New Year’s: beyond resolutions to conversion

By Peter M. Carey

In this time of year, it is customary for many of us to make New Year’s resolutions. With the ending of the calendar year, it is natural to look back over the last year and reflect about what has happened, and what we have done, and then to look ahead to see how we might smooth some of our rough edges, take care of our bodies, minds and spirits, and look ahead with hope. The trouble for us, however, is that many New Year’s resolutions only last a few weeks, or perhaps (if we’re really diligent) a month or two. If you frequent a gym, this is the most crowded time, but, no worries, within a few weeks the classes will thin out, and you will be able to get back to the Stairmaster or treadmill or bench press without any waiting.

A trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that they don’t seem to “stick” unless we really have dedicated ourselves to them, unless we have been “scared straight,” or until we have adopted a set of daily practices that lend themselves to a change of behavior, and not merely just a change of intention. As Mark Twain reminds us, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The promise of the Christian Faith is that God is with us, helping us always to turn to our better selves, and to grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be. This may sound like a cliché, but let me illustrate my point with three images: Scrooge, Groundhog Day, and “metanoia.”

First, we have the character Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like so many stories of the just-passed Christmas season, we have all probably seen multiple adaptation of Dickens’ novel, from Mickey Mouse, to the Muppets, to Patrick Stewart from Star Trek, to older films depicting Scrooge and his visit from 4 night visitors. First he is visited by his recently deceased partner, Marley, wrapped in chains, clearly suffering in death for his chintzy life before he died. Marley tries to warn Scrooge, that he needs to change his ways, that he needs some new resolutions, some new ways of living. But, to enact a change, what follows are three ghosts, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Scrooge is given the gift of remembering the past – even the hard parts of the past, to see a bit more about why he might have ended up this way. Not immediately, but gradually, his heart begins to be open again, to grow a bit more supple, to grow a bit larger. The ghost of Christmas Past offers Scrooge the gift of a wider perspective, to see himself in earlier times, when his heart was not so hardened. The ghost of Christmas present offers the gift of seeing the love, and also the poverty of the Cratchett family, to see what Joy they have, even while they don’t have much materially, they have an overabundance of love, compassion, and generosity. This vision is in contrast to his material riches, but spiritual poverty. His heart continues to open. Finally, the ghost of Christmas future paints a picture of heartache for the Cratchetts, as Tiny Tim has died for lack of good medical care, and the family is devastated, but not without Joy, and love and compassion, even as they mourn their loss.

As you know, Scrooge emerges from his slumber and immediately changes his behavior, he is Joyful, loving, caring and generous, and he begins immediately to make amends, and to give away what he has. His heart is opened, is supple, and he turns from his old ways.

The second character is Phil Connors from Groundhog Day. If you’ve seen the film, you will remember that Bill Murray’s character is a rather grumpy weather reporter who has been assigned to cover “Pauxutawney Phll” the groundhog who comes out on February 2nd and looks for his shadow. Anyway, Connors becomes “stuck” in the same day over and over again. At first, he does all he can to learn the background and interests of a romantic interest he has – so that the next day, he can go on a date with her. Along the way, he decides to learn the piano, because the skill at the piano remains with him each day, until he is a virtuoso. However, gradually, his interest in repeating the day moves beyond selfish aims. He becomes focused on an older man who is wandering the streets, homeless and hungry. At first Connors avoids him, but one day Connors learns that this man has died, and Connors is shocked, and devastated. So, the following day Connors does all he can to give the man food, to care for him. Gradually, living this day over and over again (somewhere like 100 times – it is hard to count the days while watching it), Connors’ character is transformed from a focus on self, to a focus on others. His focus becomes on helping others, and doing good for goodness sake. Finally, when his transformation is complete – and he falls in love, he awakes and it is February 3rd.

The third strand is the New Testament term “metanoia” which means “repentance” or “change of heart,” or “to turn.” Also, it can mean “to be converted.” It is used from time to time by preachers or people who think they can force us to change from the outside. But, more accurately, this “change of heart,” or metanoia is caused by the work of the Spirit. This transformation is a gift from God, a gift of perspective upon our past – the ghosts of our past, a gift of wider perspective about our present, and a gift of greater vision about the future that waits for us if we continue doing things the same old way. Some have said that insanity is “Doing the same things the same way but expecting change to happen.”

For the story of the wise men who visited Jesus, the change might have been so subtle that we didn’t hear it in those readings from Matthew at the start of Epiphany. However, though subtle in the text, this change of heart for the wise men was profound. King Herod’s chief emotional response is fear. This king is in fear of the possibility of a new king who will take over the land, and threaten his earthly rule. He sends these scholars, astronomers, these wise men, to go and “pay homage” to the child – but really, they are on a spy mission, they are there to gain information and report back to Herod – so that he might wipe out this child.

However, something amazing happened to the wise men; they were transformed. The gospel doesn’t say much, but what it does say is that they “went home by another way.” They encountered the Holy in Jesus in such a way that they could not go back to their old ways, their hearts were opened, and they turned, somehow, to a new way – literally “another way” back home.

Isn’t this the gift that we also have been given in the Spirit? Whether the image is of these wise men going home by another way, or it is the idea of metanoia, a “change of heart,” or the image of Phil Connors seizing the everyday opportunity for transformation, or the sense that the ghosts of our past, present, and future might offer us the gift of accepting Scrooge’s transformation?

So, sure, go ahead and make New Year’s Resolutions, but also accept the true gift that has been given to us, the gift of transformation in the Spirit – the gift of a supple heart, an open Spirit, and a richer and truer life that God desires us to have.

See you at the gym!

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine’s School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

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