Resolving to Do Less
Making New Year’s Resolutions has become an important family tradition for us. We begin by reviewing our resolutions from the previous year to see how we did. Then we go around the circle taking turns making new resolutions for the new year.
It is always fun to see how much changes from year to year, and how much stays the same. One that seems constant is my resolution to stop binge eating sweets. So far it hasn’t worked. Maybe this is the year. If not, I’ll resolve it again for 2021!
The biggest changes in our family resolutions this year were Benjamin’s. Last year he was preparing to graduate from College, and several of his resolutions were aimed at making that transition. Now he is more or less settled in his new life, so he could drop all those resolutions.
So we went around the table, and we each made about ten resolutions for 2020. As I reflected on our various resolutions, I realized they fell into four types.
The first type was the absurd resolutions. Nicholas resolved to be “more sty” and “more sendy.” Apparently that means more stylish and more adventurous. But mostly that was Nicholas being a goofball, so that is the goofball category. We can forget about that one.
Our most common type was the predictable resolutions about personal health. Carrie and I both resolved to eat better, lose a little weight, exercise more, that kind of thing. What those resolutions had in common was that they are about things that are basically in our control. I may or may not eat better this year. But if I don’t, I have only myself to blame.
We also had a handful of mixed resolutions, resolutions that require cooperation. Every year, Carrie and I both resolve to go on weekly dates and monthly hikes. We do go on dates and hikes, but not weekly for the one or monthly for the other. So when we were reviewing our resolutions from last year, Carrie admitted that she had not accomplished those two. Our sons immediately gave her a pass on both on the assumption, correct as it happens, that her failure was my fault.
Finally, at Benjamin’s suggestion, we decided to make resolutions not just for 2020, but for the entire decade of the 2020s. Carrie went first, and resolved that both our children would live near us. They pointed out that that was not a resolution for her. I resolved that they would marry people we liked. They pointed out that that, too, was not up to us. Carrie resolved that they would give us lots of grandchildren. At that point, they rebelled.
So here are the categories: resolutions over which we have entire control; resolutions that require the cooperation of others; and resolutions over which we have no control.
Our different kinds of resolutions were in the back of my mind as I reflected on our gospel reading for this morning. It is a much-loved story that we hear every year. Wise men follow a star to the Christ child.
I have always thought of the wise men as models for our lives with Christ. We, too, start out far from Christ. Our lives are like a journey that brings us closer and closer to Him. Along the way, we encounter threats like wicked King Herod. But we have guidance and help like the heavenly star, people and things that point us in the right direction. And we trust that we will eventually reach our Lord, at which point we will bow down in worship and offer him our gifts.
I have preached all that before, and I still find it a helpful way to read this story.
When we read the story that way, we can think of our Gospel passage as an invitation to make resolutions for the new year. The important question for us is where are we on our journey? And what steps do we need to take in order to make progress, to draw closer to Christ?
But this year I am more sensitive to the potential danger in reading the story that way. It treats our spiritual journey as the kind of resolution that is in our control. It treats the spiritual journey as something we do in order to draw closer to God, who is otherwise far from us.
But our relationship with God doesn’t work that way. This is good news. If my relationship with God depended on my hard work and discipline, I could make all the resolutions I wanted. But the results would be about the same as the results of my resolution to stop binge eating sweets. I would find myself facing failure year after year.
It is questionable even to suggest that our relationship with God falls into the category of mixed resolutions, resolutions that require me to do my part and someone else to do theirs. This is more good news. Because otherwise, the result of my resolutions to draw closer to God would be like my resolutions to go on weekly date nights with Carrie. Her performance is good. My will is good. But my performance is bad enough that we fail every year.
Resolving to draw closer to God is most like me resolving that my children will marry well, live nearby, and have lots of babies. It isn’t under my control. I can’t draw closer to God just like I can’t make my children give me grandchildren. Only God can do that. (Both!)
And so I come back to our Gospel reading. But this time, I am not focused on the wise men so much as on Christ.
And immediately two things become clear.
First, the good news of this season is that God loved us enough to become incarnate, to be born of the Virgin Mary, to live as God with us. We didn’t draw close to God. We couldn’t. So God drew close to us. Thanks be to God.
But the really helpful reminder for me was the second thing that becomes visible when we focus on Christ in this story. Christ doesn’t actually do anything.
Christ says and does many impressive things during his earthly ministry, of course. But in this story, Christ is still a small, helpless child. In this story, Christ’s only task is to wait, and to receive gifts.
In that, Christ is a better, truer model for our Christian lives than the wise men are. Before God, we are all like little children: small and helpless. Our ultimate task is not to do anything. We can’t. Our ultimate task, and all that we can do, is simply to receive, to receive the grace, and love, and forgiveness of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ.
And so my most important resolution this year was not about the actions I hope to take on my diet. It was not the things I hope to do with my wife. It wasn’t the things I hope my children will do with their lives, although ironically that is the closest.
My most important resolution this year is to remember that I don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love or to draw closer to God. God has already done that for me in Christ Jesus. My most important resolution this year is to practice being still and knowing the God who does all the work for me.
And so, on this celebration of Epiphany, I give thanks to God for coming to us. And I pray that we can open ourselves to His presence. In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan