can eat properly and exercise regularly.  But that isn’t a guarantee that I will be healthy.  With regard to my finances, I can work diligently at my job and wisely save and invest my money.  But that isn’t a guarantee that my job will remain or that my investments won’t crash in the stock market.

There is just so much of life that I have no control over.  And just maybe, the things that I do have control over I obsess about too much.  The more difficult life gets, the greater our tendency becomes to control what little we have control over.  Rather than hand things over to God, we claw and scrape and try to hold onto the last things that we do have control of.

And that’s why I need grace and that’s what I’m asking for in particular this year.  I’ve been working too hard to make things happen on my own.  Some people rely on themselves because of a lack of faith in God.  I don’t feel like that’s the case with me.  But instead, my feeling is that often we ask God to do things for us and His response is “I’ve given you all the tools you need to accomplish this already.”  And then people get upset at God because they continue to do nothing and blame God for not answering their prayer.

But I’m on the other end of that.  Yes, I’ve prayed but I’ve continued to work as hard as I can to make things happen.  My work hasn’t accomplished what I hoped for.  I need grace.  It’s not that I deserve what I want in life.  It’s not that it’s owed to me because I’ve worked so hard for it.

Once I finally reach the point of saying “God I can’t do this” and completely handing it over to Him, all I can do is rely on His grace.  Because God doesn’t owe me anything.  My faithfulness to God does not warrant that I get what I want from Him.  My past struggles do not mean that God needs to right the balance sheet now in order to be fair.  All I can say is that I don’t deserve what I’m asking for but I can’t do it myself and I need the Lord to make it possible.

So that’s my theme for this year.  I need unmerited favor.  I don’t deserve it and I certainly don’t deserve it more than anyone else.  That’s the point of being unmerited.  All I can do is ask and expect God to provide.  And in the meantime, I need to stop trying to do God’s job for Him and allow Him to work.

The End of Jubilee

At the beginning of the year, I declared 2013 to be the year of Jubilee.  From an outsider’s perspective, I could not have been more wrong in my declaration.  Without getting into all that has happened this year, I will say that this has been the most difficult year of my life ten times over.  At the top of my difficulties was discovering that I had colon cancer and having 18 inches of my colon removed.

I am a man of faith and I can honestly say that at no point during this year was my faith in God shaken.  That being said, I really believe that the word cancer is the scariest word in the English language.  No matter how you fare, there is life before cancer and there is life after cancer.

How can I possibly look back and declare this year to be a year of Jubilee?  Because in the midst of your greatest difficulties you get to see how great God is.  Through the entire process I was surrounded by a peace that can only come from God.  I was blessed with tremendous doctors and ended up seeing one of the top doctors in the country even though that wasn’t my original intent.

In May I ended up in the hospital due to bleeding.  What I learned later was that most people don’t even experience bleeding like mine with colon cancer.  Because I am young, doctors typically overlook typical symptoms of colon cancer.  And indeed this actually happened as a CT scan saw the large polyp in my colon but diagnosed it as something else.  It might have only been because I was dehydrated and lost so much blood that I passed out in the bathroom that a full colonoscopy was ordered.

The polyp that was found ended up sending me to Baltimore.  The local doctors didn’t even want to touch it.  While the polyp could have been removed by taking out a piece of my colon, one of the top doctors in the country was able to remove it as an outpatient procedure.  I didn’t spend a night in the hospital.

A week later I got a phone call saying that the polyp was cancerous.  It appeared as though the cancer was contained but there was a chance that it had spread to the lymph nodes.  The surrounding lymph nodes would need to be taken out as well.  I was referred to another doctor who would ultimately perform that surgery in less than three weeks.

My second doctor I had no less than half a dozen nurses tell me – unprompted – was the best one to have for such a procedure and they’d only go to her.  These are the kinds of things you want to hear awaiting surgery and during recovery.  In the end, I had 18 inches of my colon removed and only spent 4 days in the hospital.

My cancer was diagnosed as only stage 1 which means that I have every reason to expect a full recovery.  It had not spread beyond the polyp that was removed, I did not require any chemo or radiation treatments, and I am currently cancer free.  If I go five years without a recurrence, I’ll be considered medically cured.

Through all of this I have been reminded that God is not good; He is great!  This is not the route I would have chosen for myself by any means.  But rather than feel abandoned or forgotten by God, I know that I am blessed.  Most times colon cancer is not discovered until it has reached stage 2 or 3 when the situation is more difficult.  It’s not even typically scanned for if you’re under 50 which means that when it is found in younger people it’s even more likely to be further along.  But for some reason I happened to bleed enough to go to the hospital and despite a misdiagnosed CT scan, my cancer was still discovered – and discovered early.  Many people would consider me unlucky to have cancer in the first place.  I consider myself blessed that it was found so early.  I don’t believe in coincidences and I have every reason to believe that the Lord still has plenty of work for me to do.

Was 2013 the year of Jubilee that I had hoped for?  Absolutely not.  Cancer was only the greatest of my trials this past year but not the only one.  But at the end of 2013 I can praise God even more than before because I have seen His hand at work and His power in undeniable.

Sometimes God has to tell us like He told the apostle Paul, His grace is sufficient for us.  We don’t know what kind of ailments Paul suffered from but God told him that His grace was sufficient to deal with his problems.  I learned that lesson in a powerful way this year and it’s a message that I will be able to repeat to everyone who is enduring hardships.

Jubilee is a celebration of God’s goodness and I have certainly experienced that this year.  It’s not what I wanted but I’m sure that God didn’t make a mistake that it was what I needed.

The Real Story of Santa Claus

While Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time, there is another person who is just as strongly associated with Christmas.  That person, of course, is Santa Claus.  While it is wrong to emphasize Santa at the expense of Jesus, the two are not incompatible if you know the real story of Santa Claus.

To begin with, there really was a Santa Claus.  He was known as Nicholas and was declared a saint by the Catholic Church after his death.  December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ Day in the Catholic Church – just about every day is a celebration of some saint.  Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus because of the way names get translated.  Saint became Santa – just like all of those city names like Santa Fe, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, etc.  Nicholas was shortened to Claus.  Thus Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus – both names mean the same thing.

There are lots of stories about the real Santa Claus and it is very difficult to determine what is actually real and what is legend at this point.  What is widely accepted is that Nicholas lived from 270-354 in the region that is modern day Turkey.  He was a devout Christian man who went on to become bishop of Myra.

Nicholas likely came from a wealthy family but was orphaned at a young age.  He is known for sharing his wealth with gifts to the poor.  Many of the stories associated with his gift giving are more likely tradition rather than truth but they involve placing coins in shoes left outside or tossing coins into socks that were hung by the fireplace to dry.  Another popular story involves Nicholas paying the dowries of three poor girls in order to prevent them from being forced into slavery.

After Nicholas’ death he was declared a saint and his legend grew.  Every culture seems to have its own stories about Saint Nicholas.  These were certainly embellished but the idea behind them was to promote giving to others and aiding the poor.

Our modern day Santa Claus most likely originated in 1821.  In the book Children’s Friend “Sante Claus” appears from the north with a sleigh led by flying reindeer.  It’s impossible to know the origin of this version of Santa Claus but it is a likely adaptation of numerous cultural traditions that had become associated with Saint Nicholas through the years.

In 1823 the man we know as Santa Claus became solidified.  It was then that “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published.  We know the poem better today as “The Night Before Christmas.”  Ever since, Santa Claus has been a jolly elf with flying reindeer.

While we should be careful not to emphasize Santa Claus over the true meaning of Christmas, he can be a helpful reminder of what Christmas is about.  The real Santa Claus was a man who gave gifts and helped the poor.  He also serves as a reminder that God gave us the greatest gift of all at Christmas time.  God sent us Jesus so that our sins could be forgiven at the cross.