Here we are, closing out another year and just like the past few, this one has been a crazy ride. It’s safe to say that almost all of us have experienced some highs and lows this year. But for some of us, “high” and “low” just don’t do justice to what we’ve been through. So whether you find yourself looking ahead to 2024 with anticipation, or simply grateful you survived 2023 and wondering how you’re going to make it through another year, I hope you’re encouraged as you read this post and realize you’re not alone. And with that, here are a few of my most significant realizations and lessons learned this past year.

#1 – Some things never change…but most things do.

Change is inevitable. It’s part of the deal. Some of us love it. We love the new, the unexpected, the fresh; even the unknown can be exciting. I’ve always loved new. Although I have noticed that the older I get, the more painful some change can be.

Someone once said it this way: “Growth requires change, change requires loss, loss requires pain.” Maybe that’s not all true 100% of the time, but I’d be willing to be it’s pretty accurate in the vast majority of circumstances. If you’ve experienced much change this year, there has almost definitely been some loss and pain involved.

This year, I’m feeling challenged to do my best to anticipate and even embrace change with an open heart and willingness to grow.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Each season brings change and presents opportunities for us to embrace it which will allow us to grow, learn, and discover who we are created to be in deeper and more profound ways.

Change may not be fun, and in the season you’re in, it may be excruciating. But I pray that 2024 is a year of growth through change, and that in that process God will reveal more of His plan for your life as you see Him working through the change.

#2 – Every decision – good or bad – is an opportunity to learn and grow.

It’s been said that a person will make an average of 35,000 decisions every single day. Obviously some of those are almost completely insignificant and small decisions, but some are massive in terms of their importance and potential outcome in our lives. For a batter, .250 is a pretty good hitting average, and I’d be willing to bet that for most of us the decisions we’re faced with are much more difficult and complex than swinging a bat at a ball. So that means that while we’re each going to get a few right, and we’re going to get many more wrong.

However, even in moments when we experience regret in the wake of failure, we get to choose how we will respond. We can shrink back, hide from decisions, beat ourselves up endlessly, and wither up and die. Or we can choose to develop skills to evaluate well, to learn appropriate lessons, to apologize when necessary, and to grow by failing forward. That simply means that you view bad decisions, mistakes, and failures as opportunities to develop and grow as a person, as a spouse, as a friend, as a parent, as a co-worker, as a leader, etc.

There are two critical ingredients. You need people who love and value you and who you have given permission to speak into your life, and you need an open mind. As a pastor, I would also suggest that equally important is the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life to give you wisdom and to guide you forward.

Looking back on this year, I’ve made some decisions that I’m really proud of and that I know were right, even if they weren’t all easy or popular. I’ve also made plenty of decisions I regret in one way or another, and that I would change without a second thought if I could get a do-over. I’ll bet you have too.

And you know what? You’re going to knock a few decisions out of the park this next year, and those moments are worth celebrating. But you’re going to swing and miss more than a few times. Decide now that you will be prepared to learn from those bad decisions so you can and will do better next time.

#3 – If you’re going to call the shots, you have to take the shots.

This is just the simple truth in every area of life where you get to lead in any way. As a parent, on a team, at work, in the church…whatever. If you’re going to call the shots – if you’re going to be in charge, make decisions, call the plays – you will also have to take some shots. I think this applies in two ways:

  1. For some of us, it means you need to act. You can’t be in charge and hide from decisions – even tough ones. Procrastinating gets you nowhere. Think about it this way. It’s Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. The Bulls are down one point. Less than 20 seconds left, and the ball lands in your hand. You decide… shoot? Pass? What if you laid down on the floor, curled up in the fetal position cradling the ball, and waited for the clock to run out? That would be a massive failure and waste of an opportunity. Instead, in the real-life scenario, the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, took the shot, hit the shot, won the game. Legend. He was the leader, the ball was in his hands, and he had to act. Is there a shot you need to take? Sure, you might make it or you might miss. But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so hey – maybe this is the year you go for it.
  2. Then for others of us, it means you take shots. Like a boxer. Hooks, jabs, and suckerpunches in the back of the head. If you’re a leader, expect them all. Expect them from your enemies and your friends. Sometimes they’re inadvertent and sometimes they’re methodically planned to take you down. Leading isn’t easy and frankly, it’s not always all that fun. But it matters, so expect to take some shots. Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That is absolutely true. So a valuable investment to make in yourself this year would be to develop reflexes to minimize the shots you take, and to rebound well so you can get back on your feet and get your head back in the match. You can’t avoid every shot, so be ready.

I’ve taken some shots this year and I’ve no doubt handed a few out as well. You can probably relate. Taking shots often sucks. Maybe as you read this, you’re reeling a bit from a punch in the mouth. Remember why you do what do you. Refocus on the purpose and the good in it. Decide to do your best this next year, to do better than this last year. Rededicate yourself to the fight.

#4 – Changing your perspective changes your experience.

You can’t control or influence everything that’s going to happen to you this year. That would be great, but it’s impossible no matter how hard you try. You already knew that, though. So then what can you do to keep the uncontrollable from wrecking your life?

Change your perspective. Instead of letting the unknown or unforeseen keep you in a constant state of anxiety-ridden panic, and instead of fearfully hiding away from everyone and everything to minimize the possibility of something bad happening to you or the people you love, reframe your circumstances.

Approach every day the way my friend, Dr. Wes Beavis, taught me. At the beginning of the day, remind yourself of Romans 8:28:

“For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

And then repeat this simple commitment – I’d even suggest that you say it out loud:

“I believe, regardless of what I face, that Jesus is with me and he will bring good from it.”

And say it like you mean it. What will happen is you’ll begin to look at your circumstances exactly the way I wrote earlier – as opportunities to grow. You’ll remind yourself that you’re not alone. And you’ll remind yourself of exactly who is in control. This will gradually shift your perspective and as a result, your anxiety will lessen and your confidence will grow.

#5 – Good friends make all the difference.

There’s not much to say about this one except that when – not if, but when – things hit the fan, the people in your life are your anchor. If you are surrounded by selfish, immature, toxic people, your anchor isn’t grounded and you’re done for. But if you have a few – even one or two – good people in your life, you can’t overstate their value.

You need people to vent to, to confide in, to turn to for advice, to help get your mind off of things. You need people to remind you who you are, to remind you that the value of your life is not measures in your failures or your successes. Most of all, you need people to point you back to the promises of God in your worst moments. People to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with you. People who will not turn their back and abandon you, but who will pursue you and keep you connected to community.

The people in your life will be able to see beyond your circumstances when you can’t. It’s like piloting an airplane in cloud cover. You can’t see and you don’t know which way is up, so you need instruments to guide you. Your friends are your instruments.

Make sure you can trust them. Make sure they have your best interests at heart.

I think you can find those people in the church. I think you find them in a small group. No group of people are perfect, but I’d say that’s a safe bet for a place to start.

This year, I’ve had my butt kicked a few times. One or two have been brutal. Apart from the sheer grace of God, the thing that has kept my head above water is my wife and the few really good, solid friends in my life who have my back. I see and understand their value more today than ever before in my life. I need those people. You need some too. Which brings me to…

#6 – The grace of God is enough.

This seems like a good place to wrap up. Save the best for last, right? I don’t know who Jesus is to you, but let me tell you who he is to me. Jesus is my lifeline.

See, I’m my own worst critic. You’re probably your own as well. I don’t need people to let me know when I fail, because I do a great job of that myself. And for me, it’s not momentary. It’s not an event. It’s a way of life… I live under the pressure of the weight of my own self-evaluation.

Let me get really transparent: There are plenty of days I want to hang it up, walk away, and hide. At least three or four times this year, I came close. Not because I don’t love what I do, or why I do it. It’s just that the weight and the pressure are crushing, and in a few key moments of my own poor leadership and some circumstances I didn’t create but also didn’t navigate well, it seemed pretty tempting to step down and go sell cars or insurance or something new and different.

I stress out about money, both personally and for the church. I stress out about people. I stress out about my “to do” list. I stress out about my schedule. I stress out about decisions I regret. I stress out about my kids. I stress out about my staff. I stress out about leadership. I stress out a lot of other stuff.

But the grace of God has sustained me this year. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul says,

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”

I know at the end of the day that my worth is in the fact that God loves me enough to pay for me with the life of His Son. He doesn’t give up on me even when I tell myself everyone else has, and even when I’m ready to give up on myself.

The grace of God is sufficient. For me, and for you. And for whatever next year holds.

My goal is to respond with gratitude more often this year. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 encourages us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Practicing gratitude opens our hearts to the abundance of blessings surrounding us, regardless of the challenges we face. I’m setting a goal to make it a part of my day every day to thank God for a specific way that He has blessed me. I want to focus more on His grace than my weakness – not to ignore my insufficiency, but to remind myself that my strength comes from Him. I challenge you to do the same.

As we stand at the threshold of a new year, let us approach it with open hearts and minds, ready to embrace the journey ahead with courage, grace, and an unwavering spirit. Let’s step into the new year with hope, resilience, and a commitment to grow from the invaluable lessons we’ve learned in 2023.

May 2024 be your best year yet!