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

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.

Who needs a deadline?

Whether it was averting a fiscal cliff south of the border, or imposing a contract in a labor dispute between Ontario teachers and government at the first of the New Year, or wondering if the Mayans were right about the winter solstice on December 21st, or salvaging an NHL season by first determining a drop-dead date in mid-January …

It seems that things only get done in our world if we have a deadline. Without one, could we make progress and agree on anything? I know some people, myself included, sometimes need a deadline to finish what we need to finish.

What does a deadline achieve? For one, it puts pressure on the situation to force a resolution. Without the weight of pressure and threat of complete breakdown of stability, some would argue that nothing would ever get accomplished.

On the other hand, especially when people are in conflict, some say that pressure of the deadline needs to be endured — getting over the hump, so to speak — in order for cooler heads to prevail and a more relaxed atmosphere in which to make the right decisions. Even if it means a complete breakdown of the system for a time being.

I’ve felt, over the last year has hung the shroud of the proverbial ‘deadline’. Will it come, or will it go? And what will it be like after?

Having a deadline means there must be, at the end of it, a winner and a loser. Deadlines amid conflict mean people will fight so that they will not end up the loser. Dead-line conveys precisely how the word is constructed: There’s a death, and lines are drawn.

Lines that communicate exclusion; that is, not everyone belongs in the winner’s circle, not everyone gets the glory. It presumes a Machiavellian world view where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

And I wonder how many people are really satisfied at the end of such a process. Even the so-called winners. A pretty negative world-view, I would say.

There’s very little about this culture of the deadline that squares with the Christmas and Epiphany stories from the Bible.

After all, those magi weren’t on a deadline, where they? Think about it — they wandered far from home across a desert following a star. 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 stopped by then, let’s go home!”?

What motivated those travelers from the East?

Hope. Expectation. Anticipation. An openness without deadline, destination or schedule in mind. Why?

Because they knew that at the end of it there was going to be nothing but a victory for them. In meeting the Messiah, there was no way in heaven or on earth they or anyone else would lose.

Epiphany means that, even as a child, Jesus is for all people, not just the chosen few. Jesus is for the outsiders. Jesus comes to earth in order to draw people together — magi from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the West. All compass points are covered by God’s loving welcome.

Throughout the Old Testament God uses foreigners, outsiders, and women — who are often the least expected and sometimes most unsavory characters to fulfill God’s will: Cyrus of Persia to free the Babylonian captives (Isaiah 45); Queen Esther, a woman, to save God’s people; Naaman the Syrian, favored by God, and his servant girl (2 Kings 5) — are just a few outstanding examples.

Jesus Christ is the very love of God incarnate. And that divine, creative love of God cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity. That love cannot be restricted to only one gender, or any group divided by ‘lines’ of a dispute. That love cannot be claimed only by the powerful, privileged or wealthy.

What the Epiphany stories illustrate is the expansive scope of God’s love. All people are invited and all are included to worship God, to kneel before Christ and to dine at the heavenly banquet.

God doesn’t need a deadline. The Psalmist today expresses this truth: “In his time, may the righteous flourish” (72:7). God’s time expands beyond our limited notions of time. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

All that is to say, is that God will take all the time necessary to reach all of humanity. So that by the consummation of time, his love will embrace and imbue all of creation. That is the positive vision for the church: The light of Christ that has come into the world will shine for all to see and reflect.

Thanks be to God!

God bless y’all!

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name ….

Our road trips to Florida always took us through the state of Georgia, where we would often stop to buy pecans and admire the sub-tropical foliage.

But what I remember most from those roadside stops was the way the local people always sent us on our way: “Y’all come back again!”

Whether it was the southern accent or the welcoming attitude behind the greetings, the message was directed not to any one individual – but to our whole family: “Y’all!”

In the most recognized prayer in all of Christianity – the Lord’s Prayer – and in many of Saint Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the grammar is clear: no singular first or second person pronouns in sight.

The instruction is directed not to me, nor you, nor any singular person. Ours is not an individualistic faith. Rather, the good news of Jesus Christ is directed towards a community: “Y’all!”

Christians believe in a personal faith. However, that personal faith is received within the context of a community of faith. When we pray, “Our Father in Heaven”, we are confessing that Jesus is not my exclusive, private God, but a God who embraces all people with His love and grace.

The Gospel is for “y’all”!

Happy New Year!

Our Lord Jesus, make us whole in your inclusive love for all. Amen.

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!

“Happy New Year!” Are you happy?

Please read Genesis 1:1-15 and Mark 1:4-11

I have to confess this time of year is a bit of a let down for me: The twelve days of Christmas are over. Today I spent a couple of hours taking down and packing away the outdoor lights. We’ve started dismantling the Christmas tree. The wrapping paper is boxed and stored for next year. And when I drive around town I see Christmas trees discarded on the road and curb sides. The colours and lights and festive decor has been transformed to …. grey and drab. Hello to the dog days of winter. At least a couple of months yet till Spring.

It makes the “happy” in “Happy New Year!” a bit hard to swallow.

And yet this time of year for Christians is a time for hope. During this very ordinary and downer of a time, we are called to pay attention. Because God is up to something!

Donald Miller wrote in his book “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” a true story about Bob whose children were bored on New Year’s Day. “It must be the most boring holiday in the whole year!” his children complained as they sat around in their living room. So Bob asked them what they could do to make it more exciting. They could buy a pony; they could build a rocket ship; they could be in a parade.

A parade! Bob jumped on the idea (he was probably happy to get out of having to buy a pony). What could they do to make it an exciting parade? They could wear costumes, hold balloons, and invite everyone on the street to a BBQ in their back yard afterwards (they live in the San Diego area, not Canada, after all!).

Before they went out to recruit participants, Bob suggested they ask everyone to be in the parade, not just watch it. And surprisingly, plenty of the neighbourhood agreed to be in the parade! And a dozen or so even stayed afterwards for the BBQ in Bob’s back yard.

What is truly amazing about this story is that Bob’s children created something out of nothing. From a perceived state of boredom, they created a tradition that has over the past ten years now blossomed into a major annual event in the San Diego area. Even residents who have moved since that first New Year’s Day parade come back and schedule holidays around January 1st.

What a wonderful illustration of the generative and creative power human beings hold — a reflection of the nature of God to create something out of nothing. In the opening verses of the bible we learn about a major tenet of the Christian theology: God speaks creation into being … out of nothing, absolutely nothing, “the void” as the bible expresses.

The good news pronounces a word of hope that it is especially and repeatedly spoken into the parched places of our lives. God breathes something new; a seed is planted in those places of our lives that we feel bored, lonesome, lost, burdened. A new creation is being born in the midst of the drab, ordinary, daily humdrum of living. Do you see it?

When I was in my 20s I spent a year abroad in Germany. It was the first time I was away for a significant length of time from my twin brother, parents, country, language, and anything that was familiar to me. At first I found it extremely tough to bear. I dipped into the doldrums and found hard to keep my spirits up.

In the midst of the turmoil a friend I met there gave me this bible verse. He framed it for me; I’ve kept it on my wall ever since. It’s from Isaiah 58 — “The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places …” (v.11)

It is not just in the spectacular, festive and holiday events; it is not just in the high worship services when the candles are lit, the trumpets are sounding and hundreds of worshippers are singing praises; it is not just in those mountaintop experiences that validate the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives. More to the point, it is what happens AFTER where the rubber hits the road of our faith journeys.

What happens AFTER the glorious birth of Jesus is how in the season of Epiphany Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, the Saviour of the whole world. It is what happens AFTER the angels sing when the reality of faith gets played out over time. And it isn’t always quaint and pretty.

Herod wants to kill the baby Jesus. Listening to the messenger of God the holy family flees to Egypt. They have to leave the country for some time until Herod’s violent energies are expended. And what a tragedy: baby boys murdered in Bethlehem to satisfy some megalomaniac and paranoid impulses of an evil dictator. The Epiphany stories begin on a rather sordid, conflicted note, wouldn’t you say?

And yet it is precisely in this drama where the revelation of God in our lives begins. It is in those “nothing” moments: when bad things happen; when we get bad news; when we honestly struggle through issues — those are the moments our eyes are open to see God creating something new out of nothing.

We sometimes assume, I think, that those people who have the Holy Spirit are perpetually happy, bubbly and glowing with warmth. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is often associated with glory, and things ‘spiritual’, things removed from the ordinariness of life.

We are called not to be glib and fake in our spirituality. We are called to be real, honest and authentic human beings. The Spirit of the living God is just as present in those hard circumstances as much as in the easy times, but always breathing new life, hope and promise.

The Holy Spirit “tore apart” the sky (Mark 1:10). Birds sometimes dive-bomb to the earth, you know; birds don’t always just gently float on the air. There’s a realness that permeates the Gospel text for today: there’s water, clothing from camel’s hair, a diet from bugs, tying sandals, etc. These details speak of the earthiness of the spiritual life. Spirit and material are combined in the Christ.

God’s voice creates out of nothing. What we may perceive as nothing, as boring, as depleted of all life and energy, pay attention: God may just be in that ‘nothing’ making something. And what God speaks creates something unimaginably beautiful, exciting, meaningful and truly happy.

What is the Spirit of God working in your life today? How is God revealed to you in the ordinary time of this season? Even in the dead of winter when all is frozen, God comes to us and is revealed to us in love, in power and in grace.