Day by Day
Happy New Year!
Many people consider the dawn of a New Year as the perfect opportunity to make big life changes. My daughter runs a gym, and January is by far their biggest membership sales month, driven by enthusiasm for starting a new workout regimen in the New Year.
We awaited the close of 2020 more eagerly than any other year in my lifetime. Finally, it’s over! Good riddance to a year roiled by pervasive economic, racial, political, and epidemiological warfare.
Yet one thing 2020 helpfully underscored for us is how formidable the opposition to big changes can be. The presidential election that was supposed to be decided November 3 is still being contested 2 months later. As I write, we await Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college win, and a vocal minority of Republican legislators have indicated that they will contest the certification for as long as they are able. Even if their effort fails, they are highly unlikely to stop pressing their claims of election fraud, lack of evidence notwithstanding. They are doing everything within their power to resist the change in executive leadership for which the people voted.
Meanwhile, the nation’s eyes are fixed this week on run-off elections in Georgia, whose outcomes will determine which party has control of the U.S. Senate. Ordinarily, we’d expect to know on Wednesday the results of Tuesday’s voting, but in the current milieu, it may take much longer for the election dust to settle.
New Year’s resolution-makers hope to make sea changes in their lives overnight. “On January 1 I will abruptly alter direction with my finances, my diet, my exercise, my habits, my loved ones, my work, etc.” – so goes the typical New Year’s resolution. But single-day radical changes, whether personal or corporate or national, are notoriously difficult to achieve.
Twelve-Step programs have known this all along. One doesn’t beat an addiction by drawing a line and vowing never to cross it again. Rather, one makes a day-by-day commitment – today I will stay clean, today I will eat healthily.
Faith does not endow us with superpowers to change our lives once and for all. Repentance (which literally means “change of direction”) is a reorientation that takes a lifetime to enact. The Westminster divines aptly called it “improving our baptism” – making incremental changes that in their totality turn sinners into saints. (Book of Confessions 7.277) Very few of us experience the abrupt change in life direction that the apostle Paul encountered on the road to Damascus. And when such a change does happen, it is given to us rather than produced by us.
Here is the difference that our faith makes for all of us, whether the Spirit changes our lives instantly or oh-so-slowly – we know that nothing that lies ahead or that has passed behind, that no one above us or beside us or below us, can separate us from God’s love revealed in and through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39) Faith in Jesus helps us get through whatever comes our way, rather than blasting all obstacles out of our way.
Any commitment we make to change our lives or our world ought to be made with great humility. James is spot on when he advises us to declare, “If the Lord wishes, we will do this or that.” (James 4:15, emphasis added) Paul astutely observes that our desire to do good often fails to move beyond mere good intentions. The Book of Common Worship wisely directs that those being baptized respond to the question of whether they will follow Christ faithfully, “I will, with God’s help.”
Becoming who we are called to be is a life-long, day-by-day process. What is true for us as individuals is true also for congregations. Rapid growth is something to beware, according to Jesus’ parable of the sower and the soils. Perseverance from day to day, despite the vicissitudes of our pandemic struggles, will serve us far better in the long run than will quick solutions.
And so, beloved, hang in there. Make the best of each day as it comes. Let us stay faithful with what we can do, rather than bemoaning what we cannot do. This is not merely a season to endure while we wait for something better – it is a school for spiritual life that will yield wonderful fruit throughout 2021 and far beyond.
Walking each step with you,