“The smile of God is victory.”
– John Greenleaf Whittier
I remember it well. More like I remember the sermon at our church for the beginning of 2021. Our pastor stood before us and declared this year would be a banner year. 2020 brought a lot of burdens and shakes in my life. This declaration fell on my ears like rain in a severe drought… hopeful for life to return.
Then, 2021 happened…
Rejection. Pain. Bills. Lose of job. Betrayal. Heartache. Loneliness. Depression. Our life could have been turned into a soap-opera. There was more drama in our life than in the career of an Oscar winner. I even had some friends tell me I was lying or stretching the truth of what was going on. It was a rough year on all fronts.
So, where was my banner year? Was God unhappy with me? Did he withhold blessing from me for any reason? What was I doing wrong?
Then words from a dear friend began to take root in my heart…
Change the narrative
Let’s take the advice of Blockbuster. Be Kind. Rewind.
Did the banner year happen?
When The Narrative Changes
A lot of bad things happened. There were days I thought, “Would my life only be the drama I faced?” Were the happy faces of my friends going on trips, taking myriads of photos just God’s way of teasing me? Was I to see the “good life,” but not partake? I saw someone post a prayer request saying they feared they would never walk again if something went wrong with their surgery. They stated not being able to walk and play sports would be an awful fate. All I could do was just stare in disbelief someone would think that when I…
Yes, when I. Looking at all the things blowing up around me, I can easily begin to compare.
But, what if I changed the narrative? What if there is something else besides the drama I was facing?
What if I had a banner year all along?
Banner #1 – Freedom in Faith
2020 revealed to me how deep I was caught in legalism. I could not see God’s love for me. He could never approve of me no matter how much I did. I remember hating myself in 2020 over tensions in my faith.
Yet, something began in 2021. Something happened in me on May 25, 2021. After reading through Galatians, I journaled this prayer:
“Heavenly Father, I have been deceived about you, your gift of salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and me. I believed I wasn’t good enough. I had to prove myself. All my years I tried to feel your love when it was already there. I believed you hated me and cursed me because I couldn’t reach the next spiritual level. I believed, but I believed a lie. I lived out this lie and it affected and infected everything. It became about me proving myself to you and others to hopefully be blessed. That is the lie I lived. I lived a false gospel. Jesus was just a means to an end; not a relationship of freedom to live. I repent of this lie in my heart and mind. I turn from it, and not to a way of rules and right living, but to Jesus. You love me and want me, so you sent Jesus to free me to be who you you created me to be – not a slave, but a son. A slave is only loved by his performance, but a son is loved unconditionally. So God, heal my mind from these lies. Forgive me for living contrary to your gospel and give me a heart to follow Jesus’ love and grace. I believe and confess this is what is true. No more proofs, rules, standards, and images – only Jesus. Thank you for revealing this blindness and opening my eyes to the truth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
My chains of legalism fell off and the prison doors began to open. That August, I was baptized. The pastor who baptized me, then prayed over me to received the Holy Spirit.
2021 brought a freedom to my faith. I’ve experienced God in ways I’ve never dreamed of. I let go of the need to debate theology and hold tight to labels and positions. Instead, I have experienced the freedom of allowing God to take control of my beliefs.
Our experience of God will never be greater than our revelation of God. If we keep God in our man-made systematics, then we will never experience a God out of the boxes we create for him.
Banner #2 – Faithful Friends
The biggest struggle I have faced in my life are the thoughts of being unlovable. Do people just tolerate me, or am I truly loved, wanted, and accepted?
This year, I saw many friends and family walk away. There were days I hung up the phone or left conversations with tears in my eyes. I spent so many nights sitting out on the stairs looking up into the night sky hoping to feel some connection or pull on my soul to know I was not alone.
2021 felt like the sequel to 2020 – More rejection. Yet, when I think about it. I was never alone. I have friends who never let go of me. In fact, they would hold tighter if I began to walk away.
The greatest story I have of this year regarding a friend still astounds me. It was like God had me in a game of chess. October 2021 came around. I was out of town. Something happened in my family that brought on some very dark days. The 4am call still is a vivid soundtrack in my mind. Yet, when I received that phone call, a close friend was with me. I do not think I would have been able to process it all without this friend in my life. In fact, my whole pastoral team was in the same city I was. I prayed with my pastor the day I received that call. This friend walked with me through those days and still is there checking in and not letting go (even if I say dumb things).
This year, I was never alone. My own depression clouded that image, but I really never was. Even if I could only send them a text, they would always respond.
To those friends, I wish I had something to give in return to what you gave me. There is no trinket or monetary value which could replace or replicate your friendship in my life. You texted me out of your fort of work. You surprised me at my 30th. You spent many Saturday lunches over chips and salsa helping me work through the junk in my life. You reassured me of my value by gifting me something that I just look at and begin to tear up. You held my hand as you prayed for me. You saw me as your son and became a father to me in my darkest days.
Banner # 3 – Finding Foundation
The biggest obstacle I faced this year was coming to terms with my struggle with same-sex attraction. March 2020, I attempted suicide over it due to the overwhelming burden it was on my life.
However, 2021 brought something else. It brought a new way of seeing God and this part of my life. For so long, I was told and counseled God could not use me until I was rid of it. I was inferior until I was on the straight and narrow path regarding this issue. The hatred for myself was a burden too much to bear.
Yet, 2021, I found a foundation. His name is Jesus Christ. He isn’t angry with me or hates me because I have same-sex attraction in my life. He know about it. In fact, he loves me for who I am. Until I was able to accept myself, I could never begin to see God’s love for me. Sure, acceptance meant rejection from some. But those who accept me (including my wife who is Wonder Woman. Move over Gal Gadot – you have nothing on her) keep pointing me to Jesus and his love. Over and over they remind me to give it to him. It is not all of me. It is another part of me I give to Jesus and allow his Spirit to guide me in how I live with it.
This struggle used to drag me down to the depths of despair. Now, I am walking (with a few stumbles) in the belief God will use it for his glory and it is my weakness he can show himself strong in.
Back to Normal?
2021 was the year to return to normal (mainly in regards to Covid). However, in my own personal life, I do not want to return to how things were. If I did, then look at what I would lose. How far back would I need to go to return to normal?
Faith is a living force in the life of a Christian. It is founded on Jesus Christ. Faith isn’t static. It does not desire the return to normal when your world has been turned upside-down. Instead, it yearns for the new adventure. It yearns to walk without sight following the voice of the Spirit.
Why go back to normal when the Spirit wants to be with me on this journey of transformation into the image of Jesus? Sanctification is far from normal.
The Conclusion of the Year
So, did I have a banner year?
It all depends on how you define what a banner year is. Many of us think it is great, sweeping victories, miracles, blessings, overflows of joy gushing out of our very soul.
But what if a banner year is like the soldiers at Iwo Jima attempting to set up their banner? It was put up in the midst of bullets slicing flesh and corpses corrupting the paradise scenery. Yet, these men had one goal- their banner must be lifted.
Many times this year I questioned God asking where my banner year was. Was it found in the next day or something I missed? No. It is in the present where I am. It is in the smile of God we find the banner year. A banner year is someone standing and planting their flag in the ground declaring they stand. It is not a symbol of wealth, health, and prosperity. It is a symbol of standing.
And I am still standing. I still have a home. I still have my wife. I still have my faithful friends. I still have my church. I still have Jesus.
It is not in the reception of gifts we find the banner year. It is in the present smile of God when we are able to stand. That is when the banner flies.
All it takes is the mindset and heart to change the narrative.
So lift your banner high and stand, because God smiles on you. And in that smile is the victory you stand in.
Suggested Song – Here Again by Elevation Worship