Starting not so fresh

New Year’s resolutions have gone out of style.

Nobody keeps them anyway. The average New Year’s resolution lasts until the second week of February; only 10% last six months. We have a hard time starting over.

Still, there is something about the New Year that calls us to take stock, assess, evaluate, and resolve to do better about some aspects of our lives. We would like to think the New Year gives us a clean slate to leave the past behind and stride confidently into the future. It doesn’t; the baggage and consequences of the past do not magically fall away and disappear.

As I write, our government is close to a week in partial shutdown mode. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are temporarily out of work. The intransigent leadership, continuing division, animosity, and gridlock of our political system will not disappear when the ball descends on Times Square.

Our United Methodist Church will not magically get unified in the New Year. No matter what happens at the special General Conference in February, we will need to keep praying, keep reading and thinking, and most of all keep talking as we try to be faithful to God’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Those pesky personal problems won’t go away just because the number on the calendar is different. Family conflicts and dysfunctional relationships take time and toil and tears to resolve. We can’t just put them away like we do the Christmas decorations. And our weaknesses and sins are harder to eradicate than a New Year’s resolution can conquer. Why do we keep doing the things we know are wrong and destructive? Even St. Paul couldn’t figure that one out. (See Romans 7)

So what’s the point? Is renewal a pipe dream, progress an impossibility? Can the New Year actually be a time of starting over in a meaningful way? I think it can.

In the New Year, we can accept forgiveness for the past. So many things went wrong last year; so many times we fell short. But grace means forgiveness. We know God forgives us. That was the whole point of the cross. Forgiving ourselves can be harder to do, but we have to find a way if we hope to move forward. And if someone we have hurt offers us forgiveness, take it like a kid grabbing candy. There’s nothing sweeter.

In the New Year, we can generate new resolve. The human process involves many new starts; why not let one of them be right now? You’ll probably need another new start by April and July and October. But don’t let that stop you from starting over today. One thing is for sure: you won’t do any better unless you decide to. We Wesleyans believe free will is a gift of God, and progress, while not inevitable, is not impossible either.

In the pursuit of personal progress, we have the encouragement of God. Our Creator wants us to leave the past behind, walk the narrow path that leads to righteousness, and become the person we were created to be. Paul, who struggled so mightily with his sin, gave witness to this encouragement in Philippians (“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”) and Ephesians (“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”) Scripture is replete with encouraging words from God.

In the New Year, we can also find encouragement in the community. There are many reasons people pack the churches for Christmas Eve services—the music, the story, the threats of family matriarchs. But I’m convinced that one of the reasons we gather is that at some significant level, we acknowledge that we are part of a community of faith, and it does our soul good to be in a church full of people who share our spiritual foundation. Yeah, we may neglect our faith 50 weeks of the year, but a couple of times a year, we can’t escape our Christian DNA.

Christmas Eve and Easter only happen twice a year. What if in this New Year we re-engaged with the community of faith and rediscovered the encouragement of like-minded pilgrims on the journey? Every week isn’t a high holy day. The sermon may be a snoozer, or half the Sunday School class may be absent. But little by little we grow in Christ. Inch by inch, we make progress toward the goal. We will find it helps to feel accountable to someone else traveling beside us.

Renewal is an ongoing process. We could start just as well on March 2 or June 23 or September 16. But we probably won’t. There is something about the New Year that calls us to a new day. Let me encourage you: Engage the process. Take some baby steps. Trust in God. Find community. Soon you will look back and discover how far you have come. The goal of perfection in Christ will be nearer than ever before. Happy New Year!

Generating Gratitude

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Do you ever have a hard time feeling grateful? Maybe it’s the age I am—I’m entering my “curmudgeonly years.” Or maybe it’s the age we live in. But some days it’s just hard to give thanks.

  • The political chaos of our country and the world is so disheartening. I still read a daily newspaper, but I’ve taken to calling it “my daily outrage.”
  • Our denominational future is at best uncertain; I vacillate daily between hope and despair.
  • People are hurting everywhere I turn: sick, dying, hungry, poor, lonely, dealing with grief, divorce, mental illness, and dementia. I hurt for them, and sometimes for myself.
  • I worry about the future of our church, our nation, our planet, and my children and grandchildren.

Some days I find it hard not to live with a “bunker mentality”—hunkered down, drawn inward, just trying to protect myself and my loved ones and hang on as we slide down the tubes.

That’s no way for a disciple of Jesus Christ to live! We are called to “give thanks in all circumstances.” (I Thessalonians 5:18) How do we generate an attitude of gratitude? In this season of Thanksgiving, how do we give thanks?

I remember the Cokesbury hymnal song from days gone by: “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings, see what God has done.” When we think about it, we really can.

  • God has brought us through tumultuous times before, both in our country and in our church. Our “better angels” have always prevailed.
  • In our personal struggles, sometimes a time of trial turns out to be a time of great spiritual growth. “In all things, God works for good.” (Romans 8:28) Through my worst times, I have still grown and learned. Even death is not the final answer; we have eternal life in Jesus.
  • The Word of God assures us, over and over, that we need not fear; God is ultimately in charge, and we can trust in God’s providence. Scripture gives us reasons to be thankful.
  • If we can get quiet before God, we can hear the “still, small voice” say “peace,” and in our hearts we know it’s true.

Of all the saints I have known—men and women, clergy and laity, young and old—the one universal quality of character I have seen is gratitude. To a person, the saints are thankful. I don’t think that’s an accident.

Gratitude generates stewardship. When we realize that everything we have is a gift of God, we strive to take care of what we have been given.

  • Thankful for creation, we care for the planet, from individual acts of conservation to advocacy for the big issues of recycling, climate change, and responsible development.
  • Thankful for our country, we participate in the process. We get informed; we vote; we engage in dialog for our best values.
  • Thankful for our church, we serve with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” Regardless of what happens with our denominational structure, we have a vital mission to make disciples and transform the world.

When we stop and think, God has been gracious to us in so many ways. So, in return, “like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. …Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 4:10)

I think I’ll put up my bad attitude, put down my “daily outrage,” pick up my Cokesbury hymnal, and sing!

Conference Voices: It takes a church to raise a village

If I might be forgiven of the sin of pride, I’d like to brag a little bit. Recently the chair of the team that oversees our mission ministry reported to one of our Sunday School classes that our church sponsors eleven different mission projects throughout the year, some annually, but some as often as weekly, mostly local, but some international. In addition, we are involved in 23 mission partnerships with projects and non-profits in our community. If something good is happening in our town, there are probably some Methodists at work. Finally, we have two church-wide mission activities each year, both of which support our conference initiative, 200,000 Reasons, to end children’s hunger.

I can be proud of the involvement of the church because I have very little responsibility for it. Most of it was happening before I became their pastor. I do encourage a missional spirit, but then I just get out of the way and let the lay people work. It’s pretty amazing.

In this issue of the Arkansas United Methodist, you can see several examples of lay folk in ministry. Lay ministry is the key to vitality in the church now and our hope for the future. Historically, the ministry of the church was in the hands of the laity. In the 20th century, as the ministry became more “professional,” clergy began to dominate, and churches began hiring staff to do ministry. As the church began to decline 40 years ago, the paradigm began to shift back to our historic roots, and the empowerment of lay ministry became a critical component of church growth. Nowadays, vital churches have abandoned the “attractional” model of the past century and adopted a “missional” model that reaches outside the church, mostly through lay people, to transform lives, communities, and the world. (Does that phrase sound familiar?)

Lay ministry is a response to a CALL. We all have a call from God to be in ministry, and God has given each person gifts to perform ministry. (See Romans 12:3-8 and I Corinthians 12:4-27) Some are called to representative ministry as pastors or full-time Christian workers. Most of us are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our everyday lives, in our workplace, school, and home. God does amazing work through ordinary folks who actually have more contact with the lost, broken, hurting people of the world than those of us who spend most of our time inside our ecclesiastical walls.

Lay ministry can be so much more FRUITFUL than professionalized ministry. Remember when Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38) One professional scythe-slinger can only cut so much grain, but put 200 workers in the field, and they are through before lunch. One pastor in a church can work herself to exhaustion and still not get everything done. If 20 or 200 lay people serve the Lord only two or three hours a week, it exponentially multiplies the ministry. The Kingdom work bears more fruit.

Lay ministry can be more EFFECTIVE. I was called and gifted to be in ordained ministry; hopefully I have been effective at the tasks I do. But my church would not be effective if they had to rely only on the things I’m good at. I have seen people do amazing works of God in areas that are beyond my capability. I have seen people spend hours, days, even weeks caring for broken souls in times of sickness and grief. I’m not as good at children’s and youth work as I once was. I cannot lead a choir, play the piano, produce a spreadsheet, or build a wheelchair ramp as well as some of my lay people can.

I don’t need to, because they can! And so the church is more effective.

Lay ministry brings its own REWARD. Service to God does not escape our Master’s notice. Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42) This is not the reward of salvation; we are saved by faith, not by works. But it is the reward of satisfaction and joy at making a difference in the lives of others and in the Kingdom of God. Deep down, I think we all long to hear those words from Jesus at the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:23)

The vitality of the church now and forever belongs to the vast majority of disciples of Christ who are not ordained, professional Christians. For almost four decades I have been privileged to serve in ordained ministry. But it would have been a long, hard, lonely and unproductive road without the dedicated and effective lay ministers who have walked the path with me. Thanks be to God for that incredible gift! If you are a lay person and have persevered to the end of this column, I encourage you to be that gift to your pastor, your church, and your Lord.