Here’s the truth: the world is a dark place, especially when it’s night.  Most years, when I went to visit our teachers in Asia, I stayed in the nearby hotel. It was very convenient, except on the nights when fights broke out in the next room or when parties broke out next door or when toxic fumes filled the building. Other than that, it was great. But then a more convenient option arose. Chris and Debbie had an apartment in the same complex as our teachers, and their tenant had moved out. So, for the two weeks I was there, I moved in! Now later, I was informed that what I was doing was technically “illegal” because all foreigners are “required” to stay in hotels; but as I read the Bible, it is only illegal if there is a verse against it (?). So, I stayed in Chris and Debbie’s old apartment which was great, until it wasn’t, which was at night. For some strange reason, there were no lights in the stairways which made walking up and down the uneven stairs in the dark a real adventure (had I been a little bit brighter, I would have brought a flashlight with me, but no such luck and no cell phone flashlight back then either!). More than once, I stepped out in faith, believing that a stair would be there, only to find nothing but air; and nothing but airs when going downstairs was painful on the derrieres. In short, I felt like I was taking my life in my hands every time I ventured out at night. Plus, no one else in the building seemed to have broken legs and banged-up shins! I felt like an ignorant American. And then one day, I noticed the doorbell. Oddly, it seemed that there was only one doorbell per floor of three apartments. And while it was right next to the center apartment’s door (exactly where I would put a doorbell) and while it looked like a doorbell should look, I wondered if maybe it was a light switch. And so, one night, late at night, as I was trying to find my way up the stairs, I did it. I rang the doorbell. Now, I knew that if it was a doorbell, the door would fly open and there would be a very angry Chinese person in his pj’s screaming at me. And that didn’t sound fun at all. And so, I did the only Christian thing. I rang the doorbell and then ran away as fast as I could! But a miracle happened! A light came on! It wasn’t a doorbell at all! For three or four nights ,I had risked my life when all I had to do was push the button.

It’s New Year’s, a time for self-reflection, new resolutions and personal change. And while many of us will cling to safe new year’s resolutions (e.g., lose weight, exercise more, get rid of some clutter and do a lot more hugging in 2021 than in 2020), I wonder if this year we need to up the ante some (except for the hugging part—we all definitely need more hugging in 2021). Is this the year we really need to devote ourselves to growing spiritually? Aye, but that is the rub because, for the most part, instead of having a clear vision for what God wants to do in us, we are running around in the dark.  Now, some of that is understandable. Big things often paralyze us and leave us (hopefully, temporarily) in the dark. But there is another group of us. We look up at that staircase, and all we see is darkness; and we are happy. See, we know what is up there. Change is up there, and we don’t want to change. We’ve heard the sermons. We’ve read the verses. We know that Jesus calls for us to give our whole selves to him. We know we are to love one another. We know we are to put the needs of the other person above our own. We know we are to die to self. And frankly, we don’t want to do that. It just seems too hard and too costly (I am tempted to quote Kierkegaard here, “My God, you will say, if I do that, my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?” But Jo says I use this quote too often, and so I will refrain myself this time). But let’s be honest, there is a part in all of us that doesn’t want to change, that prefers the darkness and that knows where the light switch is, but chooses not to turn it on. Bottom line: we like ourselves, and we don’t want to change; and the best way to do that is simply to stay in the dark. We are such a bunch of scheming swindlers.

But others of us want to find our way up the stairs, but we don’t know where to start or what to do. To us, Martin Luther King, Jr., has this to say: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” And if MLK doesn’t do it for you, then go with Nike and “Just do it!” Start with something, anything, and just move forward.

But if you want a better answer, consider our core values. Every church has its own personality and its own definition of growth. My growing-up church defined growth as knowing the Bible. The first church we went to after college defined it as growing together in small groups. Willow Creek defines it as the “5 G’s” (grace, groups, growth, gifts, and giving). We define growth with our core values. Here’s my challenge. Look at each one of the following statements prayerfully. Each one of them is a light switch into your life. As you read each line, if one illuminates a need in your heart or if one shines a light on a deep desire or if one enlightens a path that God has called you to take, then receive that statement as coming from the Spirit. Make that statement your New Year’s resolution and invest yourself in it so that you may grow in that area.

Here’s a partial list of some of the ways we describe what spiritual growth looks like here at River’s Edge:

  • I want to be more deeply aware of my sin and my need for repentance, as well as God’s work of grace in my life, enabling me to receive the Gospel. (Core Value: We are driven by Grace)
  • I am growing to be more gracious, patient and kind to the people with whom I interact. (Core Value: We are driven by Grace)
  • I have forgiven those who have wronged me and have rectified situations where I have wronged others. (Core Value: Loving Relationships)
  • My significant relationships are growing and thriving. (Core Value: Loving Relationships)
  • I am building relationships with people who are lost, especially the people who are already in my sphere of influence. (Core Value: Lost People Matter to God)
  • I am involved in ministries of mercy, compassion and justice. (Core Value: Lost People Matter to God)
  • My personality, behavior, lifestyle and words create a hunger for Christ in the people around me. (Core Value: Lost People Matter to God)
  • There is more evidence of the inward Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) in my life. (Core Value: We are Called to Grow)
  • I am involved in a small group/study group and find that it is spurring me on to love and good deeds. (Core Value: We are Called to Grow)
  • I am giving freely of my time, talent and treasure to advance the kingdom of God. (Core Value: We Grow as We Give Ourselves Away)
  • I am involved in a significant ministry about which I am passionate. (Core Value: We Grow as We Give Ourselves Away)
  • Even though I still struggle to live up to my beliefs, I feel I am less hypocritical, less self-deceived and more authentic. (Core Value: We are Called to be Authentic)
  • I have someone who knows me well and helps me stay accountable and challenges me to grow. (Core Value: We are Called to be Authentic)
  • Unchurched people see me as a loving person; and they speak highly of my character, integrity and compassionate lifestyle. (Core Value: We are Called to be Relevant and Engage Our Culture)
  • I am growing in my awareness of the needs of others (both here and around the world) and how I can make a difference in their lives. (Core Value: We are Called to be Relevant and Engage Our Culture)
  • I am spending sufficient time in prayer, solitude and in listening to God speak through his Word. (Core Value: We are Called to Invest Ourselves in Prayer)
  • My prayer life is growing in richness and is in proper alignment with the emphases and priorities of the Lord’s Prayer. (Core Value: We are Called to Invest Ourselves in Prayer)

Now, obviously, there needs to be thought and work to make any statement that you claim here your own and to develop a plan for how you can grow in that area. But I have always found that having a first step is huge; and if I can accomplish that, then before I know it, I am well up the stairs. And if you don’t like our core values, then pick a characteristic mentioned in the Beatitudes or in the Fruit of the Spirit or the list of virtues that Paul mentions in Colossians 3:12-17 and devote yourself to grow in that trait.

Marcel Proust wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” May this new year, you feel God’s presence in your life more and see his call more clearly so that in all things we all may “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). And remember these wise words from Henry David Thoreau: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”  Here’s to seeing growth in this new year.