Thursday, December 14, 2023

Replacing Resolution: Welcoming the New Year with a different kind of practice

The following is an article I wrote for the YF Family Blog, you can find it there.

After the Christmas season ends, right about when we’re pining for a fresh start, sweeping dead pine needles and New Year’s confetti from under the couch, the American holiday season of “Resolution” arrives. Lucky for us, beginning January 1, every diet pill, nicotine patch, organizing gizmo, life coach app, health club membership, lean meal plan, self-help book and storage container is on sale. It’s as though Baby Jesus came to earth to give us one more go-round at changing all the rotten things about ourselves! (At least until we pitter out sometime mid-February).

But the truth is quite the opposite. Baby Jesus came to earth to share this life with us. Christ joins our life and dies our death so nothing can separate us from God’s love. God is here with us now, as we are, however we are. And when we’re exhausted and disillusioned from the season, we might choose to observe a different holiday than Resolution: Epiphany.

Epiphany, which is traditionally observed on January 6, celebrates the Magi, the scholars from the East, who traveled for months on end led by a star and a promise to find the Creator of the world on the lap of a peasant woman. God has come for the whole world, and there is no going back.

Where Resolution begins with our fears and our failures, telling us to fix what’s broken with ourselves, Epiphany comes right into our pain and fears, bringing possibilities and surprises from outside us. It summons us to where we might never otherwise have gone and connects us with people we might never otherwise have known. When we’re open to epiphany we’re likely to be transformed.

One way to celebrate the season of Epiphany is to start out the new year with a “star word.” A star word is a random word that becomes a prayer guide, a focus, a way to watch for God. God can use anything to speak to us. There is nothing magic about a star word. But a star word begins as a mystery; typically you do not choose it. And so, it invites investigation, attentiveness, waiting. A star word orients you to watch for God in a particular way, to be receptive to the Spirit who is moving right now in the world around you.

My star word this past year was “music” – which, to be honest, I was pretty disappointed about. After having “stillness” (2022), and “determination” (2021-pandemic time!) MUSIC felt too concrete, and didn’t inspire me or seem to fit my life. But something has happened to me as I’ve lived with that word in my attention all year: music keeps finding me.

This summer on a trip to Europe I traveled with my ears. Music met me everywhere. In the early morning bird concert shouting through wide open windows, and the church bells tolling together all over the rooftops of Vienna. In the bike wheels of five hundred happy sunset bikers whirring by in unison. Melodies sang in the screeching of the train’s metal brakes and the percussive bumping of our suitcases over cobblestones in the early dawn light—our family’s cacophonous contribution to an otherwise quiet and empty street. I heard the cheerful clip-clopping of the hooves of horses pulling carriages of smiling tourists, and felt chills run through me at the drawn-out, mournful tones of an organ being tuned in the balcony of a 16th century cathedral. I was stopped still by a solo violinist playing on the banks of the Spree. The tones echoed off the tall, glass, modern buildings across the river and reverberated back in the vast, roofless concert hall. People slowed their walking to match his melody. And at a Chopin concert at a small salon in Warsaw, sitting next to my son who had recently mastered a Chopin piece himself, I watched the pianist’s fingers move at lightning speed across the keys, making one instrument sound like a half dozen. But mostly, I watched my son. The air felt still and holy as I soaked in my child’s raptness, perched both on the edge of his seat and on the threshold of leaving home for college. Where would the music inside him take him from here? Oh! How our lives are filled with music! Music I would otherwise have missed had I not been watching for it.

So often we race through life, striving and straining, pressing forward oblivious to the beauty of those around us, the wonder of the natural world, and the presence of God right here in it all, nudging us toward joy. We stumble along, critical and ashamed, measuring ourselves against an unseen ideal. But life is a gift from God. God comes in to love and claim us all. The Holy Spirit is active in the world, and epiphany awaits. In our willingness to watch and openness to being met, we might begin to notice how the God who comes to share this life is actually sharing in our life.

There is no end to the resolutions we could make. We could always muster up a goal and get cracking. But instead, why not receive a star word and start watching? What if, instead of Resolution, we start our year in Epiphany?

Suggestions for Receiving and Using Star Words:
To share star words in a congregation, print words on star cut-outs, or write them on star ornaments. Let people “draw” a word from a basket. In a family or small group, print several words on a page, cut in strips and choose one from a hat. Decorate a star ornament with your word. Hang your star word somewhere you can see it all year long. Pray with your star word. Or hold the word with you as you head into work or school. Check in with yourself and each other from time to time, journaling or chatting – how is God meeting you through your star word this year?

My congregation has compiled this list of star words that can be used with your family, church or small group.

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