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)


Testimony: A Reflection on Weeping & Worship

At an earlier moment in my life, when I was learning the art of counseling, I remember being taught that laughter and tears often serve as signs that we’re getting close to our truth. I appreciated learning that. In an odd way, it took pressure off of either act — whether I was laughing or crying, I became more curious about what truth those emotions were pointing me toward.

If you were in worship this past Sunday you saw me weeping at the altar. Depending on where you were sitting yourself and what you could see, that might have made more or less sense to you. I want to tell you what I saw and why it moved me to tears.

The texts for this past Sunday were full of visions: Peter sees a sheet descending from heaven filled with “unclean” animals, which he comes to understand as a sign that God is breaking down the dividing walls we erect to hold each other at bay. John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, describes a vision in which a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem come down from heaven and hears a voice declare, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” (Rev. 21:3)

Attempting to make sense of these scriptures with the children, I asked them if they’ve ever had guests come to stay with them in their home. They talked about play dates and babysitters and grandparents who’ve come for shorter and longer stays. We wondered if God might be like that, not walled off behind a distant future, but making a home with us here and now.

As we sang the psalmody, one of our first time guests caught my eye. I’d never seen her before and only interacted with her briefly to welcome her when she came through the door right before worship. She was a middle-aged African-American woman and she seemed to me to be living with developmental delays, like my sister. I remember hoping that she would feel comfortable. Once we began to sing I watched as she turned in her seat to focus her attention on those of you playing instruments. Soon she was clapping her hands and swaying in time to the music, fully engaged and delighted by our worship.

Later, as Jossy led the Prayers of the People, I watched as our guest mimicked Jossy, lifting her arms in prayer. With each petition she took one step closer to the ambo (the stand from which I preach and the lessons are read) until, at the end, she was nearly face to face with Jossy, who never lost her composure as she continued to lead our prayers. Finally, the woman laid her arms across the front of the ambo and rested her head on her arms, gazing up at Jossy with a look of open-hearted gentleness.

When we passed the peace, you could feel the charge in the air. After a moving testimony by Gretchen Burch on the power of listening and presence to transform a brief encounter between her father and her husband into an opportunity for healing, followed by those prayers, there was an extra energy to the way you greeted one another, sharing hugs and handshakes. I had to almost yell to be heard over you, and you showed no sign of wanting to return to your seats.

Then we began the service of the table and once again the mood shifted from almost raucous to quietly reverent. I was offering prayer over the elements at the altar when it happened. I remember looking at the words on the page,

“We thank you for Jesus, in whom you have made your home among us and loved us as you would have us love…”

Then I looked up and saw our guest seated in the front row, while everyone else was standing. It took me a second to understand what was going on, but I soon realized that she was taking the ring off of her finger and slipping it onto Cynthia’s finger. Immediately I remembered the parable of the prodigal:

“Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24)

Immediately I was flooded with a sense of understanding and almost unbearable humility. How often have I stood behind the altar imagining myself to be the host of this ritual, our sanctuary as the home with doors flung open? But it was this woman putting the ring on our fingers, revealing us to be the guests, the prodigals, the wanderers, and this ordinary feast as our heavenly homecoming. A new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, here and now. “See, the home of God is among mortals.”

I wonder if this is something like what Peter felt, when he saw images from familiar scripture broken open and understood in a new way, on a new level, in his gut and his heart, and not just his head. All I know is that I could barely breathe, much less speak. All I could do is weep as I felt the truth of the gospel pour over me.

And you held me just as you had held the visitor among us during the prayers, with open hearts and soft eyes and steady attention. One of you called out, “take your time” and another “we’re with you, Pastor.” Jossy laid her hands on my shoulders and took up the work of praying so that it was not just the elements being blessed, but me as well.

Eventually I caught my breath and could continue,

“…and loved us as you would have us love; in whom you are preparing a new heaven and earth, where all will drink from your spring of the water of life.”

Then we ate and celebrated God’s home among us.

Afterwards you were so kind, checking in to make sure I was okay. Some of you seemed to intuit exactly what had been going on. It reminded me of the explanation of glossolalia my dad had given me when I was young. He told me that when the Spirit moves one to speak in tongues, another is sometimes gifted with a word of translation. It felt, to me, like that kind of experience — the Holy Spirit overflowing my ability to wrap words around it, and you translating what was seen and heard into words of love and compassion.

That is the truth to which my tears were pointing. That God is love, and makes a home among us here and now. It wasn’t any more true this past Sunday than it is on any other given Sunday. I just perceived clearly for a moment a truth that on most days is so much harder to see and to remember. We are all that guest, and she is us, and together we are being made new.