Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

The beginning of a new year invariably invites people to take stock of their lives and "resolve" to make some changes. It's a good thing to endeavor to make positive changes in our lives and the new year provides a natural opportunity to examine ourselves and seek to make some of those positive changes.

But New Year's Resolutions aren't often very successful in making those real changes. I find myself making resolutions or commitments to some kind of change in behavior in most years. My success has been a bit spotty. Sometimes it really makes a difference, and at other times it doesn't last long. The most common New Year's Resolutions have to do with exercising more, changing eating habits, quitting smoking or drinking, etc. I suspect that a lot of folks don't do too well with those. Others have to do with "spending more time with family" or some other relationship oriented issue. I suspect those don't fare too well, either. Some of them are so general and vague like "enjoy life more" that it would be difficult to measure whether you've accomplished it or not.

I read about an interesting study that gave some tips on being successful in maintaining New Year's Resolutions . It was done in Great Britain (See involved about 3,000 test subjects. It found that there is usually only about a 10% success rate on New Year's Resolutions. One in ten. That's not very good. But the study also found some ways that people tend to be more successful - and that the methods for success were somewhat different for men and women. Men triple their success at a resolution if they make a specific goal or target, with small, incremental measurable goals (like losing a pound a week), rather than an undefined, non-specific goal (like losing weight). Women, on the other hand, double their success at a New Year's Resolution if they told somebody - went public - with their commitment. Then they received support from their friends.

This, I think points out two very important principles - even spiritual principles - about life change: Making specific commitments that can be measurable and loving accountability in keeping those commitments. Ingenious qualities that led to the effectiveness of the early Methodist movement were these principles. The early Methodists, once they experienced the pardoning grace of God in Jesus Christ, didn't make some vague commitment to grow in grace. They committed themselves to specific disciplines (prayer, Bible reading, fasting, worship, acts of mercy and service to others), but also they gathered together in groups, shared these commitments with one another and met weekly to pray for each other and hold each other accountable for their growth in grace and specific commitments to spiritual disciplines.

People who seek to exercise regularly are much more successful if they have a partner who's going to be waiting for them at the gym or the health club at the agreed-upon time. We are much more likely to keep our daily quiet time for prayer and study or to do a particular act of service if we know our Christian friends are going to ask us about it at our next meeting.

I hope you will be successful in any life changes you seek to make as you begin the new year. And I would encourage you to focus on changes that are deep and signficant, rather that those that are merely cosmetic and superficial.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An Historic Election

For the last month I have been reflecting on the historic election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. I'm certainly not the only one who is still marveling and celebrating this. And when I say that, I'm not at all talking about those who are particularly excited because they supported him as president, no matter what the reason. Because whether or not one supported him or voted for him as president, we should all celebrate that a man of his ethnicity and heritage was able to achieve this. As I was watching the election returns on election night, as they declared him the victor, I happened to be watching Fox News Channel (although I had been flipping through several throughout the evening). As the news began to sink in, Juan Williams, a Fox News contributor and NPR commentator, and himself a black man made a response I'll not soon forget. He talked about the historic and amazing nature of this event, and tears welled up in his eyes and his voice quivered a bit as he said something to the effect, "to have a man who is a member of a race that has been so reviled and beaten down in this country to become the elected head of its government is nothing short of astounding."

I was born in 1958, and I have only vague memories of the virulent racism of the 1960's and before. Now that is not to imply that racism has been eradicated - far from it. But even though I have not seen the things those who are 10-20 years older than I have seen, it's still a stunning thing for an African-American to become the president in my lifetime. I didn't think I'd see it, at least not until I was very advanced in age.

This demonstrates and enables us to celebrate how far we have come in this country. We have elected a man who during the lifetime of the generation just before him (and me) could not have even voted for president in many areas of our country, much less been elected. To have an African American first family move into the White House that was built by African slaves is a stark symbol of the good things about our nation - that all men (and women) really are created equal and that the United States of America really is a land of opportunity, democracy and freedom. I'm not suggesting that our country doesn't have deep problems of all kinds, nor am I suggesting that Barack Obama is some sort of Messianic figure (as some seem to think), but neither is he the anti-Christ (as some others seem to think). He is a man, and I believe a good man. It is my prayer that he will be a good leader also.

I will pray for him and his family and for our country during this time of great challenge. And although I am hopeful for his presidency and wish him all success, my deepest hope is not in him or in any man or president; nor is my hope in any economic report or development; my hope is not in the notion that bad times, even terrible times will not come. My hope is in God who sustains me whatever comes. He is the One (not Barack Obama, sorry Oprah!).

God bless Barack Obama and his family. God bless all those who will serve our country in his administration. God bless all those who serve us in government. God bless the United States of America. And God bless all of God's children in the world.