New Year, Old Me: Five Things I’m Going to Keep Doing in 2014

528599_10151161854801787_1430087781_nIt’s that time of the year when every website, magazine, and Twitter feed is selling January 1st-dated potential. Headlines like “New Year, New You” or “Ten Ways to Lose Weight/Get Rich/Find Love/Be the Best Person Ever in 2014”. And, hey, if that kind of inspiration works for you, more power to you. Go with it. May 2014 be your best year ever.

The only thing is, New Years Day, and the companion resolution-making process, has never been all that exciting to me. If anything, it’s always a little depressing. I have made resolutions but, truth be told, I’ve never really felt all that motivated to keep them. I used to think that was a character flaw. Now I just think that maybe resolutions tied to the date of January 1st just aren’t right for me.

I grew up in the South surrounded by Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God and other churches that emphasized the need for having some sort of big religious experience where you turned your life immediately over to God. The only thing is, that never happened to me. My extended family was mostly Catholic and Presbyterian, and those aren’t exactly the sort of traditions where blinding light conversion stories take center stage.

Instead my coming to faith, like most things in my life, was a gradual process. I didn’t become a Christian by “making a decision for Christ”. I became one because gradually I was drawn by the story of Christ and I wanted to live my life following him. I can’t tell you the date that happened, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t January 1st. It wasn’t any one day.

Really, no significant change has ever happened in my life because I have set a date for it to happen. I fell in love gradually and unexpectedly. I got sober because gradually I realized I had to do it. And one day in college I decided to trade my law school applications in for seminary ones, not because that day was special, but because it had just come to the point that I knew that was what I needed to do.

The thing about God’s grace, and the changes that it causes us to make, is that it rarely comes on our own schedules, and my guess is that it even less rarely comes on a date that has rather arbitrarily, at this place and this time in the whole of history, come to be the start of a new year. So my guess is that if something big happens in my life this year, it will come because of God’s grace, and it will come on some random unexpected time, and maybe all at once, or maybe little by slow.

So, this year I’m not making resolutions. I’ve decided I don’t want a “new year, new me”. Really, it’s taken a lifetime to get to this “me”, and I’m pretty happy with who I am, and all the little graces that have made me me. My hope is next year at this time I’ll be pretty happy to be me too.

So, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to list five things that I randomly started doing at some point this year that I’ve decided to keep doing. They’ve made my year better. My only hope is that 2014 will add to this list. Either way, I think it’s going to be a good year. Here they are:

1. Writing more notes and cards with my favorite pen. I’ve used fountain pens for years. I have this one that’s not a big, expensive, fancy one. It’s just a solid, black, medium nibbed fountain pen that feels heavy in my hand and puts ink down perfectly on paper. I’ve used it a lot this year. I’ve written more cards and notes to people I care about, and while I hope they have brought them joy, I have to admit that writing them has probably brought just as much joy to me. I’m going to do more of that this year.

2. Reading less theology and church leadership books, and more fiction. I have a college degree in religion, a Master of Divinity, and a second masters in systematic theology, along with half a PhD in theology and psychology. I’ve read a lot of theology, and a lot of church leadership books. This year I stopped doing that. I switched to fiction. I read “Great Expectations”. I re-read “Dubliners”. I kept a pile of the novels I had always wanted to read on my bedside table. And, honestly? I think I’m a better pastor for it. Plus, I don’t feel guilty for not reading every new church book that comes along. A win all the way around.

3. Letting fewer people live in my head rent-free. There’s an old recovery saying: Don’t let people live in your head rent-free. In other words, the world is filled with people who can’t stand the success of others, can’t control their temper, can’t see past prejudices, or can’t be positive. We still have to love them, but we don’t have to let their toxicity get into our head. Those folks don’t deserve energy you could be better spending on others. This year I learned a lot about how to not attend every argument to which I’m invited. Sometimes walking away, saying a prayer for the other, and then shaking the dust from your feet, is the most grace-filled and Christian thing one can do. I highly recommend it.

4. Valuing what I produce over the amount of time spent working. My first year pastoring I worked an unsustainable amount of hours. Sometimes ten hours a day without a day off. I got a lot done, but I still went to bed each night with a hefty to-do list. I’ve been gradually changing my work/life balance over the past few years. Now I take my sabbath day fully, turn off the phone for dinner with my wife, and go to bed at a decent hour. Now I work significantly fewer hours but, surprisingly, I’ve found I’m able to get more done. Even better, I’ve found that the quality of what I do, from sermons to pastoral care to writing, has gotten better. It’s been a great change.

5. Reading Scripture: Like many pastors, I have at times found myself getting away from the very spiritual practices that first drew me to consider ministry. With a busy schedule prayer time has felt like a luxury. Or, retreats have felt too inconvenient. One thing that had been getting away from me was Scripture reading. This year I changed that by making a commitment to read three chapters of Scripture a day; for me, a very manageable amount. And as I’ve re-introduced myself to Scripture, I’ve found myself falling in love with that complex, beautiful, and sometimes baffling collection all over again. It has deepened my faith walk, and it’s a habit I’m glad I developed this year.

So, those are my five. What are yours? How will the “old you” make 2014 even better?

“Resolutions” – Sermon for New Year’s Day, 2012

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Someone asked me once why the church acknowledged January 1st as the start of the New Year. According to Christian tradition, the new church year started back on the last Sunday of November, which was the first Sunday of Advent. According to that tradition, the significance of today is not that it’s New Years, but that it’s the first Sunday after Christmas. So, aside from changing over our calendars, why does this day matter inside the doors of this church?

It was a good question, and one I wasn’t so sure about. The church year having started over a month ago, it seems redundant to talk about a new year again a month later. And so I researched, and found out that really, this tradition of January 1st as New Years is fairly new, in the big scheme of things. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t introduced until the 1500’s, and in England the first of the year, until the 1750’s, was in March. Russia even held out with the old Julian calendar until the 20th century. And one thing is sure. Jesus, as a good Jewish rabbi who followed the Hebrew calendar, was not popping open champagne at midnight on January 1st.

So why does it matter? Why should January 1st have any more meaning for the worship of the church than the start of the fiscal year months from now?

It’s a question I pondered when reading today’s text, which on the surface seems to have little to do with the New Year. In it, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. And when he comes Simeon, who is this old, wise, holy man, takes him into his arms, and he knows who he is. And Anna, an old, holy woman who stayed in the temple and prayed all the time, sees Jesus and begins to praise him. And Joseph and Mary, already aware that their child is somehow different, leave the Temple with their eyes open.

And that’s what a new beginning, in the truest sense of the word, is all about. Because when Simeon held the child, his eyes were opened to who he was. When Anna saw him, she knew in her heart that something new was happening. When Joseph and Mary walked out that door, their whole lives had changed. It was, spiritually, a new year for them. And everything was going to change.

We know about new years in the church. We celebrate them all the time in one way or another, because we are constantly looking for the ways that God is doing something new in us and in the world. And if you use that as the benchmark, January 1st is as good a day as any to stop, look around, and decide how you want to work with God in the new year.

And as it turns out, January 1st makes a lot of sense. In Jewish tradition, eight days after a baby boy is born, the family has a bris. Today is the eighth day after Christmas day, so today would be Jesus’ bris. But what makes today special is not that one activity that we all know about that happens at the bris, but the other, which is the naming of Jesus, and his reception into the covenant of Abraham. Churches worldwide celebrate this day, and some call it the Feast of the Holy Name. And the significance is not so much that Jesus got a name, but that the world found out what it was.

New Years can be like that for you too. This is the year when, like the ones there at Jesus’ bris, you can learn who Jesus is, or like Anna and Simeon, you can truly see him and be amazed.

Today can be a start of a whole new phase of your relationship with Christ. It can be the day when you call out that Holy Name, and decide that you are ready for the next part of your life with God. And it can be a day when you make resolutions for the coming year.

We talk about resolutions a lot on New Years. We make a list and we promise ourselves that this year we are going to do better. But the thing about resolutions is that they are more than just a game plan for how things will go; they are signs of what we want for the future. They are symbols of what we want to accomplish. They are our hopes and dreams laid bare. And some years we’re better at fulfilling them than others.

Maybe you’ve made your list already. It may have the typical items: eat better, exercise more, do better at work, get your life organized. And you will, at least for a while, do your best to make those things happen. And those hopes will be there all year, showing up from time to time like those bills in your mail bow for the gym membership that you only used three times.

That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. Because January 1st isn’t magical. This isn’t the only day of the year that things can change. God has given you 365 days this year to do that. And God can help you use all of them to make the resolutions that matter.

February 2nd is my special day. It’s my sobriety date. And when I look at my big celebrations of the year, February 2nd matters infinitely more to me than January 1st does. And maybe that’s because on February 2nd years ago I didn’t wake up with hope and a plan for how the year would go and with my eyes set towards the future. I woke up feeling crummier than I ever had before, and wondering if God could help me make a resolution and stick to it.

I know some of you have been there too. And like me, you know that we had to be ready to make that resolution, and we had to be ready to ask God to do the next. February 2nd is my new year, because it’s the day that taught me, in the most tangible way, that God’s grace is real.

You may have your own. Maybe it’s your sobriety day. Maybe it’s the day you were married. Maybe it’s when you became a parent. Or maybe it’s when something turned in your soul, and you decided that you wanted to become the person that God created you to be. It could have been January 1st, or February 2nd, or October 4th, or just yesterday. If God could use February 2nd, then God can use any day to change a life. God doesn’t need January 1st, because they all work fine.

But that means that this day is as good as any.

This day is as good as any to make a resolution, not just for the year, but for the rest of your life. And maybe you’ve already joined the gym, or bought the file folders to organize those papers, or set your budget, and that’s great.

But are there other resolutions that you want to make this year? Are there ways that you want things to change in your life? And are any of those ways spiritual? Are any about the way your want to love God in the new year? Are any about how much time you’d like to spend in prayer, or helping those who need it, or just getting to spend more time on your relationship with God? If they are, maybe they are worth being on that resolution list.

They may feel too daunting, or too big. “Be a better Christian,” on the top of the list sounds so unspecific. So hard. You can’t measure that by a scale or a bank account balance. In fact, you probably won’t be able to measure it at all. But chances are, like Anna and Simeon, the people who see you will notice that there is something different about you, and that God is doing something new in you. It may not happen on January 1st or 2nd or 3rd, but it will happen. And, it will continue to happen.

John Wesley started a tradition still found in some Christian churches to spend New Year’s Eve together in prayer. The idea is to reflect on the past year, think about the next one, and focus on your relationship with God. Now, John Wesley was really mostly trying to keep his parishioners out of the bars and streets on New Year’s Eve. But there’s something about that idea that makes sense. Not just for New Year’s Eve, but for any day when you want to start again. Begin it in prayer, and reflection, and decide where you want to go next, and call on God’s name to help you.

May this year be a watchful one for you. May it be one where you learn the name of Jesus, and never fail to see him for who he is, and what he is doing. May it be one where God does new things in your life, not just on one day, but on all of them. And may it be one where you resolve to live with hope, and with love for God. Christ’s blessing be upon you in 2012, and always. Amen.