New Year’s Resolutions: They’re like the crisp, fresh sheets of a newly made bed. They’re like the fat new pad of pull-off to-do lists mounted on my refrigerator. They’re a wide-open plain of potentiality stretching into the future.
And sometimes we even follow them.
My father was not one to make New Year’s resolutions. He came from a line of stern Pietists in the mold of Garrison Keillor’s Dark Lutherans — believers so convinced of their own human inadequacy and so adamant in their rejection of works-righteousness that even something as innocuous as a light-hearted New Year’s Day list of self-improvement projects smacked of deadly pride.
Who do you think you are, little man or woman, presuming to impose your puny will on your own sinful nature and on God’s inscrutable plans? Remember the rich man dreaming of his bigger barns, just before the Almighty struck him dead. (Happy New Year to you too.)
Mom’s side of the family were Happy Lutherans whose New Year’s Day celebrations were filled with house parties and celebratory libations and groaning tables of Old Country delicacies like pickled herring and steak tartare.
They made resolutions in the way that one wishes upon a falling star — cheerfully and not terribly seriously.
Me? I fall somewhere in the middle, I guess. I have no illusions about my ability to follow through on many of my grand plans, like last New Year’s earnest resolutions to pray the Daily Office and learn Spanish. (Anyone interested in some slightly used foreign-language software?)
Nor am I unacquainted with the divine timetable colliding with mine. Witness my now thrice-thwarted New England vacation resolution — postponed by everything from family surgeries to unforeseen weddings — which has led me to conclude that the Cubs are going to win a pennant before I ever set foot in Vermont.
On the other hand — I’ve had the experience of designing a work project with measurable goals, working out steps to getting to those goals, troubleshooting when the steps don’t work and eventually getting to where I want to be. It can and does happen. A good resolution, a real one, works like that.
And as far as my paternal ancestors’ fears of stepping off that fine line between working out our salvation in fear and trembling and falling into the self-delusion that “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better” — well, with all due respect to the old folks, my understanding of scripture and of Lutheran theology is that the “saved for what” is right up there with the “saved from what.”
We’re here to love God and serve our neighbors. I don’t know about you, but I feel freer and more capable of doing those things when I’m taking care of my God-given body; when I clear away physical and mental clutter; when I add to my personal skill set and knowledge base; when I have life experiences that take me out of my own head and into the wider world.
These are all actions that, done intentionally (even if imperfectly), enable me to be a help, not a hindrance, in this world, and they’re the stuff of New Year’s resolutions.
So here I am with my own modest list, sola Dei Gloria and for the benefit of the folks around me: Meet some personal goals on the “Wii Fit”; revisit that devotional plan; develop a simple, forgiving system in our household to keep organizational chaos at bay; read a Great Book or two; write more. And there’s always Vermont.
Ellen Polzien is a commissioned lay minister in the ELCA. She is a writer, a reader and a gardener. As she says, “I am what happens to people who major in the liberal arts.”