In the 1946 film, The Bell’s of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby sings Grant Clarke & George W. Meyer’s, In the Land of Beginning Again. This sappy, wistful, wonderful song fits the film beautifully, wishing for the chance to start fresh, to let go of past regrets, and to move forward with our personal slate washed clean. It is as appropriate a New Year’s song as Auld Lang Syne. New Year’s is the natural time to “start over,” and literally millions of people worldwide use the New Year as a marker by which to make resolutions to act differently, think differently, work differently, relate differently, and feel differently. January 2 is traditionally the day most of these resolutions crash and burn.
Why? Why do our good intentions slide down the highway to hell, giving us more to feel guilty about? Well, the most obvious reason is that it is artificial, superficial, and insubstantial. Why would we think something would be easier to do on January 1 than on December 31? That’s like believing something will be simpler on Thursday that is too hard on Tuesday, or that bad habits will magically disappear if only we could move to a new location. It’s never that simple — we always take ourselves with us. Our bad habits and unpleasant characteristics are not external forces working on us, they are internal propensities that either we control or that control us. My eating too much cake is NEVER the cake’s fault. Drinking too much wine doesn’t happen because there is wine in the house. Honest change begins with accepting responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions. Anything else is disingenuous and destined to fail. People do not change until they want to change — and there is a huge difference between “wishing” and “wanting.” Most people wish they could lose weight or stop smoking; they don’t want to because what they really “want” is the comfort and pleasure they receive from food or tobacco. Every substantive change happens through a simple process of values clarification — what is more important to me? Is the momentary satisfaction worth more than long-term benefits? Is what I can have now worth more than what I will receive later? Here’s the rub: people can’t actually conceive a future “might” when faced with a current certainty. Being thinner a year from now doesn’t hold the same drawing power as the “all-you-can-eat” breakfast buffet.
Let’s face it. We are weak, by nature. We are biological creatures created for homeostasis. We settle for baseline health and vitality, not athleticism and discomfort. We seek comfort and security more than we seek risk and novelty, We seek satisfaction and avoid sacrifice. We work as much as we have to, but reluctantly and resentfully. Most admit they wish they could have more leisure time. Most human beings only want to be as good as they have to be, not as good as they could be. And that’s where faith comes in. Christianity, at its very best, is a counter-cultural, super-natural pursuit. It challenges and calls us to reject cultural norms and rise above nature. It calls us to be better than good enough and to strive for continuous improvement. It subverts our laziness and pushes us toward higher goals (perfection, anyone?). It continuously pokes us right in the comfort zone and yells at us to “DO SOMETHING!” It can be irritating as all get out.
We’re in a tough place in the church today. Cultural values and the biological imperative have displaced what it means to be “church.” Too many of us adopt a complacent faith, defend a passive faith, hide in a personal and private faith, or pretend we have a safe faith. These are all well and good, but none of them are Christianity, regardless of our feeble attempts to slap a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet on them. We are in a time and place to make a decision: will we begin again? Will we work to become the Body of Jesus Christ for the world and stop worrying so much about the “reputation” of The United Methodist Church. Will we proclaim the good news instead of marketing the merely mediocre news? Will we move beyond the dividing walls of hostility to a healthy, holy, all-encompassing, all-embracing global community? Will we stop trying define ourselves by our buildings and programs and pastors and instead be known for our witness and compassion and positive impact in the world?
What do we really want? Too often all we do is wish — we wish God would do for us what God put us here to do for others. We wish we didn’t have numeric decline and financial woes. We wish we could attract more people and do more good. But what we really want is to be taken care of, safe and warm and content in our little pious, provincial faith-forts. We need to change what we wish into what we want, and that isn’t going to be easy. It will take more than well-intentioned resolutions for the New Year. It will take leadership. It will take vision. It will take courage to point at much that we are doing and say “No, this is wrong!” It will take a shift of focus from those who demand we take care of them to those whom God directs “take care of these, my children.”
Okay, sermon’s over. My intention was to deliver a message of hope for a New Year, and instead my little cynical brain took me someplace I wasn’t expecting to go… We have so much promise and possibility. I believe we can make the deep, substantive changes we need to make, if only we really want to. It will be hard. It will take time. But it will be worth it. We simply have to direct our eyes to the future and not be so consumed by the present and anchored to the past. Happy New Year. Hopefully we can make 2010 a beacon of hope and promise for all.