“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”        

Luke 4:18-19

In these early days of the year, many people are gung-ho about their New Year’s resolutions. Gyms are packed (work out more), restaurants have fewer patrons (go out less), less ice cream is sold (eat healthier), etc. What about spiritual goals? Are these part of the New Year plan?

The Prayer Team writings, which I am so thankful that you take time to read, are set up to help with three things we all struggle with (myself included)—reading Scripture, praying, and setting aside time to do both. The Prayer Team is written to be read in less than ten minutes. There is always Scripture at the beginning. Many times I expound on the Scripture, though sometimes I don’t. One goal you might set is to open the Bible to the section referred to in the Prayer Team and read that. For instance, today’s verse is part of Luke 4:16-30, recounting Jesus beginning His ministry in Nazareth, His home town. The two verses quoted today were originally from Isaiah, and were signs of the coming Messiah. Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and was given the book of Scripture to read. He opened the book and found this passage, which was about Him. Luke 4:20-21, the verses right after these, tell us that He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Jesus received what we might call “mixed reviews”—some spoke well of Him (4:22) but there were questions about where He came from, what was His pedigree, was this not Joseph, the carpenter’s son? The end of the encounter has the temple elite so angry with Jesus that they want to throw Him not only out of their town, but off a cliff, to kill Him, but He passed through them and goes away. One of the most often-quoted verses from this section is No prophet is acceptable in his own country, which has been interpreted at times as the reason why we seem to hurt the ones we love the most. Perhaps one goal on the Prayer Team could be to read the section of Scripture from which the verses are taken.

The Prayer Team writings always end with a prayer, Psalm or as has been the case with this unit, a hymn. I know people have a hard time praying. I have a hard time praying. If someone provides words for me to pray, sometimes it is easier than coming up with my own. The prayer, Psalm or hymn may be offered as a prayer, and perhaps add a prayer of your own with it. The original intent of the Prayer Team was for me to pray for you and for you to pray for me. Now there are so many people on the Prayer Team, I can’t pray for each person by name, but I can pray “for all those reading this message” and you can pray that as well. Prayer is not about quantity. It is about spending time connecting with God, and in praying for others, we connect with them as well.

There are other spiritual goals we can and should set. Four additional ones come to mind. After prayer and Scripture, we need to address worship. Worship is a critical part of our spiritual life. How often will we worship? How often will we receive Holy Communion? These are two separate questions. Worship should be done weekly, and more often during Lent and other seasons of the year. The decision to receive Holy Communion should be made well in advance of the Liturgy where you will receive. If you are reading this message on Thursday, January 4, you should already be thinking about receiving this coming Sunday, and shaping your fasting, your behavior and your outlook based on that decision.

Another spiritual goal concerns confession. This is something we all should be doing at least once a year, and yet for many people reading this message, it’s been years, and for some, perhaps never. I write about this topic periodically and will do so again in the future, but make a goal to go to confession at least once in 2024. Start thinking about when you will go, who you will go with (your parish priest, another priest), etc.

Another spiritual goal is charity—how much will you give in time and in financial resources to charitable causes. Ideally, we are offering ten percent (tithe) to charity, whether that be your church or another charitable cause. In addition to money, we should also make a plan to volunteer for something, whether it is within the church or outside of it. Part of our spiritual life should be giving to those who are in need.

The last spiritual goal I am writing about (and there are certainly other ones than these) concerns ministry. Everyone should be offering something to the ministry of the church, not only in terms of our finances (which we can all do a better job with, hardly anyone is tithing), but in terms of our talent. Parishes need help with the essential things—people to sing in the choir, teach Sunday school, work with youth, serve on the Parish Council. Parishes struggle to cover the essentials. Ideally, parishes are developing new ministries to teach members, help to bring others to Orthodoxy and to serve in the greater community. I encourage you to join a ministry, and even more, to work with your priest to develop new ministries.   As we are still in the first days of this new year, think of some goals that are challenging but doable and integrate them into your journey through 2024.

O Bethlehem, prepare, Eden is opened unto all. And be ready, Ephrata, for the Tree of life has in the grotto blossomed forth from the Virgin. Indeed her womb is shown to be spiritually a Paradise, in which is found the God-planted Tree. And if we eat from it we shall live, and shall not die, as did Adam of old. Christ is born, so that He might raise up the formerly fallen image. (Apolytikion, Orthros/Vespers, December 20-23, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

Personal Reflection Point: What kind of spiritual goals can you set for this year?