With the beginning of the New Year, we are in the customary season for making resolutions. I say ‘season’, but it is only four days in, and already the ‘resolution’ thing seems to have passed! But, as usual, there has been a variety of responses to this tradition.
On my social media feeds, there seems to be more interest than in previous years in reading Scripture in a more systematic way. Paul Blackham, who is vicar of St Crispin’s Church in London, comments (starting a little tongue in cheek I suspect):
Obviously, ministers and church workers will be reading through the whole Bible every month. It takes around 60 hours to read through the Bible, so clergy will spend an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening each day, reading through the Bible. What about the other Church members? Is two hours a day too much? Perhaps… but if we consider how much time we might spend in entertainment or social media… perhaps not.
However, if we read the Bible for 15/20 minutes in the morning and 15/20 minutes in the evening, most of us will get through the Bible 3-4 times a year. My own experience of reading through the Bible like this has been amazing. When we are hearing the very Words of God in such deep drafts, it literally changes our very hearts and minds…
If we are ministers, let’s prepare ourselves to genuinely read through the Bible every month—or at least every two months in 2022. Let’s commit to at the very least half an hour in the Bible every morning and half and hour every evening. Our flock probably expects that we are already doing this…
If we are not clergy or Church workers, then let’s set aside at least 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to simple READ through the Bible. Don’t worry about taking notes, reading commentaries or analysing content in these 15 minute periods. The goal each day is to simply LISTEN to the Words of the Living God.
Don’t worry if your mind has drifted off or if you can’t understand what you are reading… Trust it all into the hands of the Living God.
Another online friend, Chad Bird, offers a slightly different Bible-reading challenge:
A year ago, I began to read through the New Testament in Greek. I finished Revelation today. If you have studied Greek, I encourage you to do the same in 2022. My goal for this coming year is to read through as much of the Septuagint as possible, to keep improving my Greek.
A great encouragement along the way has been a FB group called “Greek & Hebrew One-Year Bible Reading Group.” If you have training in biblical languages, you can ask join it. They have a variety of reading schedules designed for those who want to read the whole Bible in Hebrew and Greek, just the NT, the LXX, etc.
I might be unusual in seeing these kinds of suggestions—but there will be other radical proposals that you have come across. And it is worth reflecting on why, despite the obvious challenges here, we find these kinds of suggestions so appealing.
Fundamentally, all such radical suggestions offer the hope of living a better way. As I look back over the last year, I can see how mediocre much of my life is. I could have been more diligent in my work; I could have loved my family better; I could have been kinder to my neighbours; I could have shared my faith more effectively; I could have preached better—and so on! There is a wonderful appeal to the clean sweep, the idea that things really can change, and in profound and meaningful ways.
Most of the time, the working space in my study is a mess. But the room also doubles as a dining room when we have guests, and we used it all over Christmas when friends and family were visiting. So I had to clear everything away, and the mess is now hiding in a large box in our bedroom, waiting to be sorted, whilst the study table has a pristine tidiness. It has the same appeal as the experience of having a new exercise book at school—and I worry that the tidiness will last just as long as those exercise books stayed clean!
I have been taking advantage of the unseasonably warm New Year to prune two of my climbing roses (I would normally do this in late February or early March). The transformation from the tangled mess of last season’s growth to the neatly tied-in new leaders, all ready for producing a profusion of colour and sent, is breathtaking and not a little inspiring. I think we feel the same with the idea of New Year’s resolutions.
And there is good theological reason for this hope too. There is plenty of language about sudden change all over scripture. Jesus began his preaching ministry with the proclamation that ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe…’—a sudden event, demanding sudden change. In John 3, the metaphor is about ‘being born again’, a sudden and dramatic change that Nicodemus cannot fathom. Paul talks about moving from death to life in Ephesians 2, of dying and being raised in the waters of baptism in Romans 6, or of ‘new creation’ coming so suddenly he forgets to include a verb in 2 Cor 5.17.
And yet, alongside dramatic change, Scripture also speaks about processes of growth and change, some of which might take a lifetime. One of the primary images in the gospels of discipleship is that of journey, so (for example) Luke styles the central part of Jesus’ ministry and his call on others to follow him as a (extended, and at times convoluted) journey from Galilee to Jerusalem from Luke 9.51. And both Jesus and Paul use the image, for the kingdom of God and the life of the believer, of plants growing. I know from experience that there is no point in looking at seeds I have sown every hour or every day—though dramatic change is evident when I look each week, each month, or each year.
This chimes with our problem in experience with the idea of sudden change. As Martin Saunders highlights, making resolutions just isn’t the usual way we see change and transformation happen:
In truth, life just isn’t that neat. We don’t put our vices behind us overnight, nor can we suddenly turn over a new leaf. So instead of New Year’s resolutions, we might be better of with an approach to self-improvement that takes a more realistic view of how people change: slowly and with a few setbacks along the way.
So, instead of making grand pronouncements on New Year’s Eve, why not try something else this year? Rather than making resolutions, why not set goals?
And other friends have suggested different alternatives—such as believed that good enough is good enough, liberating us from an oppressive obsession with perfection. Or others want to couch the whole thing in terms of ‘grace’ rather than ‘law’, talking about what we can do rather than what we should do. Chad Bird, alongside his demanding challenge, also posted this:
New Year is the annual festival of we’re not good enough, not skinny enough, not nice enough, not smart enough. It is the unholy day of the Little Law that always accuses us. Today, and every day, hear this: Christ is our Enough. In him alone we are 100% pleasing to God.
As I have commented previously, we will change more in response to the call of Godthan as a result of our own determination. There are times in my life when I have made sudden changes, but these have always come in response to a very clear sense of God’s call. I have for many years kept a ‘rule of life’, in which I set out the kinds of habits and patterns of living that will be spiritually, socially and physically healthy—and I conclude this statement by making clear: ‘This is the pattern of life to which I believe God is calling me’. This means that I am depending as much on God’s work within me as my own effort; change and discipline come about as a cooperative exercise between God and myself, so that I neither succumb to laziness (expecting God to do it all) nor to frantic ‘will worship’ (Richard Foster’s phrase in Celebration of Discipline) where it all depends on me. This also means that we might need to stop doing things as much as start doing them; too often resolutions fail because we are simply trying to pack more things into an already busy life. If God is calling us to take up something new, what old thing is God calling us to lay down?
What does all this mean in practice? If we have experience significant, sudden change, but we know there is more change to come? If we rest in the love of God, but also hear his call to the next stage of holy living? If we know the path of life has sudden changes of direction, but quite often in between it is a long and winding road?
I have actually made quite a lot of practical changes in my life in the last year, and not as the result of any resolutions, but from listening to Michael Mosley’s fantastic short radio series ‘Just One Thing‘.
We all want to live healthier, better lives—but with an overload of information, it can be really hard to know what we ought to be doing, especially when we are short on time. So, in each episode, I will be investigating one simple and often surprising thing you can do to improve your brain and body—from eating bacteria to improve your mental health, to taking a cold shower to improve your immune system, to doing a few press-ups to help you live longer.
The reasons why this has worked for me offers a good model for any kind of change, and I wonder whether it might help us all approach the question about growing as disciples of Jesus.
It is holistic. Mosley says from the outset that his suggestions will affect our bodies and our minds, and he is constantly making the connections between simple physical actions and issues of brain and mental health.
It is led by example. In each episode, Mosley begins with a (sometimes rather humorous) illustration of doing the action he is talking about himself, and offering a brief testimony of how helpful (and challenging) he has found it.
It is participatory. In the second segment of each episode (which are only 15 minutes long), he recruits a willing volunteer who, without much explanation, will have a go at this week’s action, and come back at the end to talk about how they have experienced it, whether they noticed the benefits, and whether they intend to continue with it (spoiler alert: they all do).
It is understandable. The middle segment is a conversation with an expert, who offers an explanation of why this particular action is effective—what it does to our bodies, why it is positive, and how it will benefit us. The explanation is not set out as the motivation for action, but as a supporting rationale.
It is achievable. As Mosley emphasises repeatedly, all the things that he suggests are easy to integrate into daily life, without making drastic changes, though they do bring significant benefit. Two of his episodes commend standing on one leg to improve your balance, and turning your shower to cold at the end each day—so I now do both at the same time, standing on one leg in a cold shower!
It combines immediate change with a longer process. Since Mosley offers one change per episode, originally broadcast weekly, it was possible to introduce a series of small but significant changes over a period of several months, giving you time to adjust to each one in turn.
There were quite a few that I already did, or were easy to do without much difficulty. I already ate live bio-yogurts on a regular basis, so changing to a fermented yoghurt like kefir (episode 2) wasn’t hard. And I already take Barney out in the garden early in the morning (episode 1) and spend a lot of time in green spaces (episode 6). The two I have noticed most change with were standing on one leg (episode 7) and exercise less, more often (series 2, episode 3) combined with doing strength exercises (episode 5). I was shocked to find I could only stand on one leg with my eyes closed for 4 seconds when I started (if you are 50 or over, have a go) and that falling over was the second most common cause of accidental death in the world. I can now stand on one leg with my eyes closed for more than 30 seconds—and I quite regularly do 60 squats and 60 press-ups in a day.
So rather than making resolutions this year, perhaps we ought to resolve to make this a year of change, and each month decide what new thing God is calling us to. Perhaps rather than resolve alone, we should find a partner who will do that same, so that we can share experiences. And perhaps we need to start thinking about discipleship in much more communal and holistic ways. If my experience is anything to go by, these things will lead to real and lasting change.