One of the things that most people like about the beginning of a new year is that it seems like in many ways we have the opportunity to start over. It is a new year, with a new calendar, and it gives us the impression that we have a reboot and get to begin afresh. The diet has a new start. The exercise regime has a new start. The Bible reading plan has a new start. All the resolutions we failed to keep last year have a new start. Instead of being hopelessly behind or an abject failure, we get to start over. And we tell ourselves that this year, things will be different.
Of course we don’t really get to start over just because a new year has begun. If we gained twenty pounds last year, we can start a new diet, but we will be starting it twenty pounds heavier than we did the year before. If we are in debt because of poor discipline in our spending habits, we can begin to live on a budget, but the debt does not immediately disappear. In some ways, the idea of starting over with the beginning of a new year is something we just tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. But on the other hand, we can actually begin to make different choices, and live differently, not just every January first, but at any point in time. We can’t undo the past, but we can begin to approach any and all aspects of life differently, and a new year is a great opportunity to do just that.
If we are to be successful in changing past behaviors though, we need to not disregard the past. It is important for us to take a good look at how things were, and why they were like they were. If we need to make a change, we need to know what went wrong, and why. Why did I fail at last year’s diet? Why am I still not in good physical shape? What caused me to buy things I couldn’t afford? Why was I not resolved enough to keep my resolutions? In starting over, we don’t need to pretend that things will be automatically different. We must look at the failures of the past and learn from them. Those failures can be the building blocks for success this time, if we will take advantage of them by learning how and why we failed previously, so we will not do the same things again.
There is one other thing about starting over, and it applies to every day, not just January first. God does truly let us start over. When we give our lives to Jesus Christ, we are made to be new creations. We truly have a new heart, a new life, a new beginning. Furthermore, whenever we confess our sin to Him and turn away from our sin, God forgives us in such a complete way that it is as if we had never sinned. He separates our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. He cleanses us from all sin. God allows us to truly start over with Him. Our past actions may adversely impact our relationships with others, our health, our financial situation, and many other aspects of our lives, but not our relationship with God. He forgives so completely and perfectly that we truly start over. And because He is willing and able to help us change, or even change us, we can begin now to live differently. We can be more disciplined, wiser in our decisions, more loving, more giving…… we can be different, redeemed, transformed. Through Christ, God enables us to start over and be different. And that can begin NOW.
History begins with an explosion of Divine creativity. Eden is birthed and man lives in communion with God, in harmony with creation, and in the gift of God’s shalom. And yet, even in this glorious state, God declares one thing is not good. What is this one thing? God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
God declares isolation is not good. God’s intent for creation, and more specifically, God’s intent for people, is not independence and aloneness. Rather, it is to experience life-giving connectedness with God and with the imago Dei. Inter-dependence is one of God’s sacred gifts.
Behavioral research reinforces our awareness of the negative impact of isolation, characterized by high levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, insomnia, and stress. Both biblical revelation, as well as clinical research, reinforces our understandings of isolation’s dark effects.
Professional counselors have a bird’s eye view of COVID19’s isolating effects on individuals and families. Over the last 8 months, the isolation associated with COVID19 has created a significant surge in persons seeking help as “shelter in place” orders were issued in the spring, lay-offs and furloughs were implemented late in the summer as PPP funds were depleted, and struggles with addictions and mental health among the masses intensified. For those active in Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and many other twelve-step programs, being with other people is essential to experience recovery. In 12-step communities, COVID’s isolating effects have been devastating for individuals and families. Missy and I couldn’t help but notice how busy the liquor store became at the entrance to Costco at the outbreak of the pandemic. This would be confirmed in due time, along with its tragic effects, through well-written articles.
Christian Pastors have a dual-lens in this era of history; one that observes the negative effects of a pandemic on mental health, as well as one that beholds the negative effect COVID has had on the purposes of the Church and the spiritual health of her people (When you see the word, “church” try to think “people” and not an institution).
Think and reflect prayerfully on the following, with the realization of God’s intent for the good of His people wed with His glory:
The New Testament blazes with the white-hot admonition for Christians not to neglect our regular rhythms of coming together:
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do;” Hebrews 10:25 (NLT)
The New Testament burns with intensity regarding the importance of what we practice in our coming together:
We are to “spur one another on to good works,” “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “forgive one another,” “forebear with one another.” In fact, the “one-anothers” are used 100 times in 94 verses in the
New Testament to instruct us in how we are to be intentional in caring for one another and “building each other up” as we come together.
The New Testament boils with passionate language in how we are to channel our devotion:
“They devoted themselves to . . . fellowship.” Acts 2:42 (NLT)
In the Greek text, the word translated devoted (proskartereo) means “hold fast to something, continue or persevere in something.” In other words, we are to hold fast and persevere in being intentional about being with one another. (You can watch and listen to teaching on this topic HERE).
John Wesley, when speaking of one of the purposes of the church regarding Christians growing in sanctification, affirmed the following conviction, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Wesley’s context for this statement is not related to social justice as some have falsely claimed. Rather, he is referring to Christians needing to experience social connectedness with other Christians to develop in Christ-likeness. This matter was so convictional for Wesley he developed the methods of Methodism through the gathering of societies, bands, and class meetings. To be a Methodist Christian was to be disciplined in regular discipleship rhythms taking place through deep connections with other believers.
As we live in a pandemic, we will continue to see upticks in COVID cases in the Winter months to come. And even after the COVID19 vaccine is distributed, we will still be living with COVID in our midst for a while. There is no perfect, completely safe time to come back together for social connectedness in worship and discipleship in the near future. And in light of occasional surges of COVID, I honor the difficult decisions our Council on Servant Ministries has had to make over these many months. When we do return, which I hope will be sooner than later, we will continue to wear masks and social distance. And if you are elderly or immuno-compromised, one needs to be mindful of making choices that are best for you as it relates to being in crowds.
United Methodist theologian, Dr. Kevin Watson, appealed to the church back in August to not let fear govern decisions regarding gathering for in-person worship. Watson’s urging was based on encouraging the church not to forsake the purposes for which she was created, which is all the more important in the lives of people living in the context of a pandemic. He stated,
“Study Gnosticism, why it is a heresy, and why the body is an essential part of the Christian life and part of what needs to be saved. Corporate worship with bodies present matters. There are going to be seasons in the midst of a pandemic when it is impossible to responsibly gather corporately in the flesh. But we must not pretend that what we do in the midst of those times is as good as the physically gathered body. It just isn’t.”
As we navigate through a unique time, it is essential that we do not fall into default thinking that believes I can both give myself to God and not give myself to His Body. We are designed for both. The vertical is the priority, and the horizontal is the result. For some of you reading this, you were not active with the body of Christ before the pandemic. This is a good time to ask yourself what God would want to teach you. Perhaps corporate worship and discipleship with others is something you did not see or appreciate before; but COVID, and the isolation it has created, serves to awaken your spiritual senses. Being in-person with your church family is not a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of God’s design.
This is a good hour in history to ask ourselves: Are these matters convictional or optional for me as a Christian? Is my participation in the gathering of the body of Christ to magnify God through worship, and participating in discipleship gatherings merely a part of routines I had grown accustomed to before COVID, or are they seen as essential purposes for my life?
A.W. Tozer, in his classic work, “Man, The Dwelling Place of God,” writes,
“The important thing about man is not where he goes when he is compelled to go, but where he goes when he is free to go where he will. The apostles went to jail, and that is not too revealing because they went there against their will; but when they got out of jail and could go where they would they immediately went to the praying company. From this we learn a great deal about them. The choices of life, not the compulsions, reveal character.
A man is absent from church on Sunday morning. Where is he? If he is in a hospital having his appendix removed his absence tells us nothing about him except he is ill; but if he is out on the golf course, that tells us a lot. To go to the hospital is compulsory; to go to the golf course, voluntary. The man is free to choose and he chooses to play instead of to pray. His choice reveals what kind of man he is. Choices always do.”
For many of God’s people, there is a longing to press into the purposes for which we were created; not because gathering with other believers is familiar or it’s our normal routine, but because gathering with other believers is the kind of people we are. For many, gathering with fellow believers for worship and discipleship is not optional, it’s convictional.
To gather with other believers to glorify God, treasure Jesus Christ, love others, and make disciples of all peoples, is to step into the very purposes for which we were created. It is also a sign of faithfulness to the vows most of us made before a Holy God when we committed to being in membership with a local body of believers through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
The late Tom Wood, one of the saints of Christ Church, used to say, “The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” The following is certain, we will come out of this pandemic at some point. We have had multiple pandemics in history. We have come out of all of them.
What is uncertain is this; will you come out of this pandemic the same? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh resolve for Christ? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh commitment to worship and discipleship in person, present with His body, and expressing mission together to a dying world? Will you waste your wilderness, or will you allow God to do a new work in you for His glory?
If you can answer rightly in God’s eyes, Eden awaits you.
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman Patrick Lawler, founded two Patricia B. Hammonds Homes of Hope for orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The homes are operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the boards of The Wellhouse, The Compassionate Hope Foundation, and the East Lake Initiative. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111.