Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
In the weeks before and after January 1, it seemed as if everywhere I turned, someone had something to offer on the subject of New Year’s resolutions. As there is plenty of room for improvement in all areas of my life, I read, listened to, and thought about all the insights, suggestions, and helpful advice that surrounded me on every side.
One article caught my eye with the title How to Make (and Keep) a New Year’s Resolution.
“Warning,” the author begins.”More than half of all resolutions fail, but this year, they don’t have to be yours. Here’s how to identify the right resolution to improve your life, create a plan on how to reach it, and become part of the small group of people that successfully achieve their goal.”
This is a good beginning, I thought.
Her first piece of advice: pick the right resolution. Apparently a lot of resolutions fail because they’re the wrong ones. And what makes a resolution wrong? Those we make based on what someone else is telling us to change, or that are too vague, or lack a realistic plan for success.
Be smart about your resolutions, she says, citing a management practice that uses the word “smart” as an acronym: Our resolutions should be specific. For example, if I want to be a nicer person in 2018 I might choose something like “I will say something kind to 5 people everyday.” It needs to be measurable, which means that I have to keep track of the kind things I say, and achievable–I needn’t to be nice to everyone–and relevant. It has to matter to me that I become more kind. Finally, my smart resolution should be time-bound, maybe setting a three month period for this intentional practice.
There’s good food for thought here. When I pondered what the right and smart resolution might be for me, several came to mind. Unfortunately, in my brain, if one resolution is good, thirty must be better, and thus in rather short order I had at least that many on my list. But thirty resolutions clearly fails the “achievability” test.
For people like me, coming up with one resolution is a bit of a struggle.
There is the need, the deep necessity of every life to scatter wide seed in many fields, but build one barn. So writes the poet Josephine Johnson.
One barn. One resolution.
Then it may be said of you, she goes on, Behold, she has done one thing well, And she knows whereof she speaks, and she means what she has said, And we may trust her. This is sufficient for a life.
What might my barn be for this year? I wondered. My one resolution, the one thing to do well?
I thought I found the answer when I came across the title for a sermon series being offered at a nearby church. Margin: Making Room for What Matters Most That’s what I need, I thought, as soon as I saw it. I need margin more than anything else. But isn’t that too big of a resolution? For in order to create margin, I’d need to look at everything I’m doing and decide what to do less. Could I do that? Do I even want to at a time in my life and in the world when there is so much good work to be done?
Then I came across another approach to New Year’s resolutions from a Methodist minister I admire. He suggested to the congregation he serves that each person spend time on New Year’s reflecting back on the past year:
Make a list of the five or six things you are most grateful for. Then look back of the year to consider where you would like to do things a bit differently in the coming year—perhaps things you need God’s forgiveness for, or just things you’d like to do differently. Finally think about the world around us and how God might need you to be more engaged than ever in the coming year to help “set the world a’right.” Take all of that, and consider writing a letter to God, giving thanks, asking for forgiveness, and offering yourself to God as you begin a new year.” (Adam Hamilton, from his weekly e-message to his congregation Church of the Resurrection, December 30, 2017)
I’d been practicing gratitude for several months now, so this approach seemed like a good one. On New Years Day I sat down to review the past year by reading through my journal entries. I’m an erratic journal writer, but I always have one and I’ve written a fair amount in the past year. It was both illuminating and humbling to realize that the things I’m most grateful for and the things I struggle with really don’t change much over time. I’m certain that if I went back and re-read journals from 10 or 15 years ago, while my life circumstances were different, I’d find basically the same gratitudes and struggles.
Which is to say that no matter how my life has changed on the outside, it’s remarkably similar on the inside. So it may be that 2018 will be a year, like most years before it, for small steps, not giant leaps. Maybe even a half step. Bishop Rob Wright posted these words on his Facebook page: “My hope and prayer is that we might be a half-step more courageous. A half-step more faithful. A half-step more loving as Jesus loved.” That resonated with me.
Well, I never did write my letter to God. Nor did I come up with, on my own, the one, smart resolution that would improve my life. All of this thinking made me tired.
Something happened as I was reading the Bible, and in particular, reading the passages that we just heard read here in church. I was reading them in advance precisely because I was coming to be with you here today, you–the Church of the Epiphany on the Feast of the Epiphany.
You probably don’t need me to tell you what the word your church is named for means: Epiphany means a revelation or sign from God, like the star that led the wise ones from the east to seek the Christ child. As your rector says, it’s like a light bulb going off in your head. Amazingly enough, that’s what happened to me. I received a small epiphany; a personal revelation.
And the epiphany was this: I think I heard God say to me, quietly, in a whisper. “Please stop making resolutions on your own. Look for signs from me and follow them. Be like the wise ones who followed a star.”
Who were they, do you suppose, the magi ,the wise men from the East? Some suggest they were among the priestly class of the Zoroastrian faith. If so, their vocation was to study the stars for signs from God. When they saw that particular star, somehow they determined they were to follow where it led them. So they did.
No doubt the journey was hard at times but I have the sense that the decision to make it came to them quickly. The star was that compelling, that clear. So was their task.
There’s a freedom in that kind of clarity. It’s a gift to know what is yours to do not because you were smart enough to think of it, but because God gave you a sign, opened a door, illuminated your path.
So I’m on the watch now for signs from God to guide me each day. It’s not that I’ve abandoned goal setting or resolution making. I couldn’t if I tried. But what a relief to remember that I’m not in charge, that there is more in play than I could ever make possible on my own.
Imagine that same possibility for you, for this community of faith, for all of us: that God has made a resolution revealed to us in Christ; God has set an intention and invites us to join in its fulfillment.
The response to such a resolution from God’s side is no small thing, but the experience is less an obligation than it is an invitation. One more thing: it needn’t always be hard.
I’m reminded of a novel I read years ago, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. It tells the story of a middle-aged man who for years endured his wife’s infidelity and petty cruelty out of his devotion to her. It didn’t matter–she left him anyway for another man, one of the many she had chosen over him. Later another woman would come into his life, and gradually he realized that he was falling in love with her. He didn’t recognize the feeling as love at first, because it didn’t hurt. Love had always been painful for him, and this was something else–comfortable and supportive. “It may be,” Proulx writes, “that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.” (Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (New York: Scribner Books, 1993))
Could the same be true of our resolutions.
The poet William Wordsworth experienced an epiphany from God while walking along the British countryside, taking in the landscape and workers in the field.
Ah! Need I say, dear Friend! that to the brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit.
(William Wordsworth, “The Prelude.”)
I leave you with this invitation: consider God’s resolution, God’s hope for you, for us, for our city, our nation. Dare to believe that God will provide–is providing–the illumination we need for you and I to take our next faithful step.
It won’t always be easy to follow the path set before us–we know this.
But it needn’t always be hard.
Arise, my friends, and shine, for our light has come.