Happy New Year! Doesn’t that have a fresh sound to it? After all the crazy messiness of the Christmas holiday, doesn’t it feel good to take a moment and think about the possibilities of a clean start, a fresh new beginning. And oh, we all know about those New Year’s resolutions. This week I checked out some of the research on resolutions: the most common ones probably won’t surprise you: they have to do with health: losing weight, eating better, or quitting smoking. How well do we generally do at keeping them? The results are mixed. But one study found that about 40 per cent of us are still sticking to our New Year’s resolution six months later. So I guess it depends on whether you are a glass-half-full or half-empty person.
Today, in the gospel, we even get a new beginning – a new beginning with the word of God that takes us back to promise of Jesus, the moment when his arrival could be expected and every potential still possible. Like a New Year. At Christmas, we receive that new beginning with the birth of a baby, as simple a symbol of fresh hope and bright starts as humanity can find. If we are lucky, we can bask in that message of hope for the next six months and longer.
Of course, we know the reality: it doesn’t take long for the harder part of life to seep in. For a negative crack by a spouse to sour our mood, and take us back to old patterns. For the paperwork to pile up at the office, or for co-workers to drive us nuts. For the homework to return and the care-giving to once again make us weary. And then, suddenly, it’s all forgotten, and we are once again thinking of Christmas as that sparkly holiday 12 months away.
But the reality is Christmas can take us only so far. On top of all those presents and family gatherings, we pile so many expectations that we set ourselves up to be disappointed. We push aside those problems, only to have them smack us in the face again on Boxing Day. Christmas is a moment to pause, to reflect. But it is really not a time to rest, to say, “God has come, God’s got things handled.” In fact, Christmas is the beginning of the real work – for Mary and Joseph, who are about to flee to Egypt, for the shepherds and wise men, and for the disciples, who will follow. And mostly, for that baby, who must make the hardest journey of all. Christmas gives us a new beginning to get that work done – a new mission. And if that is what we feel at the turn of the New Year, then we are on the right track.
So how do we find our way on that path? How do we keep to it – on a Christian New Year’s resolution – to bring ourselves closer to God in mission for others? How do we improve our odds of falling into that 40 per cent and not back into the old way we so hope to change?
Psychologists can offer tips, and sell you a book that offers them. But the bests tips are actually already in the gospel, a message God shares with us freely, written long before the ball was dropping in Times Square.
The first one: Make your resolution about something larger than yourself. Mary and Joseph had this in spades: they weren’t trying just to be good parents – they were responsible for the most special baby born to the world. We have to look for that deeper meaning behind our motivations. The surest way to fail at any goal is to put a selfish reason behind it – we just can’t sustain it in the long run. But maybe you want to be healthier to be a better parent so you can stay active with your kids and have more energy to contribute to the life around you. That’s a worthy goal, an other-centred goal. How much more are we inspired to do something when it is not just about serving ourselves?
The Second Tip: Check in. Christmas isn’t a one-shot deal, and New Year’s doesn’t just happen at midnight on the 31st of December. We can check in with God whenever we like to keep track of our progress. You cannot make a plan to change and then forget about it. You have to be diligent and mindful and take careful, deliberate steps. Our faith is the same – we have to nurture it. We have to cultivate that better and closer relationship with God through prayer, through reflection. That means different things for each of us: perhaps it is the journal entry at the end of the day. Perhaps it is time spent kneeling with folded hands, talking out loud to God. Perhaps it is simply that quiet moment on the bus when you hear that voice in your head reminding you to take stock of the day. I read once that it takes 14 solid days to change a bad habit. But in truth, it takes a lifetime to keep a good one – a lifetime of inner conversations with God, a lifetime of reflecting on our actions and making intentional acts to change for the better.
Tip Three: Dwell in Community. From the day he was born until the cross, Jesus was all about community. In the manger, God began shaping it around him. And as children, we clearly recognize the need for community for those people and friends who care for us and sustain us. As adults, we become more selective about the community we choose and we don’t see so clearly how it invigorates and refreshes us. Perhaps we fail to see the community that would be there if we needed help. Perhaps we fail to be that life-giving community for others. Sometimes, so keen to make it on our own, we forget that no one has ever been truly successful without help. And this applies most definitely to any attempt to make a change: we need to include our friends and family, to enlist their support and love. Certainly it also applies to our faith lives. And Sunday morning service is just one example of that: the life we get from coming here and singing and praying together. But when we are also instruments of community, our faith thrives. And our efforts for positive change thrive with it.
So, in this week of new resolutions, if you have chosen something – big or small – to change about yourself, I hope you feel God walking with you. Make your goal larger than yourself. Check in. Dwell in Community. Guided by the self-help manual that God lays out for us, enjoy the promise of new beginnings. Amen.