This past year taught me so much about the gospel and caused me to go deeper into my faith. As this new year begins, here are five spiritual resolutions I learned from last year:
1. Return to the gospel. Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. passed away in early 2013. He was a mentor, elder, and spiritual director to me. I miss Gordon greatly and often have things I would like to talk with him about. But I usually know what he would say to me and it would always be about returning to the gospel. In his last sermon, spoken from his death bed, he spoke of Jesus’ “clear and frightening statement that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In every place I go this year, I want to remember that. Gordon said, “The warning of Jesus is being ignored. The warning is against what is the dominant consciousness now. What constitutes a good life, a successful life in our culture is exactly the opposite of that to which Jesus calls us. If one is successful in the world’s sense then the very things we boast about are signs of our failure.” Success for Christians is always returning to the gospel that turns the world upside down.
2. Find the courage to preach the gospel. Will Campbell, the iconic southern preacher and writer also passed this year. Will was often described as “provocative” for his courage to believe, preach, and act upon the gospel. Will was one of the first white ministers in the south to embrace the civil rights movement, but later confronted northern liberals by the way he pastored his white rural neighbors, still steeped in racism, with his gospel full of grace. He would often finish his very brief sermons in big rich churches by telling them to sell their buildings and give the money to the poor. Will regularly surprised and irritated people on all sides of the political and theological spectrum by simply preaching the gospel as he saw it in the Scriptures. I too pray for the courage to preach the gospel boldly.
3. Never forget the hope of the gospel. The whole world felt the passing of Nelson Mandela. “It always seems impossible until it is done,” said Mandela. The greatest leader of the 20th century knew oppression like few others and his 27 years in prison formed Mandela spiritually into the leader he became. “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. In that way lay defeat and death.” Nelson Mandela not only taught us the ways of justice, but also the way of forgiveness and that is the gospel that few revolutionary leaders ever learn. Mandela showed us that the way to great leadership is accepting sacrifice, and not just pursuing your own success. I have never been in the presence of a leader with more moral authority than Nelson Mandela, and he showed me the meaning of my best quote, “Hope is believing, in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”
4. Remember that gratitude is the best response to the gospel. When I got the diagnosis of prostate cancer, my first very human response was “why me and why now?” But after finally accepting what was happening to me, being loved by my family, prayed for by my friends, and cared for by my wonderful doctors the frustration and denial turned to gratitude. I was extremely fortunate that my doctors found the cancer early and removed it completely. It has made me more thankful and grateful than ever before — for my wife, Joy, and my boys, Luke and Jack, for waking up another day with my health, for having significant work to do, for seeing the difference we can make in the world, but also seeing how very human and limited we really are — which actually can allow us to have a little more fun.
5. Smile and laugh more often. Gratitude, humility, and fun can make us more human as we try to make the world more human. Even after we have talked about the most important issues in the world, my older son, Luke, will sometimes say to me, “Smile Dad.” Nobody makes me laugh more than my younger son, Jack! And nobody likes to throw a party more than my wonderful wife, Joy! A sign I now have up on my bookshelf, at eye level in my home office where I often work, simply says, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” I want to increasingly learn to enjoy the world while trying to change it. And perhaps doing both makes God smile too.
The beginning of each New Year brings out the best in us all. It is a time to reflect on what we’ve done and where we’ve come from, while re-imagining who we are and where we are headed. As you think about your own resolutions, I hope my reflection points towards a greater truth that we need to be reminded of every now and then: God’s grace is sufficient to cover our mistakes, heal our wounds, and even make us happier! The life we’ve been offered through Christ brings us the hope of a transformation for both ourselves and the world. Blessings to you for 2014!