Happy New Year everyone!
Two Sundays ago when we gathered for worship it was the day before the Winter Solstice. And as a community, we let go of the things burdening us so that we could enter 2021 free, open, and unencumbered. I know that for many of us it was a meaningful ritual. Whether you were able to join us for that virtual service or not, I imagine there are some among us who have made some new year’s resolutions. According to polls, about half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you’ve noticed more people out and about exercising on your street than they were last week, or maybe your neighbors have begun piling up belongings on the curb in an effort to declutter.
I was surprised to learn that the practice of making New Year’s resolutions actually pre-dates Christmas. Though the time that New Year’s was celebrated and even the number of months in the year changed a bit during the centuries in the ancient world, the Romans used to make resolutions as a way to try and appease the gods so that the year ahead would bring prosperity. By 46 BC, Julius Caesar had moved the new year celebration so it coincided with the beginning of the month January, named after Janus, the god of beginnings and endings.
I think it’s pretty interesting that this annual practice of making changes in our lives has persisted through more than two millennia. But I think it’s even more interesting that only about 10% of us who make resolutions wind up keeping them. Whether it’s getting more exercise, not using foul language, or meditating every morning, it seems like making changes is tough for most of us. And I think the reason resolutions are so hard to keep is that they require us to act or behave or choose differently very single day.
As the two friends in our Time for All Ages story this morning discovered, we can’t just decide we want to go on a journey and then be done with it. We have to decide to do it every day thereafter. And as Magic Wanda pointed out, sometimes even our long-term goal itself can get in the way of learning and growing. As we know all too well through social distancing, when we’re focused mostly on a long-term goal it can make our day-to-day lives a challenge. And when faced with that challenge for a long time, we can begin to question if it’s worth it to deny deny ourselves now when we may not even achieve our goal in the end.
Given how hard we know change is for human beings, and how statistically unlikely we are to stick to the resolutions we make, perhaps it’s a good thing this month’s worship theme of “imagination” offers a different way to approach change and growth. When we embrace our imaginations, we embrace the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the mystery. I remember when I was a child imagining what life would be like as an adult. I’ve been blessed to live into a lot of the dreams I had back then, dreams like having children and serving congregations. But there is so much about my journey to get to where I am today, so much richness in my life I never even could have imagined all those years ago. And so, as we embrace imagination this month, I wonder what it would be like to approach this new year ahead with open imaginations. I wonder how things might go if instead of making resolutions and setting specific goals we thought about our intentions, and how those might move us forward.
Most of us have heard the old adage that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. In the last few years many of us have also been learning about how the impact of our actions matters just as much as whatever intention guided our actions. But I think the best way to explain the general power of intention is an example used by Phillip Moffitt, author of today’s second reading. Consider a knife in the hands of a surgeon versus in the hands of a murderer. Each could use the knife to cut you; one does it to try and help your body while the other does it to harm you. You could die from the cuts either makes, and yet each carries a completely different emotional connotation. Ultimately, it’s the intention that separates the two.
So it is with the intentions we set for ourselves. We may set an intention to breathe deeply and pause a moment each time we feel angry, impatient, or upset so we don’t fall into reactivity. Or we might set an intention to live with gratitude and give thanks at certain points throughout the day. These kinds of intentions and how we will live them, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, are not end-goals, but the stars we steer by. Rather than being a far-off point to pursue, they are guiding lights, always there to beckon us back toward the path we’ve chosen.
Living with intention isn’t about choosing exactly where we think we want to end up and doing whatever it takes to get there. Instead, it’s about choosing how we want to “be” in the world, what we want our day-to-day experience of life to be, and allowing that to guide where we go and who we become. But, of course, that requires us to let go of the illusion that we can control how things will turn out. Even though it’s an illusion, it’s a very seductive one, and it’s often what leads to so many of the goals we try to set in the first place. Most people I know focus a lot on the power of our own agency. But in truth, there is much more beyond our control than within it. If we want to try living with intention rather than goal-setting, we have to get comfortable with not knowing exactly where those intentions will take us. We have to develop some level of trust that our intentions will guide us well.
Perhaps this is why so many religious traditions encourage their faithful to learn how to let go of feeling attached to how things will turn out. Many Christian churches this morning will be celebrating Epiphany, when the three kings from far off lands find baby Jesus in the stable. The story goes that they followed a star seeking the child of prophecy, expecting to bring news of Jesus back to King Herod. But their journey took a much different path than any of them expected. Rather than endanger Jesus’ life by telling jealous King Herod where he was, the three kings chose to align themselves with justice and possibility. Though they didn’t know how things would turn out, or if Herod would seek revenge against them, they allowed themselves to be guided by the deepest purpose of their journey rather rather than one of its goals.
Buddhism also uses stories to teach about non-attachment. In my reading for this sermon, I came across a passage by 20th century Thai Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah that beautifully captures one approach to non-attachment. He said:
“Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
As Phillip Moffitt reminds us, “Cultivating right intention does not mean you abandon goals. You continue to use them, but they exist within a larger context of meaning that offers the possibility of peace beyond the fluctuations caused by pain and pleasure, gain and loss.” So, three days into 2021, what are our goals and intentions? Aware that our lives are finite and therefore very precious, what intentions can we set so that we live more fully into our best selves? What destinations or goals might we need to let go of so that we can follow the path life is calling us down? What intentions are we as a community being called to set so that the very experience of being together each Sunday and all of the times we gather in between is soaked in deep care, mutual welcome, amazing grace?
Whatever they are, may the goals and intentions we set not for this year, but this day, this hour, this very minute – may these stars we choose to steer by guide us into more peaceful, more grounded, more joyous lives.