New Year’s resolutions

By Shawn Stevenson

At the beginning of each new year, many of us are in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions. It is a moment in time where we pause and briefly look back. We review the year that has just passed and ask ourselves, “What do I want to do different this year?” or “What do I want to change about the coming year?” Perhaps the motivation is regret about things left undone, or maybe bad experiences we do not want to repeat. Yet, other times it is a reflection on how we want to embark on some particular self-improvement in the new year.
John Wesley, the eighteenth century pastor and theologian, father of Methodism and the Wesleyan movement, encouraged Christians to take time in each year to renew their covenant with God. This practice was outlined in a booklet Wesley wrote entitled, “Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God”. To this day, many Wesleyans and Methodists participate annually in a Covenant Renewal Service on or near the first Sunday of the new year. For Wesley, what it meant to be a mature disciple of Christ was the joining of believers in a covenant “to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul”. In my own journey, I have come to look forward to this annual intentional time of renewal and focus on God.
Quoting from a modern paraphrase, one of my favorite parts of the Covenant Service contains this corporate responsive reading: All: “Make us what you will, Lord, and send us where we are to go. Let us be vessels of silver or gold, or vessels of wood or stone; as long as we are vessels of honor we are content. If we are not the head, or the eye, or the ear, one of the nobler and more honorable instruments, then let us be the hands, or the feet, as one of the lowest and least esteemed of all the servants of our Lord.”
Pastor: “Lord, place us in your kingdom in the roles you have designed for us.”
People: “Lord, make all of us your servants.”
Pastor: “In exalted places, or humble places.”
People: “Let us be full; let us be empty.”
Pastor: “Let us have all things; let us have nothing.”
People: “We freely and gladly embrace our places in your kingdom.”

As we embrace 2017 I am challenged once again to ask, “Do I know my place in God’s kingdom?” or “Do I know where I am to go?” For me these questions lead to a self-assessment about whether there is evidence that my faith makes any difference in my life or the lives of others. This doesn’t come from a place of guilt or drought, but from an acknowledgement of what God has done for me and those in my life.
In the Bible, James puts it this way, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22–25, NIV)
So once again, with a new year upon us, we are given an opportunity to reflect and ask, “How do I demonstrate I am a doer of the word?” Once again, James helps me answer this question when I encounter his challenge, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17, NIV)
Admittedly, many of us hear James’ admonishment, and think, “Well, surely it isn’t my job to provide clothing and food to everyone in need.” But James’ rebuke is unrelenting in its scope, he does not give us an escape clause that can get us off the hook. He simply concludes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27, NIV) This twofold challenge seems a great way to reflect on how I demonstrate I am a doer of the word.
As believers it seems we are naturally better at the second part of James’ challenge, “to keep oneself from being polluted.” We are generally good at creating boundaries intended to keep us pure and undefiled. We can sometimes be quick to list the things we “don’t do” as a sign of our righteousness, but I’m not sure this is the point that James is trying to make. Instead, it seems James is alluding to a reality similar to Jesus’s call in John 17:14-19, that we are to “be in the world, but not of it.”
The only way we can fulfill the first part of James’s challenge, “looking after orphans and widows,” is to be engaged in impacting lives “in the world” around us. In the modern day, I understand James’s call “to look after orphans and widows” to reflect this idea; How am I coming alongside those who are experiencing a broken family? How am I supporting those who are seemingly powerless to change their predicament on their own? This was the plight of the “orphans and widows” of James’s and Jesus’s day. So as we begin 2017, I ask you the same question I’m asking myself, “How am I demonstrating my faith by coming alongside broken people?” The need around us so great the question can be overwhelming, where do we begin to make a dent on looking after today’s “orphans and widows”?
While there are no simple answers, I believe we can multiply our efforts to be “doers of the word” when we partner with local Christian ministries uniquely positioned to come alongside people in need. In our community we are blessed with many great organizations who fit this description. From UGM to Safe Families for Children, from Life Services and iChoice to Hearth Homes in Spokane Valley, from HRC Ministries to the Salvation Army, as well as dozens of churches with their own compassionate outreach efforts, these ministries specialize in coming alongside the broken and powerless.
In this new year, I believe the challenge for each of us is to do something because of our faith. Perhaps we can do that by engaging with one of these groups above; maybe we can send them a check or signup to volunteer. The world is watching to see if our faith makes a difference in how we live our lives. Like James, I believe the Lord desires our faith would lead us to action. My prayer is that in 2017 you and I will find meaningful ways to demonstrate our faith in action.
Pastor Shawn Stevenson
Executive Director, Life Services