I’ve been giving some thought to my New Year’s resolutions over the last few days.
Those of you in the business world are probably aware of the acronym SMART, S-M-A-R-T when it comes to goals. The idea that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
So I guess I will need to revise the resolution I wrote that was “Get closer to fluent in Church Latin.”
It may be “smart,” but it’s not all that SMART.
A lot of my goals start out sounding that way.
“Walk more” seems like it’s on the list every year, and it sounds that way.
“Train the dog” is another.
In fact, at one point a couple of days ago, it occurred to me that when it came to my resolutions, maybe I was actually the wrong person to ask.
The fact that my goals weren’t SMART ones was only part of it.
So I asked Liz.
She rolled her eyes. “Where do I begin?” she said.
I instantly regretted asking and had to walk that back. But I felt like my instinct there was a good one.
Because there is a kind of romance to New Year’s resolutions.
Whether we resolve to work toward a particular personal milestone or to develop some sort of new habit — a new way of living — there is a little bit of a love affair in it.
A love affair between us and our dream of whom we still just might become.
That makes resolutions a kind of flirting with the future, and if it is, so be it.
So be it, except that probably not all the matches between 2017 me and 2018 me are particularly good ones. A Max who speaks fluent Church Latin is likely not much of an enhancement.
Maybe if we treated resolutions in the spirit of arranged marriages, set up by people who loved us but were able to be more objective about our little quirks, the whole thing would go better.
Other people probably have a better sense of the working capacity of our willpower, and isn’t that what resolutions are really all about, after all?
So let them decide how many pounds it should be between now and Easter, or how to get organized about getting organized, or what tops the list of the things we’re supposed to learn to say “no” to.
There is no question that the power of our will is enormous. We have a remarkable capacity to grow when we resolve to pay close attention to something and then learn to do so, whether it is something specific and measurable and all the rest, or even something broader.
For example, when we learn to pay close attention to our children, when we enter their worlds as learners, it is amazing what they will show us….it is amazing how they blossom.
But what deserves our attention? We may not actually know.
To me, that’s part of the backstory of this morning’s gospel — the story of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which we get from Luke.
Luke likely meant the story to emphasize the careful and commendable religiousness of Jesus’ parents. They have dutifully brought their first born to the Temple and have arranged for two turtledoves to be sacrificed in thanksgiving to God, which may or may not have been an actual expectation for families at the time of Jesus.
But it does get right a deeper idea within Judaism, which is that all of life is meant to be lived with an awareness of God. The Temple as the heart of Jewish life was a place to bring your gratitude as well as your shortcomings, and so even if this particular child was from the very first recognized as more than just a child…if what the angel had told the shepherds back on Christmas night was true…well, that did not change the fact that his parents were drawn to the Temple not out of some particular pride, but out of a humble awareness of God. (No word about the partridge in the pear tree.)
Yet the particularity of this child is never far away.
In the story, Luke also means to place Jesus in the arms of two figures who he particularly associated with the Temple — a prophet and a prophetess, Simeon and Anna — two older people of great faithfulness.
Simeon and Anna pick up the refrain from the stable in Bethlehem on the first Christmas, greeting him the infant Jesus much like the shepherds had, with delight and wonder, recognizing the baby — the baby — as the Messiah for whom they have been waiting.
And it’s here that I want to pause and wonder about the backstory to this moment.
Because I think it’s a story that, in its own way, is about attention.
Familiar as we are with the story, well-versed in the poetry of Christmas as we are, we might well forget how strange it would have been to hear someone claim that God had arrived in the form of a baby.
For seven hundred years, the people of Israel had been lifting their eyes to the hills, overwhelmed by the politics of the ancient world into being a perpetually occupied territory, and they had come expect, to wait for the day when they’d look up and see George S. Patton at the top of the ridge.
Have you ever been in a movie theater watching a movie where it seems all is lost, when suddenly the hero shows up, and the audience all around you just erupts?
Well, all the people in the Temple that day when the baby Jesus was brought by his parents would have loved seeing a movie like that. They were itching to erupt with just that kind of joy.
“What’s that Quirinius? Not so fast.”
Dirty Harry would have had them lining the streets for a look.
This little baby didn’t get so much as a second glance.
All those people in the Temple that day did not know it, but somehow, within all their suffering, all their longing, many had come to invest their hopes in the kind of Messiah they wanted, and not in the Messiah the prophets had told them to look for.
Their faith was grounded in a kind of faithful living that remembered God from the moment of waking to the moment of sleeping, and in a thousand other places in between.
Its whole logic was about learning to pay attention.
Nevertheless, it turned out that one could be extremely religious and yet oblivious.
Surely that should not shock us.
Luke’s point is just the opposite, though. What he wants us to see is that there in the Temple on that day, there were two who were not oblivious.
There were two, anyway, who had learned what it was to pay attention, who were not distracted by worry, waiting, or just wanting the Messiah of their own dreams to arrive.
Simeon and Anna, these two dear old souls, these old and faithful prophets, received the miracle they had been waiting and longing for.
What is it you and I are waiting and longing for?
Even if we’re not all that into introspection, it’s the time of year when we ask that question.
What path are we on?
As we think about our resolutions for the year ahead, are we strategizing in the shallow water of what we simply want…what we want, well, because we want it?
Or are we truly learning to pay attention to the world, to see its beauty and its pain, to listen for the unspoken truths that the people who love us most are longing so very much to tell us, but don’t know how to tell us?
Do we feel the Spirit tugging on us in the gentle but persistent way she has, tugging us to know God in new ways, and to find new life as we drink, even just sip, from new springs?
God is resolved that the world will become a place of love and life and hope for all people — how are we keeping our focus on that?
I cannot promise that, in the end, your goals will turn out to be SMART ones.
God has a way of broadening our commitments once we get started.
They may not turn out to be SMART.
More importantly, they’ll be wise. And good. And full of heart.
And somewhere, Simeon and Anna will be watching, and smiling down upon you.