It is a very common practice, as we begin a new year, to make "new years resolutions." Usually these are stated in the form of goals that one wants to achieve in the new year. Often times they involve intentions to change ones behavior: exercise more, adopt a healthy diet, read the Bible each morning, etc. The problem with setting these goals is that although we may begin the year with sincere intentions, often by February we have already lost our momentum. By the time we come to December we are lamenting about how far we have gotten off track and how we need to work harder at these goals next year. Maybe we need a different approach...
Thomas Merton has said, "Our lives are shaped by the things we desire." To this the Psalmist adds: "Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Ps. 37:4). So perhaps, as we proceed through 2021, the question should be: What do we desire for this new year? What indeed are our aspirations and dreams?
In Luke chapter two we find the stories of Simeon and Anna (pictured with the title above). Simeon is described as a "righteous man" who was "waiting for the consolation of Israel." The text tells us that being "moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts" and as Mary and Joseph brought the Christ child to be dedicated, Simeon, "took him in his arms and praised God." In this moment, one of his long-held desires (to see the Messiah before he died) was fulfilled. The experience was similar for Anna. She is described as being very old and one who had lived as a widow for eighty-four years. During this time, we are told, "she never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying." Coming up to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, "she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." For both Anna and Simeon, this meeting with the Christ child was the fulfillment of long anticipated dreams. I wouldn't say that meeting the Messiah was a "goal." Rather I would describing it as an aspiration - a longing of their heart.
In both of these stories we find a three-fold pattern: anticipation, thanksgiving, and proclamation. For both Anna and Simeon there was a period of waiting coupled with the anticipation that God was going to work in a mighty way in their lives. For both there was a time of thanksgiving and praise as they began to see God's promises unfold before them. For both of them, their encounter with Christ resulted in their sharing the good news, of what God had done, with others. Could it be that this pattern would be a helpful one for us to follow as we move through 2021?
Perhaps you have come to February and already found that your "new years resolutions" are "toast." As we move forward through the year let me recommend a different approach:
Anticipation: What do you pray God will do for you (your family, church, country) in 2021? What are you hoping God will make different about your life this year? For me, I'm praying for covid-19 relief. I'm praying for spiritual renewal and a new spirit of unity within our land. I'm praying for discernment for me and my family as the time for retirement from pastoral ministry draws near. What are your aspirations for 2021? What are the things you feel most led to pray about during this new year?
Thanksgiving: What signs do you see now that God is at work? What might be the first (even small) sign that God is answering your prayers? With each sign of God breaking in we should stop and give thanks. Personally, I am thankful that my wife and I both now have appointments scheduled to receive our 1st covid-19 vaccination. I am thankful that we are renewing our discipline to pray together each evening for God's guidance for our family. I am thankful that many have told me that they are now planning to return to "in-person" worship and that they are excited about being in fellowship with others once again. All of these are small signs that God is answering my prayers. My recommendation is that we look about us each day for signs that God is at work and then give thanks to God for the way He is intervening in our lives..
Proclamation: With whom should you be sharing the story of how God is working in your life? Someone needs to be encouraged by your testimony. Someone needs to hear how God is working in the lives of His people today. Someone is ready to profess Christ as a result of the testimony you share. Aspirations, and their fulfillment, though personal, are not intended to be entirely private matters; we indeed have a story to share. It is easy, for most, to share with others when everything in their life is going wrong. I suggest that we look for opportunities to share with others how God is bringing blessing to our life.
Go ahead and make some resolutions if you want to. As for me, I think this year I'm going to focus on identifying my aspirations and dreams and then make them the subject of my prayers. If you are ready to try a new approach I would invite you to join me. As we come to the end of the year I believe we will be blessed by focusing not on all of the things we have failed to do but rather on all of the wonderful things God has accomplished. Let me know how it goes for you!
Dr. Allen Schneider is a United Methodist pastor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist presently serving the Sapulpa and greater Tulsa communities.