Happy New Year! Wow, what an end to 2015 I had. For me, 2015 had the highest highs (my daughter’s marriage, son’s graduation, Imagine Heaven hitting New York Times Bestseller list), and 2015 had the lowest lows (father-in-law getting brain cancer and dying after a 7-month battle, my mom’s death after 8 years of Alzheimer’s decline). It was a compressed year! Yet I have great hope for 2016. As you look ahead to 2016, I wanted to share some of my reflections from writing Imagine Heaven that I hope will help you in this New Year.
You’re Here On Purpose
“I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). As you look back on 2015, you might wonder how this could be, or you may feel confused about your purpose or God’s plans. I get that! But reading 100s of near-death experiencers (NDErs) who encountered God’s presence, He sent them back consistently saying, “It’s not your time, I still have more for you to accomplish.” They didn’t want to come back, but God had a plan and a reason for them still being on this earth—and that’s true for you and me as well, even if it gets confusing at times.
The other confusing, yet hopeful, gleaning I discovered is that NDErs don’t know their purpose or God’s specific plan for their lives when they return. They may have understood and seen when face-to-face that God’s plans perfectly fit together, yet they find this understanding “veiled” when they return. So they have to seek, grope, at times feel confused, and pray for discernment just like you and I do! That’s actually encouraging to me—because sometimes I feel like I’m missing it, yet maybe I just make following God’s purpose and plan more complicated than He ever meant it to be! If we want to follow, He’s not gonna let us fail.
First Things First
We all want to achieve great things, set lofty goals, yet we get frustrated when God doesn’t cooperate with our grand design of how our lives “should” go. That’s been my experience, anyway. Yet the more I take Jesus at His word, the more I realize that God doesn’t need us to change the world, He needs us to love those in our path—and then He changes the world as we cooperate with His plan. And that IS His plan. We may be here to accomplish other goals, like starting a company, writing a book, creating great music, becoming CEO, or parenting a world-changer; but all of that is secondary. That’s very clear to NDErs returning—we can’t accomplish God’s plan for us without seeking first to love the people God leads into our path (starting with family, coworkers, and neighbors). This confirms Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:36-40. Steve Sjogren’s story hit me the hardest in this regard. Steve started a church that was all about reaching and serving people far from God—a great, noble work no doubt—yet no matter how noble the role or responsibility, we can’t lose sight of First Priorities. Steve recalls:
I was hovering over the operating table as close to the ceiling as I could get without actually leaving the room. . . . In all my years of seeking God, I had never before heard Him speak audibly (nor have I since that time). . . . We did not communicate just with words, but also with memories and images. God let me know how much He valued me. It’s almost impossible to describe the perfect sense of acceptance that surrounded me, yet even in the midst of this very personal embrace, part of me knew that not everything in my life had matched what God had intended for me. The doctors were in emergency mode and God was calmly quizzing me. “Do you know the names of your children’s friends?” He asked. This was not a daydream. God wanted to know the answer, but I couldn’t list a single one! I was caught dead to rights. The realization struck me like a bolt of lightning. I hadn’t taken the time to get to know my children’s best friends and long-term buddies. . . . These friends often visited our house. They were always welcome, but I was anything but hospitable. When they came, I was usually fixated on one project or another. Many times, I just wasn’t there. My job was important, after all.
So as we set goals with new hope for a New Year, make sure that First Things are First—growing to love and serve those closest to us is first in the great plans God has for your life. One day, He will show you all the ripple effect of good He accomplished through your simple obedience to love those around you like He loves you!
Be Faithful With Your Gifts
When I first read Steve Sjogren’s story, honestly, I was kind of put off with God. I said, “Lord, if that’s all you want me to do, then let me work at a less stressful job than leading Your church.” But then I realized, we can’t take God’s words selectively. He didn’t say, “just love people and do nothing else!” God wants us to serve Him using the unique gifts He’s given us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Colossians 3:23-24).
So all of us can be faithful to use our unique gifts, and work to please God, whether as a stay-at-home parent, a mechanic, a lawyer, or a pastor. We won’t accomplish God’s plan and purpose by trying to get out of current responsibilities, but by doing them with all our heart to serve God and people. Then God can lead us to new or more expansive responsibilities because we’re faithful. And along the way, we can know that He promises to reward our faithful service, even if we don’t get much reward this side of eternity.
So whatever your goals for 2016, make sure growing in love and faithfulness make the list, and you will accomplish all God intended in 2016.