Return: A Theme for the New Year

Every new year I pick a word or theme that I would like to focus on as a part of my walk with God over the next year.

This year, I had initially decided on “grace” because–hey, grace.  Who doesn’t like to talk or think about it?  Where isn’t it replete in our lives?  But I couldn’t bring myself to write it down in my journal, and it was only when I picked up the pen that in one of those definitely-not-my-idea and too-strong-to-ignore moments a thought popped into my head: “Not grace.  Return.”

And so, there it is, my word and theme for the coming year: return. I wanted to talk a little bit about how I’m going to approach it, in case anyone else would like to do the same, but before I do here is the standard disclaimer: choosing a theme or a word for the coming year is not a mantra or a magic trick.  I’m not choosing this word to will anything into being or manifest something in my life.  Rather, I think of choosing a word or a theme more as a framework to guide the way I see God working in my life and to challenge myself spiritually, because I need a way to direct my own focus.

I also find it helpful because these words and themes of the year never work out the way I plan.

Take “grace,” for example.  I initially picked it thinking it would be nice to look for evidence of God’s grace in my life.  But what if God guided me instead to look for the evidence of God’s grace in the lives of others – even the people I can’t stand?  What if God nudged me into examining the lack of grace I give?  What if I felt compelled to look more at what grace means day to day in my life, and put that into action?

A word or a theme is just broad enough that God can use it to address any number of aspects of our life.  It can be an avenue into praise or gratitude, or a guide into reflection and repentance; it simply gets me to look at things differently.

With that in mind, I chose the theme “return” this year primarily because I have noticed a longing in myself to return to things I treasured in my faith from my youth.  I am noticing, as I grow older, that I am drawn to fundamentals that I recall from my faith when I was younger: my long conversations with God, a solid Christian community in which I can love and be loved, traditional worship, and a stepping-away from some of the more recent trappings of contemporary evangelical faith in favor of the traditional practices.  It also, in some instances, means a turning-back to faith practices even older than my childhood, particularly liturgical traditions.

If much of the past few years has been a step away for me from things like small groups, marketing, and influencer culture in the church, then I hope this year will be a return to the practices and environments that are deeply meaningful to me.

But return can mean many other things, besides, and as I have been reflecting on the word I came up with a list of associated questions to guide my thinking:

  • So many instances of “return” in Scripture are accompanied by a verb.  “Return and do x.  Return and do y.”  What is God commanding me to return from His presence and act on this year?
  • Return means resistance.  Very few of us want to “go back.”  And yet God required Jonah to turn around and get back to Nineveh in spite of his intentions to the contrary.  Where in my life am I resisting God’s call to go back to some situation, some person, some moment?
  • In what ways do I make it possible for others to return to Christ, and in what ways do I prohibit them?  Where are my judgments and attitudes that bar others from getting in?
  • When I think about returning to the sort of Christian community I miss from my childhood, what does that mean and look like in my very different context now?  How will it differ?  How can I make that happen?
  • Return is  an unexpected celebration of grace.  The prodigal was welcomed joyfully upon his return home.  In what ways am I practicing or do I experience grace through others’ warmth and hospitality?
  • Return implies a going-away from somewhere to come back to it.  Is God the one from which I go out and to whom I return?  If not, how do I change that?

Whether you use this theme or not, I hope and trust that the New Year will provide you many opportunities to grow and develop in your faith.  Let’s all praise God in advance for the redemptive work and wonders He will do in 2020.

Happy New Year!

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