Happy New Year! The New Year is here, and it is time for more resolutions that for the most part won’t be kept. What a disappointing way to start the year! I say disappointing not because most people won’t keep their resolutions, but rather because New Year’s resolutions tend to imply that the only time we need to reflect on our lives and consider change is when we go out and buy a new calendar. If that is really the only time we reflect on our lives, we lead a pretty mindless (as opposed to mindful) existence! What’s more, most of the resolutions will be fairly insignificant – after all, a decision to lose a few pounds that we gained over the holidays has very little impact on anybody because even if successful all it does is return us to where we were last October. Equilibrium is a very different thing than progress.
What causes us to make fairly conservative resolutions to “change”? I believe there are two factors – fear and doubt. We fear change and we fear failure. We doubt that we could really make anything resembling significant change no matter how hard we try. The result is that we settle for some insignificant goal like losing five pounds and then invest very little in the attempt so that we can always reassure ourselves that we could have accomplished our goal if we had really tried. In the end we are left with little more than self deception. How very sad that is, yet how typical!
In fact, we do the same thing in our spiritual lives all the time, no matter our spiritual perspective. Whether conservative or progressive, we tend to adopt a spiritual perspective that has as its primary motive maintaining the status quo and avoiding change. Consider for a moment how much time we spend establishing and then defending our preconceived notions of “how things work”. Conservatives start from the premise that the scriptures are the literal, inspired, inerrant Word of God and that you must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in order to be “saved”. Progressives start from the premise that everything about life must ultimately be explainable. They criticize conservatives for approaching the Bible as if it was a newspaper account or a history book, and then they turn right around and search for the historical Jesus. They adopt the premise that if something can’t be explained scientifically it could not possibly have happened. Aren’t those two perspectives just opposite sides of the same coin? Is there really a difference? Most importantly, in the end it seems to me that both perspectives are much more concerned with interpreting reality than with living reality!
There is, of course, another approach – an approach that, for me, is rapidly becoming the only one that makes any sense. That approach is to look at the stories of our faith not as problems of interpretation to be solved, but rather as stories to be entered into through the lens of one primary question. That question is, “What is this story calling me to do?” or, stated another way, “At what point do this story and my life intersect?” Why do we resist interpreting the stories of our faith tradition in that way? We resist because the stories are most likely calling us to change. Much like our New Year’s resolutions, we resist allowing these stories to touch our lives because we fear change and fear failure. We also doubt that we could make anything resembling significant change no matter how hard we try. We forget that we don’t have to respond to this call to change by ourselves. The Spirit journey with us, and she is ready to assist us on the journey.
Of course, some folks are uncomfortable with that kind of language. They would tell you that God doesn’t work that way, that such assistance cannot be seen or measured and therefore cannot possibly exist – yet there are two thousand years of Christian history, years filled with people who felt that assistance as very present and very real. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, a Communion of Saints, who testify by their lives that the Spirit of God does live and move within us. To those who would say that those witnesses only believed as they did because they have a pre-scientific world view I have only two questions. The first is, “How do you know that is why they believed what they did?” The second is, “What is it about the possibility of a God who is living and real and impacts your life is a substantial way that is so frightening to you that you are forced to discount it out of hand?”
As we live this life and as we age, it seems to me that we are confronted by two alternatives. One is that we can look at the changes that inevitably face us and decide that they are just too intimidating, just too frightening, and choose to respond by saying that God is at best a curiosity left over from an earlier age. In this view we retreat into believing that God cannot possibly intervene in human lives because (1) God cannot possibly work in ways that transcend our understanding, and (2) God doesn’t intervene in the way we would prefer – making us impervious to pain, misfortune, disease, illness, and death. The problem is that all of those things are inevitable. Postulating a God that is remote and powerless will not change our reality. Worse, it may leave us no alternative save despair.
As an alternative, what if we postulated a God that was truly amazing and transcendent? What if we chose just for a moment to put our insecurities and our perfectionism aside and became willing to entertain the possibility that if there is a God the odds are that God operates, at least some of the time, in ways that are difficult or impossible for us to understand? What if we opened ourselves in a radical way to both the possibility and the reality of a God who is intimately involved with each of us? What if we trusted that, whatever happens, the reality of God is that things unfold just the way they are meant to unfold and this life is not the end of the story?
If we did that, we just might have reason to hope – and hope is a wonderful New Year’s resolution indeed!