And so starts another year.
One of the few New Year Resolutions that I have ever kept is to make no New Year Resolutions - on the simple basis that I never managed to keep up with anything I started with good intent. Well, I do have one this year, and that is to get my Romanian up to conversational level by the end of the year – it's a long story and I'll bore you with it another day.
But towards the end of 2008 two, familiar passages from the Bible jumped up and hit me – Matthew 25:31ff and Isaiah 58. Both speak powerfully that the true outworking of faith is in justice and compassion. They are familiar to me, as I have many times taught on them, and been challenged by them to live out my own faith with these values at the centre.
Today is the feast of Epiphany – remembering when the Magi visited Jesus. Epiphany means a showing forth – it has also come to mean a sudden realisation or revelation. I have been on a prayer retreat in a remote South Wales village for three days with a group of Christian health professionals from all over Europe. Today was a day of silent, solitary prayer and fasting, and as I find sitting around in a room to pray almost impossible for any length of time (I have a butterfly mind and fly from one distraction to another all to easily), went for a walk early in the morning before the sun came over the Brecon Hills. Well, it was bitterly cold, and after resting in the local parish church to pray, I decided I needed to keep moving, on through the woods and fields and beside the frozen lake. As I walked and prayed another very familiar passage came to me – Micah 6:8 – "what does the Lord require of you, oh Son of Adam, but to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with you God". That brief passage summed up the two previous passages that had been playing on my mind, and summed up what I needed to hear.
To walk humbly with someone means to let them take the lead, set the pace and choose the path. You walk alongside, but at their bidding – and it was a challenge to me to let my own daily walk with God be set at His pace and His direction, not mine. I am often so busy doing stuff for God that I forget to listen to what He is actually saying.
But the verse also make it clear that true faith is outworked in practice – in doing what is right and just and fair. But justice can be cold, and it needs to be tempered by kindness, or mercy in some translations. The Hebrew is chesed [חסד] meaning "loving kindness" – often used as an expression of how God feels about His people, it suggests not only tenderness but forbearance and even indulgence – giving favour when it is not necessarily deserved. Mercy in short. True faith is born out of a close, obedient walk with God, worked out in showing practical kindness to strangers and working for justice for the poor and oppressed. Sounds straightforward, but as the passages in Isaiah and Matthew also show us, this takes work. But, as James 2:14-26 warns us, faith without works is meaningless – a head knowledge of God, or even a warm fuzzy feeling about God count for precisely nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-4 also reminds us of this), if they are not also practically worked out in love, compassion and justice.
So maybe less a New Year's Resolution and more a New Year Epiphany. For 2009, my greatest challenge is to once again work out how I live this in practice. I expect to fail many times, but as someone once said, success is buried in the garden of failures.