January is my least favorite month, followed closely by February. In fact, the only reason I dislike them in that order is because in January there is still February to endure. I have never liked the cold of winter, the inconvenience of snow, and the long wait for the sprouting of spring flowers and local produce. Add to the list joyless trips to return gifts, salty grime all over my car, and New Year’s resolutions that lie in tatters by the end of the first week, and my discontent is complete.
A lot of us spend January in a state of mild depression or grumpiness. Whether we’re coming off the highs of Christmas or experiencing the lows of secular holiday materialism, dealing with the greys of the season or with disappointment in ourselves, January is definitely not going to compete with December as “the most wonderful time.” Instead, we slog through the first month of the new year . . . and then cap it off with Lent.
So here we sit, smushed between broken resolutions of New Year’s Day—to lose weight, increase exercise, eat more vegetables, and clean out our closets; in short, to be good little materialists—and the daunting resolutions of Lent—to pray more, go to Bible study, give up meat or snacks or alcohol; in short to be good little souls. Between already broken resolutions and not yet broken resolutions. No wonder we are a little depressed.
Part of the reason for our depression is we have convinced ourselves that resolutions make us better people. While it is good to address all of these areas (though I confess to internal conflict on the subject of vegetables), none of our efforts will actually make us better people. In the end, we are all sinners who have no choice but to throw ourselves on the mercy of a loving and merciful Creator. We cannot make ourselves better people; we were made to be perfect, and only our Maker can perfect us. Perfection is not our job.
What is our job is the journey towards perfection, and the stewardship of the resources we are given along the way. This includes stewardship of our homes, our finances, our bodies, and our souls. The priest who tells us that Lent is not about losing weight is talking to those who are trying to become super-models in their own minds, not those who lose weight for better health and longer lives of ministry. Taking on healthy practice is the life-breath of stewardship, of imitating the one who created us to be healthy and whole in the first place.
Which, at this bleak midwinter point between the secular and religious seasons of seeking self-improvement, leaves us wondering what we should do with the shattered heap of past resolutions and Lenten disciplines. Most of us, of course, would like to sweep them under the rug, pretend we never made those empty promises to ourselves. If I never vowed to go to the gym, am I failing to go to the gym? We might even go further, and proclaim along with Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes (not the theologian, whose followers took the opposite notion to a rather chilling conclusion): “Resolutions? ME?? Just what are you implying? That I need to CHANGE?? Well, buddy, as far as I’M concerned, I’m perfect the way I AM!”
Rather than denying our broken resolutions, perhaps there is something healthier we can do—examine them, and then offer them back to God. Do our broken resolutions betray our petty (or not so petty) addictions? Do they represent emotional prisons from which we would like to be released? Perhaps they are burdens through which the Lord will shape us? Whatever they are, each broken resolution represents a weakness that we can offer back to the God who made us, an imperfection that the Lord is perfecting, or a flawed self-perception that our loving heavenly Father can correct.
I have frequently told young adults (and a few elderly ones) that “you are a hand-crafted icon of the living God.” As true as that is, perhaps during gloomy January days Jeremiah’s image is more helpful. Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet” because of the dark and brooding nature of his message, was sent to visit a potter and observed him shaping a vessel. But there was apparently an imperfection in the clay. The potter, Jeremiah says, crushed his first attempt and reworked the clay, beating air pockets from it. Then he started shaping it into a vessel again. That doesn’t sound enjoyable, but with pottery it is how the hand-crafting process works, how it has worked for thousands of years.
God used the example of the potter crushing and reforming the clay to warn Israelites of a crushing political future as they tried to shape themselves as a nation. At the same time, there is an undertone of God’s own skilled hand at the wheel, shaping his people according to what is truly beautiful and useful, even doing so through suffering and failure. Our brokenness may declare our flaws, but it is also a road map to our transformation—a harbinger of the health and perfection that will come into view when the journey is complete. Our brokenness, in the end, will declare the fullness of God’s victory; not the strength of our willpower.