Resolving to Love, to Hope, to Seek God in 2014 – Jennifer Hosler
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Matthew 25:31-46)
It’s that time of year—time for New Year’s Resolutions. Many websites have had resolution articles (what to make, how to keep them) for the last week. The day after New Years, I was on the Washington Post website and I saw an article entitled “New Year’s Resolutions that are Still Viable”, written that day. I found it intriguing, so I’ve asked the ushers to hand out papers so that you can read the 13 resolutions along with me (Petri, 2014).
Acknowledge the existence of the gym every day! Think thoughts about people! Fall over! Obviously, the hilarity of these resolutions is that you could accomplish them all without trying.
We all could probably guess that many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions but the actual number is surprising. Researchers found that about 80% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions fall off the wagon by Valentine’s Day (Williams, 2009). That means, for most people who make them, New Year’s Resolutions are mainly useless and discouraging.
Why do they fail so much? At times, people make up their resolutions quickly and don’t think ahead about how to concretely put them into practice. Living into a goal or building a new habit takes time, work, and rearranging priorities. New Year’s Resolutions likely fail because people don’t make actual plans or carve out specific times to learn that skill or hobby or language or go to the gym. They say, “I want this…” but don’t think about what it takes to get that.
If New Year’s Resolutions don’t normally work, should we write off the tradition? I think yes and no. Yes—in that you probably shouldn’t just whip up a list for the sake of having a list, without thought to how you could accomplish goals or make improvements. It’s like setting yourself up for failure. At the same time, no, we shouldn’t abandon the idea completely, because I think that there is an underlying value that we can learn from and find growth from as followers of Jesus.
Today’s Old Testament passage in Ecclesiastes talks about seasons. As humans, it seems like we yearn for fresh starts. We crave new chapters and clean slates. The way our world is set up, we are regularly gifted with opportunities to begin anew. New mornings. New weeks. New months. New years. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” There is a season to be born, a season to die, to plant, to uproot, to tear down, to build, to keep, to throw away.
New Year’s is a season for self-examination and reflection. As followers of Jesus, as disciples, we are called to grow in our faith, in our knowledge, in our love, in our joy. As followers of Jesus, I think that we can reclaim this cultural activity—but instead of making quick promises that set us up for failure, we can use this time at the start of the New Year to pause, reflect, and refocus on God’s values.
Throughout his time on earth, Jesus continuously went out by himself to be alone, to spend time in meditation and prayer. At New Year’s, we can set aside time to consider our lives, to reflect, to pray, so that we can become aware of the healthy and harmful habits of our lives, that we hear God’s leading on how to grow and live lives as God intended.
The Good Life
New Year’s is understood as a time to figure out what constitutes a good life and to aim to live it out in the year to come. It so happens that, last month at the Young Adult gathering, we watched a documentary film entitled “Happy”. In the film, researchers spoke about how what people tend to think would make them happy actually doesn’t. People tend to think that wealth, status, and material possessions will make them happy. Some money, some status, some material possessions (i.e. basic needs met) do provide a level of satisfaction—but only to a low point. The researchers found that after a basic level is met, increasing money, status, or possessions does not actually make people happier. If we are dissatisfied with our lives, more clothes or a new car or a bigger house are not the answers.
So what does make people happy? The researchers found that happiness involves being together regularly with friends and family, having strong interests and passions, practicing gratitude, serving others, and finding purpose or spirituality. From a social scientific point of view, these are what constitute the “good life”.
It is striking that, when we examine Scripture, what the researchers found seems to match up with what God has taught us. We can look at many places in Scripture and see that a good life involves enjoying one’s work, finding joy in the everyday, having strong relationships with others, serving others, being thankful, and seeking God. As we think about this New Year, how can we practically cultivate these in our lives?
Enjoying One’s Work and Finding Joy in the Every Day
The book of Ecclesiastes is a piece of wisdom literature. Tradition has it that King Solomon the wise (referred to as the Teacher) wrote this book as he pondered meaning and meaninglessness. You know, a light topic. The book starts out with “The Teacher” exclaiming, “Meaningless, Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” …The sun rises and sets; seasons come and go. Days continue on and on and nothing is really new. The teacher laments, “it is an unhappy business that God has given human beings to be busy with” (1:13).
The whole book of Ecclesiastes describes the Teacher’s search for meaning. In our reading today, the Teacher comes to the conclusion that a good life involves enjoying one’s work and finding happiness in the everyday. Our passage ends with, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (Ecc. 3:12-13). Ecclesiastes recognizes a truth for humanity: there is fulfillment in enjoying your work.
Sometimes our society is apt to promote complaining about work. How are you? “Busy. Stressed. So much going on. Looking forward to the weekend to get away from work.” These all might be true. Yet we can find joy when we reframe and shift our perspective.
So how can we enjoy our work, rather than finding it just something that we need to get through? To do that, do we need to adjust our attitudes? Do we need to shift from a job we hate that pays more to a job we could enjoy that pays less? How can we find joy in our work?
Perhaps we could not truly enjoy our work—maybe “work is work, I don’t hate it but I don’t love it.” It pays the bills and isn’t going to change. What else in terms of “toil” can we find to bring fulfillment? Research indicates that “individuals who excel at a craft, skill, or talent often experience elevated states of happiness, passion, and fulfillment” (Alloro et al., n.d., p. 12).
Do we regularly do anything that stirs our minds or cultivates our skills or talents? Creating a good quality meal, finding a hobby that brings us delight, learning an instrument or skill that challenges us—these are things which can add joy to our lives. God doesn’t want us to live in bitter frustration or boredom or in a stupor. How can you add something to your week that brings you joy?
Having Strong Relationships
I’ve rarely made New Year’s Resolutions but, this year, one was made for me. A few weeks ago, Nate made a resolution we were visiting with friends. He said we should aim to get together every other week with two friends of ours who live just a few streets away. Incidentally, we were talking to them just after watching the movie Happy, which used human stories to tout the benefits of strong relationships.
Research indicates that there are protective health benefits of strong relationships. In a study “which looked at over 300,000 people from four continents over a period of seven years, those with the strongest social networks fared best in terms of health outcomes and lifespan. They were nearly twice (1.5 times) as likely to be alive at any given age than those who were lonely” (Roberts, 2010).
Strong relationships, love, kindness: these are noted throughout scripture as important to the “good life” as God has designed it. Jesus taught that “Loving our neighbors as we would love ourselves” is one of the two greatest commandments (Mk 12:31). Throughout the New Testament, Christians are encouraged to build strong relationships. From the book of Hebrews, we hear an urging to make sure we get together: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together” (Heb. 10:24-25).
We are urged to have relationships of depth, characterized by genuine love, sharing joys and sorrows. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Let love be genuine… love one another with mutual affection… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. …Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:9-10, 12-13, 15).
God values strong relationships, values us sharing love. The New Year is a time to ask ourselves, “How can I build strong relationships? How can I strengthen the relationships that I have or, make my love more genuine? If we don’t have many relationships, we might ask, “How can I join a club or a bible study or a team where I can meet friends and share life with others?”
Maybe there are hurdles we can remove to make our existing relationships stronger. “Can I turn off the TV more to have face-to-face conversations, even for 10 or 20 minutes a day? Can I invite people over more to my house or find a way to get together with people regularly?
Serving Others, Seeking God
Scripture defines “the good life” as finding enjoyment in work and joy in everyday life, having strong relationships, and also in serving others and seeking God. The Teacher, the writer in Ecclesiastes, closes out the book with what he deems to bring the most meaning. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecc. 12:13-14). Seeking God and following God with our lives: this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Our other passage today was Matt. 25, which we Brethren try to take very seriously. We go on workcamps, we do BVS, we start soup kitchens: we share the gospel through service. Clearly, from Jesus’ words, these are crucial. Yet our spiritual life is incomplete if we only do service. Service is the outcome of a life that is seeking to know and love God.
We are right to emphasize that Jesus taught us “To love our neighbors as ourselves” but we must rightly prioritize the other greatest commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Mk. 12:30).
When I was 13, my mom was a struggling single mom, working several part-time jobs, and our van was stolen just a few days before Christmas. Through our local church, an anonymous donor provided Christmas gifts according to a list that we provided. Not only did 8th grade Jenn receive what she asked for but also several other things that she hadn’t: an extra shirt, a new pair of jeans, perfume, and a Student Bible.
Inside that Bible were several reading plans on different topics, including a three year reading plan of the whole Bible. I hadn’t really read the Bible before, let alone the whole thing. This plan, which alternated between the Old and New Testaments, seemed approachable and interesting. It consisted of a chapter a day for 3 years; if I felt like reading more and going faster, I could. The Student Bible edition seemed to be made for understanding, with book introductions and side bars to help translate cultural oddities and lead to life applications.
While I was still pretty uncertain about my faith, I was intrigued and wanted to know more, so I embarked on the 3 year, whole Bible plan. It was a sort-of New Year’s resolution and a challenge to see if I could do it, mixed with a genuine desire to seek God. I know I didn’t read every day but I had a tangible plan to grow in knowledge of God and the Bible. It was a meaningful step on my journey to follow Jesus and helped lead to me choosing to be baptized the next year.
I find that it can be easy to be well-meaning about seeking God and then not come through, similar to failed New Year’s resolutions. For my own self, if I don’t schedule in a specific time to read my Bible or pray, I probably will go through my whole day without doing so. Our lives are busy, obligations press us (even church obligations!) and we neglect to carve out time to feast on God’s word. The Bible can be difficult, at times confusing, but is overall nourishing and life-giving. It has changed my life in ways I never would have expected and I know that God uses it to transform me.
Psalm 1 declares that “Happy are those… [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night” (vv.1, 2). This New Year, how can we cultivate ways to seek God more? How can we grow in knowledge and faith and become more like Jesus? How can we learn to love God’s word and find joy by spending time in God’s presence?
Jesus regularly withdrew to deserted places to pray. How can we follow his example in order to prepare for this New Year ahead? I’m not saying that we should head to the desert or a forest (though that might be good!). Can we set aside time this week—still at the start of our New Year—to reflect on cultivating joy, building stronger relationships, and seeking God?
Sisters and brothers, this week, take at least 20 minutes. Stop and consider 2014, think about your life, about joy and fulfillment in work, about strong relationships, and about serving God and seeking God in his Word. Find some concrete ways that you can cultivate joy, build stronger relationships, and seek to know God more in 2014. Amen.
Alloro et al. (n.d.). Happy higher education instructor’s guide. Center for Consciousness and Transformation/George Mason University. Retrieved from http://www.thehappymovie.com/
Petri, A. (2014, January 2). New Year’s resolutions that are still viable. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2014/01/02/new-years-resolutions-for-2014-that-are-still-viable/
Roberts, M. (2010, July 27). Having good friends appears to ‘boost’ survival. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-10775086
Williams, A. (2009, January 1). New Year, new you? Nice try. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/fashion/01change.html?_r=1&pagew&