As the year comes to a close, everything seems to be focused on the pandemic. We cancelled graduations, weddings, even funerals because of it. We received stimulus checks to help us through it. Our hearts are pounding in the hope of getting another one soon. Jobs have been lost, changed, or no longer needed.

A friend came up to me the other day and said, “I will be so very thankful when this year is over.” The sentiment was obvious and real. There are lots of reasons my mind and my heart agree with my friend.

The year has left a lot of things out of focus. Have you ever seen one of those pictures where everything in the picture was blurred except one object? The year has been one of those pictures — everything has been seen and interpreted through the only thing that is in focus, the pandemic.

Sometimes the result of such a blurred picture is stunning. Most of the time blurred objects in the picture aren’t very attractive.

Like photography, there is only one way that the spiritual picture of our lives becomes proper and beautiful. It is when God is the only thing in the picture of our lives that is in focus. Everything else in the picture gains its significance through its relationship to Him.

The last several weeks have been spent in celebration, in part remembering the greatest gift of all given to us, God’s Son Jesus. Christmas reminds us that “God so loved the world and gave ….” As we used to be reminded in a slogan, Jesus is the reason for the season.

But while the experience of the pandemic has taught us that Jesus is the greatest gift, it has reminded us that the gift of friendship and fellowship is a strong second on the list. We have felt out of step, out of synch without our families and friends.

A very real part of who I am is found in my relationships with my friends. I am encouraged, strengthened, challenged and comforted by their presence. When they are around, I am able to be who I am. When I am with strangers, or when I am alone, isolation and loneliness result in less than ideal decisions and less than ideal responses.

Today I had lunch with a friend. There was a time when we saw each other two or three times a week. We have probably seen each other twice the entire year. The conversation was quick — catching up on missed moments, laughing about failed vacations and silly circumstances around the selection of holiday gifts.

It honestly didn’t matter what we talked about. What mattered was the friendship. In a COVID-laced year, the health of our friendship needs no vaccine. It just needs time.

The older that I get — the more experiences that I have — the more phrases and passages of Scripture seem to leap off the pages with new, deeper meaning. One of the phrases that hit me the last couple of days comes from the first sentences of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

The NIV translates the third and fourth verses as “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” The Message translates the same verses, “Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer.”

The Message creates some poetic images, doesn’t it? “Exclamations of thanks” sort of says it all. There are many people for whom those exclamations shout words of wonder and hope. A part of my thanks is delivered to you.

The term “virtual friendship” has become real this year in a world where ZOOM, Facebook and other social media outlets have become the norm for connections. Many of us have shared a similar relationship for years now. Each week you invite me to come into your home. I have breakfast with many of you. We sit on the couch in the living room after supper with others. Some of you find me on your cell phone.

You give me the opportunity to share over 50 years of studying and understanding the Bible. We may not agree on the interpretation of every passage. We don’t have to agree on everything — I am friends with Purdue fans and Kentucky fans. Our discussions make us focus on a message that is important, and the source that has the real answers.

Another passage of Scripture that came alive this week is found in Isaiah 26:3. King James translated from the great prophet this way: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee” (Isaiah 26:3 KJV).

Liz Curtis Higgs, popular Christian author, placed the Isaiah 26:3 passage in her “The 20 Verses You Love the Most.” Several years ago she wrote: It’s been a hard week in Oklahoma. Tornadoes have claimed too many loved ones, demolished too many homes, torn apart too many lives. If ever we needed an encouraging word, it’s this week.

Liz, an incredible encourager herself, could have been writing about the year 2020, couldn’t she? If ever we needed an encouraging word, it is now.

Listen to the same phrase in the Message. “People with their minds set on you, you keep completely whole, Steady on their feet, because they keep at it and don’t quit. Depend on God and keep at it because in the Lord God you have a sure thing.”

A handful of words, each word beautifully wrapped, tied together with the threads of a Savior and a ribbon called hope. What better way to keep the picture of our new year in focus?

Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com.

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