New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder what would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!

Adventing the New

Christians observe Advent as a season in which we begin again. We start over. We begin a new church year. We return to the starting line, again.

The four weeks of Advent, leading to Christmas, also occurs at a time when everyone is getting ready to turn the page to a new calendar year. It is a time of drafting New Year resolutions, of wiping the slate clean, of starting some new discipline, of beginning again. These seasons are carried on the backs of hope and promise for something good, something better, and something new for our lives.

Although we feel the initiative rests with us to get the ball rolling on these good things, it’s a new beginning that doesn’t start with us, paradoxically. Our action to pray, to seek justice, to exercise, etc. is a response.

Liturgy acts this way. “The Lord be with you,” says the worship leader. And our response: “And also with you.” The prayer of Advent begins when another speaks a word to us. These scriptures upon which we reflect and those we hear read during worship are not ones worship leaders and preachers choose willy-nilly – our favorite, pocket bible verses.

No, in churches that follow a lectionary, these are assigned readings for the season. They were given to us. Advent prayer is essentially a prayer of response to something already there, already given. Our starting over and our returning to the Lord, happen because God is speaking a word to us.

Some fifteen years ago at the beginning of my parish ministry I remember visiting Mrs. Rose – I’ll call her. Mrs. Rose was well into her 90s when I began monthly visits to her home – she lived alone. She didn’t say much, not one for chit-chat, talking about the weather, no. She knew I came with the Eucharist, the Holy Communion.

So, we got right down to business. I would start the prayers – of confession, absolution, and consecration. And without even looking into the book for the words, she would join right in. This happened each time I visited her.

There were times I brought a prayer in her native language, German. I would start reading the 23rd Psalm in German, start praying the Lord’s Prayer in German, or sing a hymn she learned, and memorized, at her confirmation some 80 years ago. And each time I started into those readings and songs, she needed me only to begin – then she was able to join in and complete the prayer.

She represented for me a life lived in response to the new thing God does every day in our lives.

I sat by her deathbed in hospital some years later. Mrs Rose didn’t say anything anymore. And what she did say didn’t make a whole lot of sense, whenever family came to chat. But she was awake, aware of other people’s presence, listening carefully. And whenever I began those prayers she had learned by heart, especially the German ones, she launched into a near perfect recitation.

What word is God speaking to you this season? And are you willing to trust that word from God, in order to take the first, risky step towards the new thing God is doing? And live your life in response to the good, unexpected thing God is doing and saying?

Like Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25), who was willing to go against convention, and maintain his relationship with Mary — all from a dream he had from God.

The B2CS New Year’s resolutions

B2CS stands for “Back to Church Sunday”. Michael Harvey from the United Kingdom wrote a book entitled “Unlocking the Growth” which outlines this movement happening across the globe in the last decade, predominantly in mainline Christian denominations. He’s also produced a couple DVD seminars and makes resources available every year to help kick-start this initiative in your church. The vision is simple: double a congregation on one day, when each member invites one person: “Would you come to church with me?”

Recently, upon conclusion of a small leaders group which I facilitated preparing for B2CS 2013, I asked participants to make some new year’s resolutions: What is one thing about this challenge you would like to try in 2013 in your congregation?

I like relating B2CS with New Years because B2C is not just about a one-off event for just one day in the year — it’s a process. It is like fertilizing, tilling and working the ground in preparation for the growth to happen. For example, B2CS emphasizes the vital importance of the gift of friendship. And friendship is something organic; it takes time and effort to foster a good friendship. It is then in the context of a friendship wherein the question can naturally be asked: “Would you come to church with me?”

I also like linking B2CS with New Years because both events signal a new start in the life of a congregation. Introducing the congregation to the challenge of invitation creates a cultural shift that can be seismic in proportion.

Invitation is a call to claim a new identity among members from being spectators each Sunday to being hosts. Therefore, B2CS can shape and refresh a collective understanding of what church, what evangelism, what faith and what following Jesus really means in today’s world.

New Year’s resolutions are about doing the little yet consequential things, mindful that every thing we do and every word we say can affect our lives in a positive way.

Resolutions are about creating a habit in behavior. Do something 21 times, I once heard, before it becomes a habit: Practicing the question — “Would you come to church with me?”; Repeating the skills — praying and taking responsibility for each, precious visitor that walks through the threshold of the church building; Trying something new a few times — like spending more time with newcomers rather than regulars, during a congregational event.

Here are the New Year’s resolutions of the local, Ottawa group preparing for B2CS 2013:

1. Intentionally pray for whom God is preparing for me to invite;

2. Work towards creating more small groups within my congregation;

3. Reach out in love to those on the fringe of my congregation — the ‘inactives’;

4. Publish a Lenten devotional of collected ‘stories of invitation’ from the membership, for circulation in my congregation;

5. Try not to sit in the same place every Sunday for worship;

6. Make people feel special, compliment them, appreciate them.

Excellent! Thank you! May God bless our B2C work in 2013! And, oh yes, Happy New Year!