The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

New Year
Image Credit: Brooke Lark

 

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

–Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

 

The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

 

According to one study only 9% of people in the U.S. succeed in achieving their New Year’s resolutions. 9 per cent.

More than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but 91% of people who make them admitted to failing to meet their goals. Only 9% were successful with their resolutions.

There are myriad reasons for such bad odds, many ways that New Year’s resolutions are problematic: We set resolutions that are not specific enough or are too hard to measure. We may make resolutions that are not realistic, or resolutions that work against other deeply embedded values we hold. We don’t have the patience to develop new habits. Etc.

One church worker writes of his experience of Christians at the turn of a year. He says:

Church people—our people—don’t just resolve to go to the gym or call their moms more often. They ramp it up. They resolve to get up at 6 a.m. for quiet time, to read the whole Bible through in a year, to have family devotions every night. They resolve to boycott ungodly [companies] and write their congressmen more often. They volunteer at soup kitchens and take up tutoring. I can’t keep up with them!

A week in to this new year it strikes me there is something even more problematic about New Year’s resolutions, besides our inability to keep them.

It’s this: if we’re not careful yearly resolutions—that we set— have power to shift our focus from Jesus, too much onto ourselves. Aggressive resolutions for self-improvement run the risk of overdoing effort and undergoing grace.

Wherever there is discipline, there must always also be grace. When discipline, then also grace—God’s grace, to be specific. Otherwise we risk leaving Jesus in the dust, running to what a priest I know once called “life-enhancement spirituality.”

 

Who really sets direction?

 

It’s a good time to remember the Proverb (16:9): “The heart of a man plans his course [the heart of a woman plans her course], but the LORD directs their steps.”

Better than just about any New Year’s resolution is an openness to let God direct my steps. To let the LORD direct my steps in this coming year.

It is Jesus, after all, who sets the direction of our faith.

John the Baptist learned this first-hand.

Our text says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.”

One commentator says, “Christ did not wait for John to complete his career before he arrived on the scene, but, while John was still teaching, he appeared.” Jesus just shows up at the Jordan River.

Matthew should be able to go right on, “So John baptized Jesus.” But instead verse 14 gives us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Or in another translation, “John tried to deter him.”

Jewish understandings of relating to God seem to leave more room for push-back than Christian tradition does.

Even so, John campaigns for his own agenda. Wait, Jesus, I’m the one doing the baptizing here. Like Peter on Maundy Thursday: Wait, Jesus, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you? That’s not how this goes. Or like probably all of his disciples: Jesus, wait, you don’t really have to die, do you?

That’s how I find myself relating to Jesus more often than I’d like: Okay, God, this is what 2018 will be like. I’m going to do this, stop doing that, do a little bit more of this other thing, our congregation is going to take on this… NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, O LORD, and you may resolve with me if you like….

Jesus says to John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” John tries to deter Jesus and Jesus says, “Dude, chill. Let it be so.” This is how it will be. Same thing to Peter with the skittish feet: Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And to us who would chart a new and improved course for ourselves, to us who might invite Jesus to walk after us or maybe alongside us, to us Jesus says, “You. Come, follow me.”

Who is really setting the direction for how it will be?

 

“Seeing what is actually there”:
God who knows and loves

 

John follows Jesus’s lead. John abandons his own agenda for Jesus, and follows Jesus’s agenda for Jesus, and Jesus’s agenda for John. Verse 15 says John “consented.” He said yes to Jesus, even though it wasn’t in his original plan.

Many followers of Jesus have said yes, have consented to Jesus, even when he called us to something we hadn’t anticipated. And at any given time there are a lot of us who have an unexpected opportunity to say yes to God, when God shows up not-in-the-way-we-wanted! We may plan our way, but the Lord directs our steps. Will we follow?

A whole new reality is open to John, when he gives Jesus his, “I do.” He has left behind the world of how Jesus can be part of my plan and is in the realm of how I can get in on what Christ is doing.

And he hears something! He baptizes Jesus, Jesus comes out of the water and sees the Holy Spirit like a dove. And then, a voice from heaven comes. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

John is privy to this, because he has consented to following Jesus. He has said yes to letting Jesus chart the course. He hears,  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When was the last time you experienced writer’s block?

Michael McGregor, an author and professor of writing, talks about how writing teachers sometimes tell their students to lower their sights when they get stuck with a blank page. “Lower your sights.” But McGregor says, “A better thing to say might be, ‘Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.’” He says, “Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves. The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us….”

Isn’t this more than great writing advice? Isn’t this the kind of re-focusing John had to do with his agenda? “Forget about the [baptizing] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”

And isn’t this how we want to follow Jesus, too? “Forget about the [doing and the striving] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”

“What [was] actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who intimately knew Jesus (“My Son”). “What was actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who deeply loved the Son (“whom I love, with whom I am well pleased”).

“What is actually there” for us, when we stop and listen carefully, is that same God, who has adopted us into his family with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This same God says to you, “You are my son, whom I love.” “You are my daughter, whom I love.” I know you as well as a good parent knows their children. And I love you so much I delight in you. I smile when I think of you, and I take great joy in calling you daughter, son. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

As 2 Timothy says, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’” You are God’s, and he knows you and loves you. He demonstrates his love for us—shows us what it is—in a million ways, but especially through the act of self-giving sacrifice at the cross.

 

“Before we lift a finger”

 

Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s baptism before he’s narrated any of Jesus’s actions. Jesus hasn’t done anything in the Gospel at this point, in Matthew 3. But still, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s as if Matthew wants us to see that God doesn’t love Jesus because of his miracles or because of the great sacrifice he will make or because of who his mother is or because of anything else….

God the Father just… loves… his child. God’s daughters and sons are loved just… because… God wants to love.

Adopted into the family of God, you and I, too, are God’s beloved children. It’s not due to anything we have done. It’s not because of who we think we already are. God’s love doesn’t come to us as a result of our contributions to humanity… God doesn’t shower his love on us because we have set out to have the best year yet. God loves us not because of who we are, but because of who GOD is. And then God’s abiding love for us makes us who we are. When we follow the trail blazed by God’s love, then we find out how to live and what to do.

We may still try to shape our identity around what we contribute, the service we can render to another, the brilliant solutions we can offer in a murky situation.

But to borrow a line from a book I never finished two Januarys ago, God’s love is about “how God views us before we lift a finger.” It’s about “how God views us before we lift a finger.”

So, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

And, sure—look back to 2017, look ahead to 2018, but let’s first look up with John the Baptist to see a God who knows and loves those who are his.

 


  

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday.

2018: (Any Language) Gospels in a Year

from The Book of Kells

I am one week in with the Greek Gospels in 2018 reading plan I made. Last week I also invited my congregation to join me in English, so I’ll be able to have some good in-person conversations about the content of the Gospels, too.

Each Gospel has its own three months. Readings are listed for Monday-Friday, with weekends left open for review, other reading, catch-up, or a break. Friday always ends with the last verse of a chapter.

The plan linked below also includes suggested passages each week for ​lectio divina, an ancient way of reading Scripture that goes back to at least the Middle Ages. Lectio divina, many readers of this blog will be aware, is Latin for “divine reading” or “holy reading,” where we read Scripture slowly, reflectively, and prayerfully. (There is a short primer on the practice here, based on a sermon I preached in Lent 2016.)

Let me know if you’ll be reading along! The plan is here.

Known By God: A Biblical Theology Of Personal Identity (Book Note)

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Brian S. Rosner has just published a book I’m excited about working through. It’s called Known By God: A Biblical Theology Of Personal Identity. Here is the overview from the publisher:

Who are you? What defines you? What makes you, you?

In the past an individual’s identity was more predictable than it is today. Life’s big questions were basically settled before you were born: where you’d live, what you’d do, the type of person you’d marry, your basic beliefs, and so on. Today personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. Constructing a stable and satisfying sense of self is hard amidst relationship breakdowns, the pace of modern life, the rise of social media, multiple careers, social mobility, and so on. Ours is a day of identity angst.

Known by God is built on the observation that humans are inherently social beings; we know who we are in relation to others and by being known by them. If one of the universal desires of the self is to be known by others, being known by God as his children meets our deepest and lifelong need for recognition and gives us a secure identity. Rosner argues that rather than knowing ourselves, being known by God is the key to personal identity.

He explores three biblical angles on the question of personal identity: being made in the image of God, being known by God and being in Christ. The notion of sonship is at the center – God gives us our identity as a parent who knows his child. Being known by him as his child gives our fleeting lives significance, provokes in us needed humility, supplies cheering comfort when things go wrong, and offers clear moral direction for living.

The book is part of Zondervan’s Biblical Theology for Life series. (Check the first results here to see more in the series.)

Especially with a new year approaching—and the potential resolutions that come with it—I’m looking forward to reading Rosner’s theology of personal identity.

The book is here (Zondervan) and here (Amazon). I’ll write more about it as I am able.

Guilty Deputyship: Bonhoeffer’s Justification for Trying to Kill Hitler

One of the abiding questions about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is: How did a theologian with pacifist leanings choose to join a conspiratorial effort to kill Adolf Hitler? How could he justify his action, let alone feel compelled to seek the life of another human?

Larry L. Rasmussen explores the question in his amazing book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance. (See my earlier book note here.)

In the section I’ve been reading recently, Rasmussen draws on two key concepts for Bonhoeffer: deputyship and guilt.

Deputyship is “the master mark of responsibility” (38). It is vicarious being and action. As Rasmussen puts it, “Man is not man [sic] in and by himself but only in responsibility to and for another” (38). And Jesus Christ is “the Responsible Man par excellence” (51), the ultimate “deputy” through his sacrifice-for-others on the cross.

Then there is guilt. Rasmussen writes:

If deputyship is the master mark of responsibility, acceptance of guilt (Schulduebernahme) is the heart of deputyship. …Jesus did not seek first of all to be good or to preserve his innocence. Rather, he freely took upon himself the guilt of others. (51)

Rasmussen concludes, “Responsible men should do the same.”

230113_1_ftcYou can see where this is going: the concepts of deputyship and guilt have a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to Bonhoeffer’s attempt to take Hitler’s life.

I love this idea of Bonhoeffer’s that Rasmussen describes, namely, that preservation of our sinlessness, innocence, or purity is not to be our primary motivation in acting in the world. Rather, our deputyship (responsibility for the other) should drive us. This means for Bonhoeffer that we may need to get our hands dirty if a tyrant is threatening the well-being of the “others” on whose behalf we act.

But this notion of guilt is difficult for me to fully grasp, and I wonder how we can still leave room for the fact that Jesus, even if not seeking to preserve his innocence, did preserve his innocence.

1 Peter 2:22 quotes Isaiah 53:9 when it says, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” The verse before even says that Christ’s suffering for us in this way leaves us “an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Specifically in 1 Peter the example we are to follow is Jesus’s suffering for doing good and enduring it (1 Peter 2:20). But Jesus also suffered innocently and is lauded for so doing. 1 Peter 2:23 says:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

Are we called to follow Jesus’s example in patient suffering on behalf of others (Bonhoeffer’s deputyship) and in emulating Jesus’s innocence when we suffer on behalf of others?

Yet we will never be like Jesus who “committed no sin.” Should we cut our losses and leave room for our guilt—as Rasmussen seems to read Bonhoeffer—when it comes to suffering for others?

(If so, it could be important to distinguish between the guilt Jesus took on through the crucifixion (not a direct consequence of his own impure action) and any guilt a co-conspirator has (presumably a direct consequence of the “impurity” of conspiratorial involvement)).

Bonhoeffer’s idea of deputyship, and acceptance of any guilt deputyship entails, leads Rasmussen to this utterly astounding summary of Bonhoeffer’s thought:

To maintain one’s innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler’s death, would be irresponsible action. (51)

It’s as if Bonhoeffer thought one could not resist in Nazi Germany in a sinless, innocent, or pure way. This was no longer the non-violent resistance in The Cost of Discipleship. Again: “To maintain one’s innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler’s death, would be irresponsible action” (51).

If that’s not enough, here’s where Rasmussen, describing Bonhoeffer, gets really intense. (How’s this for a take on martyrdom?)

To refuse to stand with others trying desperately to topple the perpetrators of mass crimes, to refuse to engage oneself in the demands of necessità [where necessity transcends law], would be the selfish act of one who cared for his own innocence, who cared for his own guiltlessness, more than he cared for his guilty brothers. It would be a rejection of deputyship as the form of the responsible life and of acceptance of guilt as the heart of deputyship. If responsible men have no choice but to infiltrate Hitler’s war machinery, the Christian does not forsake them but joins them. And if in the process he becomes a martyr he will not be a saintly martyr but a guilty one. He may have to forfeit every taint of perfectionism in his pacifism. He may have to join the grotesque, evil enterprises of his very enemy. He may even have to consider and carry out tyrannicide, or actively support those who do. He will bear his colleagues’ burdens and share their sinfulness even when they are not related directly to his own actions. And he will do so as an extraordinary form of the imitatio Christ in a demonic society. (52)

Amazing. I’m still trying to work through all this. It at least helps shed light on how Bonhoeffer could actively join efforts to take Hitler’s life. And a step further: Rasmussen suggests Bonhoeffer saw his conspiracy to murder as not just permissible, but as a Christian duty of sorts: deputyship with guilt.

Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Trump

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Head over to appealtochristians.com to see “Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Donald Trump.” I’m honored to be joined by more than 30 Christian faith leaders who have signed the letter. The appeal culminates in this five-point commitment and call to action:

1. We will pray for President-elect Trump, elected officials, our nation, our churches, and each other.

2. Rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the prophets, we will tell the truth about the world around us, and we will speak up for those who have been marginalized and taken advantage of.

3. We will actively resist the temptation to overlook or normalize values, speech, and behavior that are in conflict with what Scripture calls us to.

4. In the name of Jesus, we call President-elect Trump to repentance for dishonoring the image of God in others.

5. We will fix our eyes on Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, redouble our efforts to honor the image of God in all people and to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

Read the whole thing here, add your name if you are so inclined (you’ll see a link), and share freely.

Mandela the Prophet: “An Old Man Who Has Nothing New to Say”

mandelaThree years ago this week the world lost a prophet, Nelson Mandela. He died at the age of 95.

As I was watching a PBS special about him, just hours after his death, there was a friend of Mandela’s telling about a recent visit he’d made with his young son to see Mandela.

I don’t remember the guy’s name–it was a political dignitary, as I recall. He said when he and his son came in to see the aging Mandela, Mandela said, “Oh, it is so nice that a young boy would still come and see an old man who has nothing new to say.”

Prophets know they have to be repetitive.

Prophets know they aren’t necessarily saying something new, but the visions of hope that they’ve been casting have still not come about, and so they say the same thing.

They cast the same good, hope-filled vision: over and over, until it gets through our sometimes thick heads that this vision might actually become a reality.

Leaders Should Be a Non-Anxious Presence

steinkeThis bit of wisdom in the post title comes from Peter Steinke. He affirms that anxiety itself is not bad; it can provoke positive change, but only if regulated.

In his Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, Steinke says leaders should be non-anxious presences in their churches. He says, “Nothing new under the sun—especially nothing controversial—happens without confusion, resistance, or emotional reactivity.”

So leaders should “keep calm for the purpose of reflection and conversation,” “maintain a clear sense of direction,” and what I thought was hardest but maybe best, “tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, frustration, and pain.”

“To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” Don’t deny anxiety, but don’t let it defeat you or your people.