While I don't think it a pastoral matter, I do often get the question, "What are your New Year's resolutions?" There was a time that I would get rather elaborate in my response -- laying out a game plan for the coming year that seemed impressive and genuinely transformational. I don't do that anymore.
A couple of years back, I went to the local gym, where I work out, right after the new year. The place was packed (when usually it was not). Since I had been a member only a few months, I asked one of the trainers what had happened. His response was in three words: "New Year's Resolutions." For the next three or so weeks, the place continued to be crowded at the times I could work into my schedule. By the middle of February, however, the numbers had dwindled to the point that I could move about with my earlier accustomed ease. What changed?
While opening the subject of resolutions, it is also a good place to mention the close relative of the New Year's Resolution. It is the Lenten Discipline. What!? Hey, it is only 1.5 months away. It will be here before you know it. Folks do the same thing with Lent. A complicated and robust plan for the keeping of a Holy Lent is set forth by the well-meaning Christian. When the question is asked by equally well-meaning clergy, "How's your Lenten Rule going?" The answer is often a mumbled something akin to "I blew it."
What is happening here? Simply put, the human will follows the same principles of physics as do other entitities: a body in motion tends to move toward a state of rest (inactivity). One can research this through the first two laws of thermodynamics and following the research that produced the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty. It takes energy to do work. The dissipation of that energy will render the object less and less effective in the function of that work. Other dynamics can produce forces that will also hinder the object's effective ability to perform work. This is a psychological (behavioral) truth as well as one of physics.
Why this "mumbojumbo?" As a pastoral statement: Any attempt to will one's self into a permanent resolve (resolution) will ultimately fail as the internal and external forces dissipate the energy to uphold the initial resolve. St. Paul said it a bit differently: "For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." (Romans 7:15 NIV). Does this not mean that, all things being equal, we end up a lump? Yes! We have a term for it: Couch Potato.
My point here is to suggest that, any resolution that we make as an act of will is going to be rendered ineffective over time. In fact, it will cease be be an action at all. That's why the resolve to exercise daily at the beginning of the year lasts only about six to eight weeks for most folks. That's why the Lenten Rule, so energetically embraced on Ash Wednesday, is toast by the third week of Lent. We want to do it, but we end up not doing it well or even at all. That was St. Paul's point exactly.
Now that I have produced the conundrum, how do we deal with the need to make positive, healthy and useful changes in our lives? We look at ourselves in the mirror and say, "I need to lose 20 lbs." or, "I need to quit smoking." The list goes on. The motivating question is, "For what reason do I need to do these things?" We may have great intentions. Our spouse is urging us. We don't like what we see or what we are doing. We have other feelings of angst or pain that might be motivating us. But, any effort to make any change in any part of our lives is, by definition, work. It requires us to think and act on a new and regular level. It requires energy. The dissipation of energy reduces our resolve by a mathematically measured amount. Over time, we quit doing or being that resolve and return to the former, "easier" state of being and doing.
UNLESS, something deeper motivates us. About three years ago, my blood chemistry went haywire. I have genes (it seems) that mitigate against a normal level of cholesterol and triglycerides. Somewhere between visits to my primary care physician, both of those jumped to an alarmingly high number....way above normal. Within the space of a year, I was pre-diabetic with cholesterol levels at 400 and triglycerides at 960. Blood sugar ratios were dangerously high. I resolved to do something about it. I exercised, ate sensibly and willed myself to avoid foods that would exacerbate the problem. It wasn't enough. Holidays would come. With them came the confections and homemade comfort foods that were high in fats and sugars. My will collapsed. Being a priest, the constant temptations from well-meaning parishioners simply could not be avoided (I used the rationale: 'I'll hurt their feelings.').
In late November 2008, my cardiologist connected me with one of his associates who specializes in vascular problems (blood stuff). He was very forthright and honest, as he carefully read my chart and drew on his dry erase board. "Fred, you are a man on a course that will lead to certain death unless you can pull out of this mess. You are on the verge of becoming a full-blown Type II diabetic. You are pumping sludge with the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your system. You are allergic to statin medications. There are a few things left, and we can help." Thereupon, he sent me to a vascular nutritionist. I have met the model for what all drill sargeants become in the military. I also met a deeper motivation for what I now work on earnestly.
Going deep means finding the place where energy and motion are generated. I do not mean physical energy and motion. I mean the kind that shapes the human will. Even with the background, training and experience of my vocation, I had failed to go to that place with this issue. After all, this is about physiology and genetics.
In the quiet of my centering and contemplative prayer practices, I laid forth this issue....simply laid it there. It is the way of this kind of prayer work. In a space of time (for me, about 6 weeks), I became acutely aware that the only one whose pleasure I care about is the One who created me. What really matters is what I do by extension of that createdness. Okay, here's another analogy (after all, Jesus taught exclusively with metaphors). In the reality of God, God is perpetually in motion and constantly creating. God is like the perpetual fuel atomic reactor. If we recognize our true nature as created with God at the center of our being, that energy is what motivates us and provides the kind of resolve that never quits.
This is not a longshot. This is as fundamental to spirituality as thermodynamic laws are to physics...even more so. St. Paul concluded that, in order to do ultimate good, he had to surrender to the Spirit of God desiring to work in him. We must be in partnership with our true Self in that created image.
I did the ultimate no-no. I played Gideon on this one. I was doing really well with all of this in the spring and summer. I was even doing really well with an untimely and rather disturbing stressor in my professional life that came along in late summer. Then, in November, I said (seriously), "Okay, I'm backing off a bit. I think I've got this. I can do it myself now."
Disaster! I just got my numbers today for the latest vascular workup. My blood chemistry is out of whack again. I've gained weight (which is what happens when triglycerides are running unchecked at high levels) and become tired a lot. My blood sugar jumped to the "pre..." level again. The Physician's Assistant who monitors me for the cardiologists scowled at me this morning in disturbed disbelief at what her computer showed her. I had to tell her, using the metaphor I've employed above, "I simply ran out of gas here...and out of resolve."
As I sipped a cup of coffee and ate a light breakfast (a totally legal breakfast mind you) after that session, I knew what my new year will entail. I will return to that place where I open myself to Grace and admit that I don't have a boundless will (I already knew this, but, remember, I played Gideon for six weeks). I know where true resolve is generated and the energy to sustain it. It is only meaningful if I am the vessel being launched .... without being dissuaded by temptations or promises of rest. I'm not ready for THAT kind of rest! Neither is God it appears. Neither am I willing to listen to other voices. Read how Paul interprets that in the latter part of Romans 7. I'm not going for a strike three.
Blessings this New Year of Grace!