James: A Faith That Works – Part 10

James 4:13-17

“In the midst of a pandemic, how safe is your job?”  That’s the question that was asked on front page of USA Today recently.  A subtitle read: “The Warning Signals: How to Cope.”  And the front page pictured a dejected worker who had just received his termination notice.  A secondary news line in USA Today read: “Americans are buying Mace, RVs, bulk foods as COVID-19 pandemic drags on.”

We face a very uncertain future.  Who would have guessed even a year ago that we would be in the midst of a worldwide pandemic of such major proportions?  Who can accurately predict this country’s economy from year to year, or from day to day for that matter?  And is there a single weatherman in the state of Iowa, or in the entire nation for that matter, who can have an accurate 5-day forecast?!  We’re all concerned about what tomorrow will bring.  Will there be an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault?  Will gasoline prices suddenly soar upward again?  Will there be a breakdown in my family, or a loss of health?

Just how should a Christian plan for such a precarious future?  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow.  God will take care of you,” He said.  But Jesus didn’t mean that we should make no plans for tomorrow, or never save any money, or never make goals, because He himself planned for the future.  He made advance provisions for a meal in an upper room.  He provided for His mother prior to His death.  He informed His disciples that He was going to be crucified and told them where He was to meet them after the resurrection.  Then He told them to go to Jerusalem and wait and they would be empowered with the Holy Spirit in the future.

In Luke chapter 14 Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower.  Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (v. 28).  You’re not going to enter into a building program without first counting the cost or else you can come up short, or you’ll become the focus of somebody’s ridicule.  There’s an oft repeated slogan in investment circles that says, “People don’t plan to fail, they just fail to plan!”

Well the Christian should also plan ahead with wisdom so that we can live our lives victoriously and face tomorrow with confidence.  But we need to plan the right way.  And that’s what James is talking about here in the 4th chapter, in the 13th – 17th verses.  This little paragraph contains a wealth a wisdom.  And this morning I want us to examine four basic principles about planning for tomorrow that can help give confidence and inspiration to us all.


First, acknowledge the sovereignty of God over your life.

James exhorts us in verse 15: “…say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

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There are basically two philosophies of life.

First, there is the Christian view.

The Christian view is that God is my Creator.  I’m not here by accident, I’m here by design.  And God is my Savior.  Even though I have violated His absolute standards He came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ and died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins, though that’s much too high a price.  But God is not only my Creator and Savior, He is also my Sovereign.  He is the Lord over my life.  He dictates my behavior.  He directs my future steps.

In the words of Paul in Acts 17, beginning with verse 25, “…he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.  …he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  …’for in him we live and move and have our being’” (vv. 25-26, 28).

If a young man accepts a scholarship to play college football, he might telephone his parents and say, “I’ll be home for thanksgiving if the coach gives us a couple of days off.”  Because he knows when he agrees to that scholarship that in order to retain it, he has to acknowledge the authority of the coach over his life during football season.  Now when we become a Christian, we accept Jesus, not only as Savior from our sins, but as Lord over our life.  Ephesians 1:11 says, “[God] makes everything work out according to his plan” (NLT).  So we are dependent upon Him for everything.  He determines our future.  And that’s the Christian view.

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The world’s view is humanism.

Man, in his pride, doesn’t want anybody dictating his behavior and he stubbornly says, “Nobody tells me what to do!  I don’t need God.  I don’t even know if there is a God!  Maybe I’m just here by accident.  I can make my own decisions, I can set my own rules, I can be the master of my own fate.  I have unlimited potential and can determine my own destiny, if I just want it bad enough.”

Now the men that James speaks about here in this passage lived as humanists.  They planned their future without any mention of God.  They said, “Now what we’re going to do is go to this city, Rome, and we’re going to establish a business there, maybe a restaurant, and we should make big money.  Maybe $25,000.00 the first year!  And then we’ll be back at the end of this year.”

“Now what’s wrong with that,” you say.  “That’s the kind of conversation we hear all the time.”  Well the problem is that there is no submission to God.  There’s no acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the Lord over the future.  Their attitude was one of complete self-reliance, it was one of arrogance.  The idea of a failure, recession, war, heart attack, break of contract, never even entered their minds.  Micah 6:8 tells us that it’s good to “walk humbly with our God.”  But these men walked proudly without Him.

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I remember back in 1989 when the media was talking so excitedly about the first ever Bay Area World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants that would start “tomorrow”?  But it didn’t start the next day, or the next, or the next, or even the next because an earthquake shook the city and the World Series was delayed for two weeks.  You see, the most serious plans of men, involving millions of people and millions of dollars, are still subject to the will of God.

And James says when you are planning for tomorrow, or for next year, acknowledge that God is in charge of your life.  In verse 15 he says, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

In Paul’s writings he often used that phrase.  In Acts 18:21 he promised the church at Ephesus, “I will come back if it is God’s will.”  To the church at Rome he said, “…I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you” (Romans 1:10).  He promised the Corinthians, “I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing…” (1 Corinthians 4:19).

Now this is a spirit of submission more than it is a trite expression that we’re to repeat.  I think on occasion it’s good to say, “I’ll do this if the Lord wills.”  But that can be taken to extremes and can become a real pain in the neck.  For example, if we were to always say, “Okay, we’re going to sing all 4 verses of this hymn, Lord willing”; “I’ve got three more points to this lesson that I want to share with you, if the Lord tarries”; or to go to a fast food restaurant and say, “Give me a hamburger, fries, and a coke, Lord willing”—well that would be a real great witness, wouldn’t it?!  No, people would just turn you off immediately!  And James is not suggesting a constant verbalization of a phrase, he’s advocating the continual awareness of a truth—that God is in charge of everything.  “…in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

When I still lived at home with my parents, we used to have a dog that really got on my nerves sometimes.  The problem with this dog is that he didn’t acknowledge my sovereignty over him.  He didn’t ever understand that he was the dog and I was the master!  I mean, he had a stubborn will.  And that dog lived only because of my grace, as well as my desire not to incur the wrath of my mother, who dearly loved this dog!

One Thanksgiving we had about 20 relatives in our house.  And I said, “Now Skipper, don’t bark.”  And he barked.  I said, “Don’t jump on people.”  He jumped all over people.  I said, “Just calm down.”  And he was going around licking everybody and just making a general nuisance of himself.  And I’m the master, so I gently picked him up to take him out of the room.  And when I did, he just snarled and bit me right on the hand, right in front of 20 relatives!  Well I tried to keep my cool and I said, “Now Skipper, don’t lose control.”  And I got him out of eyesight and I just wailed away at that dog when nobody else could see me.

But I have to be honest and say that for the most part I really liked this dog, especially on one particular occasion.  Whenever there were thunderstorms Skipper was always petrified.  And when I was the only one in the house, and there were thunderstorms, he would put his tail between his legs and get the most pitiful expression on his face, and then he’d jump on the couch next to me and want me to protect him.  Now that’s when I understood the scripture that says, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), because I would just melt when that dog did that.  I’d start petting him and saying, “Skipper it’s going to be okay, I’ll protect you.”  And I’d start having a conversation with my dog.  I’d say, “Listen, if you would behave like this all the time, we’d get along wonderfully.  I don’t want to hurt you; I only want what’s best for you.  And if you’d behave like this people would say ‘what a nice dog,’ and they would say ‘what a good master you have.’  But no, you just have to rebel all the time.”

Maybe you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, “Happiness is when your children leave home and the dog dies!”  Now I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I’ve had enough dogs to make me believe that at least a part of that saying is true!

But I want you to know that God is our Master.  He is sovereign over us.  And He is a perfect Master, He has absolute authority over everything in your life.  “…in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

But He wants what’s best for us.  Romans 12:2 says that His will is, “…good, pleasing and perfect.”  And He wants us to acknowledge His sovereignty over the future.  And do you know what that does?  That eliminates our anxiety.  You don’t panic when the future is uncertain, or when it begins to thunder, because you know that He’ll protect you.  You realize that God is in charge and that all things are going to work together for good to those who love him (Romans 8:28).  And you begin to roll with the punches because you know that though you’re not aware of what the future holds, you know with certainty who holds the future.

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Secondly, if we’re going to plan wisely for tomorrow, we must make a realistic appraisal of what our life really is.

James asks this question in verse 14, “…What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Now if you’re not a Christian, or if you’re a shallow believer, then what I’m about to tell you may depress you.  But there are three realistic facts about life.  And this is the truth, if you don’t face them now then life is going to devastate you some day.  You face them honestly now and you’ll have a realistic and fearless attitude about tomorrow.

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Number one: Life is brief.

We appear for a little while and then we vanish away.  The word James uses here is the word mist“You are a mist….”  And a mist doesn’t last very long.  I was watching the mist, or the steam off my coffee mug this morning.  It was an exciting morning!  And as I watched the mist, I counted from the time it first would come up from the mug until it disappeared.  As it came up, I would count 1001, 1002, and then it was gone.  Well James says that’s how long your life is in comparison with eternity.  It seems you just get started and then it’s over.  Or as Carol Burnett used to sing (sing it with me), “Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.’”

Psalm 90, verse 10, says, “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” 

Even with modern medicine, and rigorous exercise programs, and better diets, that’s still a remarkably accurate comment on the average span of a person’s life—just about 70 or 80 years.  That means that nearly a third of your life is over when you’re finished being a teenager.

So, the Psalmist goes on to say in verse 12, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” 

In other words, I was born in 1959 and if I live to be 70, I’ll die in the year 2029.  If I happen to make it to 80, I’ll die in the year 2039.  Now that’s not morbid, it’s just the truth.  It’s simply facing the fact of the brevity of life.

Most people at age 50 think of themselves as middle aged.  But that’s not realistic because not many people live to be 100.  If we’re realistic with ourselves, by age 40 we’re on the downhill swing.  Now I’m already twenty years past that mark, and I feel as if I’ve just really started life, but it’s a fact.  And if I live to be age 70, that means I’ve only got 9 ½ more years to watch the flowers blossom in the Spring.  If I live to be 80 I’ve got 19 more Christmases to enjoy.  If I retire at age 67, I’ve only 7 more Easter sermons to write!  Teach us to number our days aright,” the Psalmist says (90:12).

The older we get, the faster time flies.  Have you noticed that?  You say to a little child, “It will be a month,” and to them that’s an eternity.  When our kids were little, they used to gage our trip distances by how many half hour long videos it would equal.  But for us who are older a year goes by just like that (snap fingers).  I’d just barely gotten used to writing 2019 on my checks, and now it’s 2020.  There’s a bumper sticker that reads: “Life is short, so eat your dessert first.”  Well life is brief, that’s the truth.

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Secondly:  Life is not only brief, but when you look at it realistically it’s also uncertain.

“You don’t even know what will happen tomorrow,” James says (4:14).

I heard about a man who stood before the gates of heaven and an angel came to him with a clipboard and said, “Now before we can let you enter heaven, we’ve got to know something about your life and whether or not you’re worthy.  Can you tell us, has there been any one time in your life when you acted unselfishly, and you sacrificed for somebody else?”

And the man said, “Well, I’ve got one incident you might be interested in.”

And the angel asked, “Oh, what’s that?”

“Well,” he said, “there was this time when a big grizzly bear of a man was beating up on a woman.  He was mean and ugly, and he had on a black leather jacket with “Hell’s Angels” written across the back.  I didn’t know her, but I raced up and I punched him in the stomach, and he let the woman go.  Then I kicked him in the shins, and she got away.”

“Wow,” the angel said, “that’s great.  But when was that?”

“Oh, about two minutes ago!”

Even if you do good things, you live a good life, you have no assurance that you’re going to live to be 70 or 80.  I may die at my current age of 60.  I have no guarantee my health will remain or that opportunities will continue.

One of my all-time favorite Major League Baseball players was Orel Hershiser.  From 1983 through 1989 he was the toast of the athletic world.  He still holds the record for the most consecutive innings pitched without allowing a run.  He led the Dodgers to winning the World Series in 1988.  He was a Cy Young Award winner.  But after just 4 starts in 1990 he tore his rotator cuff muscle and didn’t win another game.  I haven’t seen Orel Hershiser on any television ads or his picture on magazine covers since then, have you?

There are just so many unforeseen circumstances in this life.  So be realistic about planning for tomorrow, for tomorrow may be very different for you than today.

So, life is brief.  Life is uncertain. 

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And here’s the truth: Life is insignificant (pause) without God. 

James says it’s like a mist.  The King James reads “vapor.”  But some translations say it’s like “a fog.” 

Now a fog creates a little bit of a tension, but it’s soon forgotten.  We talk about the ’37 flood, and the record-breaking Iowa tornado outbreak of July 19, 2018.  And we talk about the Chicago fire.  But you know what, nobody speaks of the ’62 fog or the St. Matthews vapor.  And in all honesty, a life without God doesn’t count for very much.

Doesn’t it amaze you how quickly people recover when somebody dies?  I mean, with the exception of close family members, people weep, and they write sympathy notes, but then life goes on.  We think we carry so much influence, but in reality, when we’re gone, we’re not going to be missed very much by very many people.

Do you recognize these names: Thomas Marshall, Charles Dawes, Charles Curtis, Charles Garner, Henry Wallace, Alben Barkley?  What do all of those men have in common?  Those are six Vice-Presidents of the United States during the last century.  But most of us don’t even recognize their names.

Do you recognize these names: Steve Swisher, Andre Thornton, Mann Trillo, Rob Sperring, Don Kessinger, Champ Summers, Joe Wallis, Pete LaCock, Rick Reuschel?  Now some of you who are sports fans may recognize a couple of those names, but that’s the starting lineup for the Chicago Cubs this day in 1975 – just 45 years ago.

Now if those people reached the pinnacle of public careers just a few decades ago, and we don’t even recognize their names, then how much do you think you and I will really be missed in a few decades!  Fifty years from now, 40 years from now, some of your grandchildren will drive by this building and say, “That church used to have an overweight bald old preacher.  I’ve heard my grandparents talk about how handsome he was.  What was his name?  David Wall?  No.  Steve Hall?  No, that’s not it either.  Let’s call the church secretary and see if she can look the name up for us.  Na, that’s too much trouble.  Besides, it really doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Indispensable Man”
by Saxon White Kessinger

Sometime when you’re feeling important…

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of your work, but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.

Boy, isn’t that encouraging?!  Aren’t you glad you came today?  Doesn’t this just boost your spirits?  Well, that’s the truth.

But I’ve got great news!


And that is, your life is incredibly significant with God. 

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In John 15, verse 5, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; but apart from me you can do nothing.” 

You see, you are so important to God that He sent Jesus to die for you.  And that’s much too high a price.  He cares for you so much that He knows the number of hairs on your head.  The Creator of this universe knows your name and He will never forget it.  Jesus said the Good Shepherd knows the name of his sheep (John 10:3).  He has made provision for you to live with Him for eternity (John 14:3).  And He said not even a drop of cold water that you give in His name will go unnoticed (Mark 9:41).  But in all truthfulness the only real significance we have is in relationship to Him.

When we realistically face the fact that life is brief, and that life is uncertain, there’s only one source of significance—and that is knowing the One who holds the key to eternity.  And He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you abide in me you will bear much fruit.  But apart from me you’re nothing” (John 15).



Thirdly, as we look to the future, we need to focus our priorities on the spiritual, not the material.

Verse 13: “…listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’” 

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Well that’s the primary goal of most in the world today.

Get a good education, so you can get a good job, so you can make good money, so you can live “the good life.”  That’s the American dream.  We’ve had that philosophy so drilled into our minds that if anybody deviates from that even a little bit, we think maybe they’ve lost their mind, or they’ve lost their ambition, or they’ve gone overboard.

But it’s the challenge of the Christian to look deeper than just possessions and material accomplishments.

I understand that the Harvard student body had a chant that they occasionally yelled whenever their football team was way behind.  Within recent years it was banned from use by the Harvard administration.  But it used to be when the opposing team scored a touchdown and they were rejoicing and gloating over their large margin of winning, the Harvard student body, led by the band, would begin to chant: “That’s alright, that’s okay, you’re gonna work for us some day!”  Now you have to admire that.  They were looking beyond the immediate football game to reality down the road.


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But it’s our job as Christians to think deeper than that, to look beyond the football game, and beyond the business world, to eternity.

And when there are some things not going exactly right in our life, or if our future looks shaky, we can say, “That’s alright, that’s okay, I’m gonna live forever some day!”

Jesus said, “Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

And I challenge you to think about what you’re doing with your life right now.  It doesn’t make sense to make possessions your primary focus.

If you knew that your house was going to burn down in a month, I doubt if you’d spend a whole lot of money putting new furniture in it this week.  And when we know that the earth and everything in it is going to be burned up some day, that we’re going to leave this world behind, why focus our primary attention on the things of this world?  It doesn’t make sense!

I once heard a stockbroker say that during their training, they were taught that there was one word they were forbidden to use in brokerage terms.  They were told never to use the word guarantee.  There are no guarantee in this world!

But Jesus said, “I’m going to give you a guarantee.”  He said, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

And that’s a guarantee forever!  And when you begin to capture that, the world may think you’ve lost it a little bit, but you suddenly find time every week to worship.  You find time for family.  You find time for the Bible.  And you don’t allow the pressures of your immediate job to push the eternal matters aside.  When you place priority on the spiritual you become generous with your resources.  It’s more fun to give it away then it is to hoard it up.

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When you place priority on the spiritual you put more emphasis on relationships and less on things. 

And you become more concerned about serving God then impressing people.

In his book Who Switched the Price Tags? Tony Campolo tells of a time when his preacher, a black preacher in Philadelphia, spoke to some graduating seniors.  The preacher said:

Children, you’re going to die!  Oh, you may not think you’re going to die, but you’re going to die!  One of these days they’re going to take you out to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face, and then go back to the church and eat some potato salad.

When you were born, you alone were crying and everybody else was happy.  The important question I want to ask you is this: When you die, are you alone going to be happy and everybody else crying?  The answer depends on whether you live to get titles or whether you live to get testimonies.  When they lay you in the grave are people going to stand around reciting the fancy titles you earned, or are they going to stand around giving testimonies of the good things you did for them?  Will they list your degrees and awards, or will they tell about what a blessing you were to them?

Now there’s nothing wrong with titles, titles are good things to have.  But if it ever comes down to a choice between a title or a testimony, go for the testimony.

And Campolo said that as he went on, the congregation got more and more into it, saying, “Preach it brother!  That’s right!  Amen!”  And then he came to the climax of his sermon and he nearly screamed, “Pilate may have had the title,” and he waited for what seemed like an eternity, then he said, “but my Jesus, He had the testimony!”

“What is your life?” James asks (v. 14).  Are you focusing on a title, or are you living for a testimony?

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That brings us to the final thing that I want to say this morning, which is: As we plan for the future, celebrate every day of your life to the fullest.


Don’t get so involved in planning for tomorrow that you fail to appreciate today.  “What is your life?” (v. 14). 

You see, there are two great enemies of your life: tomorrow and yesterday.  There are some people who are just living in yesterday, in the guilt and hurt of the past, or sweet memories of the past.  There are people who four or five years later are still walking in cemeteries every day, talking to tombstones.  But I think a greater enemy then yesterday is tomorrow.  Tomorrow.  There are so many people focused on the future that they never really enjoy the present.  They’re so preoccupied with tomorrow.

 William Marston, a psychologist, asked 3,000 people, “What do you have to live for?”  And they were shocked to discover that 94% said that they were simply enduring the present, waiting for something exciting to happen tomorrow.

There’s a famous line from one of Kipling’s poems that read: “If you can dream and not let dreams become your master, then you’ll be a happy man, my son.”  And a lot of us allow our dreams to master us.  We’re going to enjoy life “someday” when we get more secure, when we get our problems over with.  When life is perfect, then we’re going to be happy.

I think it kind of all starts when we’re about 4-years-old, you know.  You ask a 4-year-old, “How old are you?”  And you know what they say?  “I’m four and a half!”  Why four and a half?  Because they can’t wait to be five.  “How old are you?”  “Five and a half.”  Why?  “I can’t wait to be six because I get to go to school.”  They go to school and suddenly they’re saying, “I can’t wait to go to Junior High.”  They get in Junior High and they can’t wait until they’re old enough to drive.  Then they can’t wait to graduate.

They go to first period, look at the clock, and say, “Boy, I can’t wait until this first period is over because I’m bored.”  “I can’t wait until this second period is over because I’m hungry.”  Then they go to the cafeteria and see what they have there, and say, “I can’t wait until this is over.”  “I can’t wait until this day is over.”  They go out at the end of the day and say, “I can’t wait until the weekend.”

And we all do the same thing.  “Boy, I can’t wait for a vacation.”  “I’ve just got seven or eight more years until I retire.  I can’t wait for that!”  And then we spend the rest of our lives looking through the family album, remembering the “good old days.”  Some of you right now are looking at your watch, saying, “Well surely it will only be about _____ more minutes.  I think he’s about to wrap it up and we can get out of here!”

Somebody said, “If we would eliminate all of life that we wished away, we’d live about a month.  And that month would be birth, youth, old age, and then it would be over.”  Because we erroneously assume that life is going to be fulfilling when there is something really dramatic taking place.

 Well life does have a few dramatic moments, but not very many of them.  For the most part, life is made up of ordinary things like: sitting in church, or working at our job, or riding in the car, or watching television.  And we’re so foolish to waste away the 99.9% of life that is ordinary just waiting for that one tenth of one percent that is super exciting.

I think one of the first things the Lord would have us to do is learn to appreciate the present moment.  To say with the Psalmist, “This is the day the Lord has made; I’m going to rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). 

Jim Elliott said, “Wherever you are, be all there!” 

We have no guarantee about tomorrow, we’ve only got today.  We have only this moment.  So, let’s live it to the fullest.