It is rare for New Year’s Day to fall on a Sunday, so I thought I would take advantage of this anomaly, and focus on new year’s resolutions. Some of you may have already resolved to eat better, exercise more, and get more sleep. All well and good. Go for it.
However, the resolutions I’m pondering are a bit different than the standard fare. I’m turning to ancient wisdom to consider whether it might have something to say to us as we break the seal on 2023.
In the fourth century, there were men and women who withdrew from towns and villages and ventured out into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia. According to Thomas Merton, “They sought a way to unite with God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.”1
These ascetics recognized that their way of thinking and acting was heavily influenced by society, and they yearned to discover joy, fulfillment, and harmony. They were driven to become the person God wanted them to become. They aspired to peel away the superficial self that is shaped by the ideas and values of society in order to become their authentic self that was more Christ-like.
We might be tempted to write them off as extreme introverts, oddballs who found it difficult to be around others and resisted fitting in. But we would miss the mark. Pastor Dan Clendenin is fascinated by the desert monks and he points out that “we misunderstand them if we construe their bizarre lifestyles as a spirituality of superficial techniques. These desert dwellers…sought authentic personal transformation.”2 Isn’t that the goal of new year’s resolutions? Authentic personal transformation.
Of course, their idea of withdrawing from others to spend time alone in nature with God was not unique to the desert monastics. The gospels inform us that this was the practice of Jesus. I suspect all spiritual traditions encourage people to pull away from the clatter of society in order to discern the whispers and nudges of God.
Some might imagine that these desert monastics fled from others because they were weak or fearful or simply preferred to be alone. However, they bravely faced their brokenness and inner demons and struggled to embody biblical virtues.
To resolve to venture down a new path requires us to face the seduction of habit. Doing what we have always done feels comfortable, even if it is joyless. Jesus was constantly beckoning those brave enough to follow him to overcome thoughts and behaviors that injure and to embrace positive forces that lead to a full life.
Clendenin culled a dozen nuggets of wisdom from the desert monastics and presented them as New Year’s Resolutions. I’m borrowing his first three and adding several of my own as we step into 2023. My hope is that they might cajole you into making meaningful resolutions.
The first resolution is: Never stop starting over. Every day is an opportunity to begin again. Our past mistakes do not dictate every move we make today. We cannot change the past, but we can decide anew how it will shape us. This resolution prompted today’s scripture reading. The Apostle Paul wrote: “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!”
Paul knew personal transformation first hand. Initially, he was a fervent Pharisee who persecuted followers of Jesus. But then he morphed into a disciple so committed to Christ that he died for his faith. Paul knew that if such a dramatic change could occur within him, then no one was beyond the transforming power of God.
The second resolution is: Live intentionally, not aimlessly. Saint Mark the Ascetic said, “Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort.”3 It is easy to fall into habits and to continue doing what we have always done without questioning it. Quiet devotional time provides an opportunity to contemplate what we are doing that we need to stop doing and what we are not doing that we need to start doing. Are you deliberately seeking to embody the teaching of Jesus to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as yourself?
The third resolution is: Never ever despair, no matter what. A tall order that requires a determined struggle. Desert father, Saint John of Karpathos said, “Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times…rise up again each time.”4 His words echo Isaiah 40. The prophet wrote: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:30-31)
Resolution number four: Cultivate a grateful heart. The world is an amazing place overflowing with fantastic gifts, but we have to be awake, or we will walk past them, oblivious to the miracles around us. And if we fail to recognize and experience the marvelous treasures that life offers, we will find ourselves restless, continuously searching for fulfilment. Life is a precious gift from God and the more we remind ourselves of this fact, the more joyful and satisfying life is. Gratitude is the foundation of a happy life.
Resolution number five: Forgive more, retaliate less. Evening the score comes naturally. When someone hurts us, we want to teach them a lesson by causing them pain. But revenge destroys relationships and anger poisons our soul. God forgives us when we fall short and expects us to forgive as we are forgiven. We repeat this vow each week in the Lord’s Prayer. In 2023, may we keep our eyes peeled for chances to forgive others.
Resolution number six: Practice generosity. In writing the Christians in Galatia, Paul lists generosity as one of the fruit of the Spirit. Christmas is a beautiful reminder of the power of generosity. Giving with no expectation of receiving something in return is good for your soul. Knowing that your sacrifice enriches the life of another is deeply gratifying. Moving from selfish to selfless buoys your spirit.
Resolution number seven: Identify the beauty in others. We are often quick to spot people’s shortcomings and failures. Have you ever had the experience of thinking ill of someone, only to discover later that you had misjudged them? What change would occur in your heart if you scoured for goodness rather than digging for dirt?
Resolution number eight: Strive for humility. In a society where some people will do practically anything to draw attention to themselves, humility is a withering, but refreshing virtue. We find ourselves backing away from people who are full of themselves, but wanting to draw closer to people who deflect attention from themselves. Further, it is only when we recognize that we are incomplete and, at times, misguided that we realize our deep need for God.
Resolution number nine: Recommit to caring for God’s creation. Remember when Christmas meant snow in Delaware? The temperature is supposed to hit 55 today and be in the 60s on Tuesday and Wednesday. What additional steps can you take in 2023 to reduce your carbon footprint?
Resolution number ten: Worship regularly. This is likely the one you have been waiting for me to name. It’s the sort of thing you would expect a pastor to say, but I hope you will take it to heart. Life is far richer when we nurture a spiritual life and connect with a community of faith. Life can be beautiful, but life can be incredibly challenging. We need a place that routinely reminds us of the importance of love, justice, peace, and hope. And we need a place to remind us that we need not shoulder the burdens of life alone because God is with us.
A colleague recalls an episode from the BBC drama, Call the Midwife. If you have seen it, you know that the show is about a group of nurse midwives who work in London in the 1950s. There was an episode about a couple who were about to have their first baby, but the show was more about the father-to-be than the new child. The father “fought for the British in Korea and came home afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He suffered terrible nightmares and flashbacks. Loud, unexpected noises could trigger severe anxiety that would last for days.”
After his young wife goes into labor, one of the midwives, trying to distract her from her pain, asks the mother-to-be about her husband’s episodes. The young wife says, “It comes over him every now and then. Malaria brings it on…or bad things happening. We manage.”
The midwife responds, “You really understand him, don’t you?”
The wife confides, “He understands me. We do nice things together, always did, ever since [we met] dancing. Except when he went to Korea. I always think if I could have gone, if I could have been with him…I could have shared the things that hurt him, and then I could share the things that hurt him now. The pain would be halved. That’s what sharing does. That’s what love does.”5
As we embark on a new year, it is vital for us to remember that God is with us. God will be with us in days that are bright and when trouble mounts. God is with us to share the pain, to strengthen us, and to give us hope.
We make resolutions so that we never stop growing, never stop becoming the person God yearns for us to become. It may feel safe to stand pat and resist change. It is tempting to go along with everyone else and not question the direction you are heading. But if you kindle the courage to step onto new ground that leads to light and love, I promise you will be rewarded with a beautiful adventure.
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