Resolved: A New Year

IMG_0048There it is, sitting open on the dining room table. The 2018 planner, with its blank pages and silent promise that this may be the year when I finally … what? What is it that I hope will slip in and replace this sense of fragile, tentative expectation?

I wonder if it might be accountability.

New Year’s Day creates a moment for reflection on the patterns and habits that, over time, shape our lives into whatever they are. From the Earth’s point of view, it’s just another day, another twenty-four hour rotation. From the sun’s point of view, it’s the end of one earthly cosmic circuit and the beginning of a new one. Our planet’s steady wobble creates the periodic rhythm of seasons that help us track the course of each year, reminding us that we, too, will grow up, bear fruit, shed our leaves, and eventually rest with our ancestors in the ground.

Having firmly entered middle age, I’m newly aware that my life is not infinite. My time feels measured in ways both mysterious and urgent. I want to make something of myself, to use the time given to me wisely and powerfully, to make a difference, to leave something of value behind. I sense that there is another iteration of me lying just under the surface of my present life better equipped to meet the challenges of this broken and tragic world, and my blank planner is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible commitment to become that person.

This is the sentiment that gives rise to the ritual of making resolutions, and today is the day for doing just that. Yet, having lived through a few New Year’s Days already, we are all a bit suspicious and weary of resolutions. We remember too easily our stalled efforts and abandoned commitments. Perhaps we compensate by setting our sights just a little lower with each passing year, or by abandoning the ritual of making resolutions altogether. While that may be acceptable in a specific sense (we can surely make allowances for those who refuse to follow the crowd), what would it mean to live a life devoid of goals? What happens when we abandon any sense of agency to set and pursue a direction for our lives, our families and communities?

My suspicion is that the the sense of futility that haunts our efforts at reform is directly connected to the spirituality of individualism and the myth of willpower that props it up. As an undergraduate psychology major, I remember being surprised to discover that “willpower” was not a readily verifiable aspect of human personality. If willpower is measured by the ability to make significant changes in one’s life, then it runs counter to all the evidence that the single most important factor in making real and lasting change is the support of another human being to whom we make ourselves accountable. In one memorable study, a pool of heart attack survivors whose lives depended on their ability to make major changes to their diet and exercise regimens were split into two groups for observation. The first group was given clear information about the changes needed to improve health and prolong life. The second group was given the same information, and was also supported in identifying and recruiting another person to whom they would be accountable for making these changes. The results were dramatic. A year later, those who’d been given nothing but information had not made the necessary changes to their lives. Those who’d established relationships of accountability had made real gains toward recovering their health. Though willpower failed, relationships prevailed.

What does this teach us about what is needed in this present moment, in which it seems the whole world has suffered a heart attack? A moment in which the necessity of change is a matter of existential survival for the planet, and a test of moral credibility for institutions like the church that have for too long been silent about, and therefore complicit with, the unjust arrangements of power that have kept great swaths of humanity shackled in poverty and dependent upon untrustworthy actors. It teaches us that we need more than information. I believe it suggests that the time has come once again, as it does each and every morning, for us to make new resolutions — but now to make them together.

This is what I appreciate about community organizing. It begins with the assumption that we are all longing for change in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Furthermore, it does not blame us for failing to effect these changes on our own. Instead, it correctly diagnoses the issue — we lack the power to make these changes alone and, therefore, need one another. Where the spirituality of individualism with its myth of willpower blames and mocks us for what we fail to accomplish by ourselves, the spirituality of organizing assumes that we were always intended to arrive at God’s preferred future together. Therefore, it offers a process by which we can do so through deep investment in one another’s lives, solidarity with one another’s dreams, and collective action for the common good.

This is also why I find worship so nourishing. In worship I am reminded that my life is not my own, that we all belong to one another. I regularly name the ways that my life fails to conform to the image of God within me, and hear a word of forgiveness that frees me from self-hatred and useless guilt so that I can resume the work of building the beloved community of God here and now with other, similarly liberated people. Over and over again I am reminded that I exist as part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) All of us in this together.

Science backs up what we intuit from our participation in worship as well. In his work on gratitude and self-control, Northeastern University professor David DeSteno has found that where individual strategies of change (let’s call them attempts at “willpower”) create body damaging side effects connected to the release of stress hormones, the intentional cultivation of gratitude in relationship to one another seems to generate higher levels of self-control while lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and depression. Our ability to act together may, in fact, be what saves our lives.

The lesson I take from these findings is this: that the sense of urgency I feel on this particular day of the year to do something new, something better, something effective, powerful and lasting will quickly dissipate unless I find a way to do it with others. This means the resolutions I make need to make space for the resolutions you may be making as well, which means we each need to hear one another’s stories of resolve. I need you to understand what I am trying to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver), and I need to understand the same from you. These goals won’t make much sense unless we understand the paths that led each of us from our various pasts to this fresh moment in which, once again, everything is possible.

So let this be one of the handful of commitments we make today: to share our resolutions with each other, and then to ask the other,

“Why are you making this resolution?”

“What is at stake for you in this commitment?”

“What will happen if you fail to make this change?”

And, most importantly of all, “How can I help you keep this resolution?”

Happy New Year,

Pastor Erik Christensen

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)


Sermon: Sunday, January 1, 2012: First Sunday of Christmas

Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3  •   Psalm 148  •   Galatians 4:4-7  •   Luke 2:22-40

Welcome 2012, and a happy New Year to you all!

It’s the morning after last night, and a month-long season of eating and celebrating that stretched from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, so I suspect some of you are, like me, feeling the need to make some New Year’s resolutions. I’m always impressed by the scope and variety of resolutions people make: commitments to learn a new language, to travel to someplace new, to write a novel. My resolutions are always so much more mundane and predictable: to get to bed on time, to eat right, to hit the gym more often. And, as often as not, my resolutions run out of steam weeks before they are renewed for Lent. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Resolutions are hard to keep, but perhaps even more difficult is holding on to the value each resolution is meant to fulfill. We don’t resolve to make more time for reading, or to be home from work in time for dinner, because books shouldn’t be dusty or because tables shouldn’t be empty. We commit to these things because we value our minds, we cherish our families, and we want to nurture both of them. This distinction, between the keeping of resolutions and the fulfillment of the values they represent is very present in the scriptures for this morning, as we read of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Jerusalem for Jesus’ presentation and Mary’s purification.

Remembering back to Christmas Eve, we recall that Mary and Joseph have already taken one trip, required of them by law, for the census called by Caesar Augustus. Now, eight days after his birth, Mary and Joseph are keeping another law, this one a religious law, traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The action moves quickly at this point in the story, so let’s slow it down just enough to understand the significance of what we’re being told. The first verse of the gospel reading tells us, “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.” What Luke is remembering here is actually two separate rituals: the purification is actually for Mary, the presentation is for Jesus.

According to Levitical law, after the birth of a male child a mother was ceremonially unclean for seven days, and on the eighth day she would begin purification rituals that would last for thirty-three days. If the child was female, the period was twice as long. As a woman, Mary was only allowed into the Temple as far as the women’s court.

Two verses later we read that the holy family “offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’” Again, Jesus’ family is keeping the law, which actually required an offering for the mother’s purification (not the child’s birth) of a lamb, unless the family could not afford a lamb, in which case two turtledoves or pigeons would suffice. Luke is reminding the readers that Jesus, God’s own Beloved and the world’s Messiah, was born among the poor. His family, though not respected by worldly standards, still respected the observance of the law, the keeping of religious resolutions.

What happens next however falls outside the boundaries of ritual or expectation. First, the Holy Spirit brings a man named Simeon to the holy family, where he takes Jesus into his arms and pronounces a blessing that foreshadows all that this child will be, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for [God’s] people Israel.”

What should have happened, what was expected, was that Mary and Joseph would offer the poor person’s sacrifice to begin Mary’s purification, and then a priest of the Temple would have supplied a blessing for the infant Jesus. What actually took place was quite different. In the temple, a place only Jews could enter; to a family whose poor gift evidently didn’t rise to the level of the priests’ attention; a man filled with the Holy Spirit and not a priest offers a blessing that names this child as the hope of both Jews and Gentiles, both insiders and outsiders.

Simeon says, “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” This is a classic bit of foreshadowing as well. As at his birth, all of the events surrounding the infant Jesus point to the radical upending of power and privilege he will usher into the world. Yet, the point the scriptures are trying to make this morning, is that this blessing, this promise, this foretaste of the story yet to come, is all made possible through devout observance of the law on the part of Mary and Joseph, and by extension, Jesus.

Consider again those resolutions you’ve made, or you are making, for the coming year. The purpose of resolving to read the paper each morning isn’t to ensure the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times stays solvent. The purpose of committing to yoga twice a week isn’t to keep your favorite yogi employed. The purpose of these commitments, these resolutions, these private laws, is to provide you with the habits, the disciplines, the patterns of being that are necessary in order for you to be transformed. That is what you’re after, a transformed life.

That is what God is after too: a transformed life, a transformed people, and a transformed world. I think too often I assume, and perhaps you do as well, that transformation comes by letting go of everything that is keeping us down or holding us back. Certainly, transformation requires us to be prepared to die to what is old so that something new can be born in us. The stories scripture tells us this morning remind us of another truth though, and that is that ritual and habit and discipline and practice are also the context in which transformation occurs.

Had Mary and Joseph not observed the ritual laws of purification and presentation, they would not have been present to receive Simeon and Anna’s blessings. They would not have heard these powerful, prophetic, life-changing pronouncements. Had they been of the “spiritual, but not religious” scho0l of thought, they would have stayed home in Nazareth on that eighth day and missed out on the transformative encounter with an unexpected stranger with a word from the Lord.

You know I’m not one to pine for the good old days, so mark your calendars as I offer this next thought, but I do miss the day when rites and rituals were given more respect in our culture. These days it seems that people are quick to dismiss all ritual as empty, meaningless and unproductive. To me, this is somewhat like dismissing sit ups because you tried one once and it didn’t make your tummy any flatter.

ritualsRituals, whether enacted at the gym, around the dining room table, or here in the sanctuary, don’t show their power in a single occurrence. They work over time, creating the conditions for all kinds of transformations. Bodies are strengthened. Families are bonded. Lives are given meaning. This process is slow, like the seasons following one after another. Each day of winter can seem eternally long, and then it is spring. Or, as Isaiah puts it, “for as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

Keeping the law is the context in which fulfillment of the law can take place, like keeping our resolutions is the context in which personal transformation can take place, or keeping our word is the context in which relationships can become transformative and fulfilling. What’s important isn’t our laws, or our resolutions, or our word. What is important is our transformation, which is another way of understanding the fulfillment of the law.

Finally, and this is so important, our track record in the area of fulfilling the law is about as solid as my track record with New Year’s resolutions. This is biblical, and it goes back to the beginning. In our very creation stories we tell a tale of the first two people, and how they couldn’t follow the laws concerned which food to eat and to avoid. Even as they come to know their nakedness however, God clothes them with leaves and provides a new way forward.

Isaiah hints at this aspect of God’s nature, that our shame and our failure is always being covered by God’s grace, when he writes to a people who have known exile, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for [God] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, [God] has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

The gospel reading for this morning ends with this post-script, “when they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” As we each return to our homes this New Year’s Day, let our keeping of the law open up a space in our hearts, in our minds, in our lives for God to once again surprise us with the unexpected joy of the new life being born again in us and in the world.

Here’s to New Year’s resolutions – God grant us the grace to keep making them, as we thank God for the grace that follows when we cannot.

Happy New Year, and Amen.