Last summer I wrote a piece drawing attention to how we all live according to a collection of habits that shape our very hearts. It was a challenge for us to recognize what habits we allow to shape hearts and to begin developing new habits that shape us more deeply into our call as image bearers of God. What we do matters because what we do shapes what we believe. This is true of us as individuals and the corporate gathered body of Christ.
As the calendar flips to 2021, gyms and weight-loss programs are bombarding us with some version of, “New Year, new you” campaigns. This annual call to honest self-reflection is an important challenge for us. And nobody needs more honest reflection and a “New Year, new you” campaign more than the church after its response to 2020.
If I am honest, I was personally caught a little flat-footed last year. I was uncertain how to respond to the rapid succession of social, political, economic, and personal stresses. Equally lamentable, huge portions of the Christian community in America seemed to have been caught unprepared for the opportunity to serve as signposts to the kingdom of God.
Why were we not ready? Why were so many churches reticent to stand with our African American brothers and sisters? Why do we continue to deny women leadership positions? Why were our buildings not utilized better for crisis help? Why did not gathering for Sunday morning worship, so devastatingly cripple our ability to be the church? Why was our best idea for online community, recorded versions of in-person worship? Why were so many church sources of misinformation and skepticism instead of hope rooted in truth?
Leadership experts give me the willies. They are too smooth and generally are not leaders of anything except the selling of their own leadership product. However, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn occasionally. Popular leadership educator Stephen Covey in his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People utilized a helpful image that has inspired leaders for three decades.
He invited participants to place large and medium sized rocks in a bowl with sand already in it. The large rocks represent important values and skills, the medium rocks are of secondary importance, and the sand represents the little things in life that pile up and can rule you if you let them. Of course, the rocks will not all fit in a bowl with sand already in it. The lesson being, if you allow unimportant things to fill your life you will not have room for the most important things. Finally, he provided a second empty bowl. The participant first places the rocks representing all the most important things in life in the empty bowl. Then they pour the sand over the rocks and all the sand goes around the rocks filling the gaps allowing all the rocks and sand to fit together in one bowl. The ultimate point is that by putting the most important things first, you will have room for even the small things. When everything is in its proper place it all fits.
This becomes an image for pursuing meaningful heart shaping habits of discipleship as communities of faith in 2021. Last year found the church squabbling over the sand of online gatherings, communion limits, mask mandates, secular ideologies, and “go home” and “all lives matter” mantras. Our priorities were built on so much sand we lost our rock-solid foundation.
A “New Year, new you” hope helps us identity and prioritize our large rocks. For the gathered body of believers called the church our most important rocks that give shape to our community of faith continue to be prayer, scripture reading, storytelling (bearing witness), listening, and communion.
But if we are going to be a church deeply rooted in Christlikeness serving as signposts of the kingdom of God, we must also work hard on nurturing a faith of reconciliation, generosity, wisdom, empathy, grace, reciprocity, truth-telling, justice, service, mercy, and prioritizing people as friends and siblings. We cannot foster these habits of discipleship on our own strength, if we could, we would have done it by now. These discipleship habits require submitting to the active presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is the hard work of faithful Christianity. Once our big rocks are in place, we operate out of faithful Christlikeness and the sand has less of an impact. It requires us to do our part by practicing our way into being the church God wants.
The church, after all is, as N.T. Wright put it, “a microcosmos, a little world…the prototype of what is to come…a light in a dark place.” A microcosmos is a little world. A prototype is preliminary model of what is to come. The church is to be a little world that embodies here and now the future heaven and earth.
We will know we have become the church God wants when stressors like those of this past year reappear (none have disappeared, and new ones are on the horizon) and we are found being the prototype of faithful reconciliation, generosity, wisdom, empathy, honesty, justice, and merciful servants of Christlikeness.
2020 found us wanting. 2021 is a new year and can be the beginning of a better church. We must be better. Let’s do it together as a community of faith practicing Christlikeness.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is the Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He is author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, to be published by Judson Press. Visit table-life.org to learn more about his ministry and writing projects.