Part of my job as a preacher is to remind you when you are being lied to.
It’s New Year’s Day. January 1. This morning I took down last year’s calendar and hung a new one in its place. Last week, I made a new file in my drawer for my financial documents. And St. Lydia’s has a new budget, a fresh sheet on the accounting page.
Most of the changes that take place as we shift from the old year to the new seem to take place in document form — a new, clean sheet of crisp paper, fresh and ready for a new year.
Accompanying all of this grand shuffling of papers and calendars is the lie: the intimation that, just like hanging a fresh calendar on the wall, we too can start over. Make a resolution. Decide that this year will be different. Somehow reset our lives and start fresh. A different us: the new version. Us version 2.0. This new us is fundamentally different from the us we were last year. This new us springs energetically out of bed and goes to the gym three times a week, or suddenly has no desire for cigarettes, or alcohol, or other vices, or magically keeps the house tidy and organized.
This new us is shiny and new, and feels recently purchased, like a new car, with a fresh, new us smell and sheen, a smile that is whiter and skin with a healthy glow. This new us is even more photogenic than the old, as evidenced by the new 2.0 us that appears on Facebook, always smiling riotously and having just a little bit more fun than everyone else.
This is the lie: That you can start fresh. That you can drop off the old, unwanted, weatherworn bits of yourself at the Salvation Army and pick up something fresher and more appealing. Something less complicated and easier to live with.
There are two big problems that I see with this lie.
The first is that it has us thinking that deciding to change and changing are the same thing. It has us thinking that jumping out of bed to head to the gym three times a week is simply a matter of deciding to do it, and with a little good old American stick-to-itiveness, we can revamp our lives entirely.
The truth is that our less positive habits are a bit like lily pads on a pond: from above, they seem to float on the surface of the water, but they’re rooted deep down, in the muck way at the bottom.
Each afternoon you get fidgety and make a trip to the snack machine, not because you’re hungry, but because a growing sense of emptiness is blossoming within you, and somehow food seems to fill it.
You keep meaning to go to sleep earlier, but find yourself browsing endlessly online, hours each night, paging around, as if looking for something you’ve lost. You’re trying to fill that growing sense of lack, of emptiness.
The truth is that changing our habits means addressing their roots, and addressing the roots is tricky, because there’s a lot that might get dredged up down there.
The second big problem that I see with this lie, is that it assumes that there is no light in us.
Out with the old and in with the new! The desire to “start fresh” with a shiny new version of ourselves implies that we are in fact, disposable. And things that are disposable are worthless. Out with the old and in with the new assumes that there’s something in us that needs to be gotten rid of: eradicated.
Perhaps you feel that there are portions of yourself that you wish would simply disappear. Perhaps you’re wary of the long neglected pieces of yourself that lie fallow in the muck at the bottom of the pond. Perhaps you come before God, hoping that she sees only the pieces you’d like to present — the pieces that are shiny and polished and ready for public consumption. As for the rest of you — out with the old and in with the new.
Here is the truth. Here is the Good News. God came to dwell among us. God came to pitch a tent, and she pitches it deep down in the muck. In the deepest, most forgotten corners of our hearts, the bits that we would rather set out with the trash. It is those parts of us where God loves us the most: wants most to dwell with us. God lives in the unwanted, weatherworn places, a light that shines even in the places we experience as dark or despairing.
We can change, and do. Not by deciding to discard the unwanted or undesirable pieces of ourselves, but learning to acknowledge and recognize them. By allowing ourselves to gently explore the murkier depths of the pool, and finding with surprise that there is a hidden light that pulses even there, waiting to be uncovered.
John came to testify to the light. To witness to the light he saw in the world: God’s light among us. The change we seek and desire is found by learning to be like John. By slowly and patiently cultivating a practice: looking around us, and within us, and pointing to the light.
It is a practice we live out every week around this table. We come here again and again, to learn how to find the light. How to see it, point to it, and say, there it is.
I see it in each of you around this table. Strong and clear and bright. I’m learning to see it in myself, despite my own constant, unfailing resistance. But God is here in the midst of me. God is here in the midst of you.
Do not believe the lie. Resist the urge to turn the calendar page. Do not start fresh. There is no “new you” for the new year; there is just the old one, scuffed up and weather-worn and shining with God’s light.
— Emily Scott, St. Lydia’s, Sunday, January 1, 2012
I had been attending St. Lydia’s a few months when I heard Emily give this sermon on New Year’s Day. It was a moment early in my involvement with St. Lydia’s that affirmed I’d found the right spiritual home. I think sermons sometimes should challenge us, not just make us feel good about our choices. But that’s a whole nother conversation… Happy New Year!