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Happy New Year!

That probably makes it a bit late for resolutions. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about them anyway.

The whole idea of New Year’s resolutions is a subset of a larger, theoretical discussion of which I never tire. Can people truly change? I’ve gone round and round with friends and colleagues on this one. And I can pretty much argue either side, depending on which team is shorthanded.

On one side there is: “How you can you be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not believe that people can change?”

Basically, I’m asking people to change every Sunday. They seek me out to discuss changes and changing. I pray with them that they may. Jesus is the new wine in the old wine skins. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. And anecdotally, we all have seen people whose lives and character have changed drastically. Zaccheus, Lydia, Augustine, Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, Sara Miles.

On the opposing side: “The human heart is a pretty stubborn and stable thing. Our warped nature is not easily trued.”

While people do change incredibly and dramatically, our deepest character, our secret wounds, seem only to be rearranged. The alcoholics I know who have gone sober still have the same needs and quirks that drove them to drink. Now they address them differently. Or consider Saint Paul, perhaps the biggest conversion story of all-time. You don’t have to read much in his letters to realize his insecurities, eccentricities, and neuroses were still very much with him.

Discuss and debate this among yourselves during the commercials of today’s football games. It never gets old.

*****

Skepticism about New Year’s resolutions notwithstanding, I’ll also tell you that today marks the 41st anniversary of a resolution I have kept—more or less.

On January 1, 1978, I stopped eating meat. My college cafeteria was starting an optional vegetarian meal plan. I signed up and a few days before returning to school, I took the plunge of not eating meat. Back then, the different types of vegetarianism weren’t as well-known and clearly defined. Basically, I was a lacto/ovo vegetarian. I still ate dairy products and eggs. In 1978, even with this concession, it was difficult to eat in restaurants.

But this is not intended to be a self-congratulatory proclamation. It is more about what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed over these 41 years, and perhaps a little wisdom about how to keep resolutions.

If 1978-Steve had been asked why he was going to stop eating meat, my reply would have been about eating lower on the food chain, conscientious stewardship of scarce resources, living simply that others might simply live. Toss in some about animal cruelty and factory farming, too.

Today, when I’m asked why, Sophie, my wife, quickly interjects “Because he loves to be contrary!” Then I add a comment like, “It has become part of who I am. I don’t find it a hardship. Over the years, we make so many compromises, throw overboard so many of our ideals, that I like to try to hang on to something, if only symbolically.”

About five or six years into my vegetarianism, I began eating fish and other seafood. This was at Sophie’s request, perhaps insistence. Meals and socializing might be so much easier if I would be a little more accommodating. At the time, it was painful for me to yield. But looking back I was learning that relationships are more valuable than rigid principles.

In the past few years, my new standard is not to eat warm-blooded animals. This so I can indulge in grenouilles and escargots when in France. I think I had turtle or alligator in New Orleans once, too. Part of the reason for this allowance is simply because I like to try local cuisine, but it also fosters camaraderie with my French family.

I’ve been chastened by pointed and persistent questions from both friends and enemies. Why did I wear leather shoes? What about the moths and bugs and rabbits I might kill while driving? I discovered that any attempts at moral purity end in absurdity.

I’ve learned to be pretty quiet and humble about vegetarianism. I don’t want dinner invitations to bring extra work or guilt to my hosts. I’ve seen waiters interrogated and shamed by sanctimonious, strident vegetarians. “Flexitarian” is a term now used to describe all sorts of dietary arrangements. I like it.

You might read this all as a sorry story of sliding toward surrender, an excursus on how time wears down all our youthful ideals. But I hope it is more about finding your way among all of life’s complications, staying faithful without becoming inflexible.

I really didn’t make a new year’s resolution this year. But if you did, I hope you keep it for 40+ years—more or less. In that time may you change your resolution a bit, and may your resolution change you.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • mstair says:

    Really good stuff. Would have liked to see you address Paul’s comment below about Believers in Community eating distinctive foods …

    “On one side there is: “How you can you be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not believe that people can change?”

    “… consider Saint Paul, perhaps the biggest conversion story of all-time.”

    “It has become part of who I am. I don’t find it a hardship. Over the years, we make so many compromises, throw overboard so many of our ideals, that I like to try to hang on to something, if only symbolically.”

    “But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
    9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. … 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8: 8-9; 13)

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      I’m not sure I’m following your inquiry. I trust it is pretty clear that I’m not at all suggesting that all Christians ought, must, or should be vegetarians in some form or another. “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink…” It is something I choose to do. Maybe even my calling or charism. Honestly, from my perspective, there are very few things that are oughts, musts, and shoulds for Christians.

  • Fred D Mueller says:

    Mark Twain said, “No one likes change except a baby with a wet diaper.”

  • Jill Fenske says:

    Nothing pithy to contribute, just looking forward to the half time conversation!

    Thank you.

  • RLG says:

    Hey Steve, sounds like you are really asking, can people change for the good? Can we become better persons? It seems that change in the other direction (change for the worse) is not the problem, it’s change for the better. And maybe the question is also, how much better? Of course perfection is impossible.

    What’s the problem? Isn’t is our sinful nature? All of Adam’s posterity have been credited with Adam’s sin and sinful nature by God at the Fall. Everyone, now, comes into the world with a natural tendency to sin. According to the Bible we are inclined toward sin. So I would imagine we can do good, but its against a natural inclination to sin that we often have to fight to do good.

    So can we change for the good? Sure. Can we be completely good? I doubt it. Even as the Bible teaches, “There is none perfect, no not one.” Or, “all have sinned and fall short…” And of course, according to the Bible, God requires perfection.

    Isn’t that something. God calls us to do the good, but gives us an inclination to do evil. Guaranteed failure.

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