The lines from Psalm 25 quoted above will be read in Mass this weekend when we celebrate the First Sunday in Advent. As the Psalm is read, four times we will respond, "To you, O Lord, I lift my soul."
As someone who once had trouble distinguishing Advent from Lent -- I knew each of them came up once a year, one in the fall and the other in late winter or spring -- it's been quite a leap for me to see Advent as a real opportunity for my own leadership development.
For the past several years, I have adopted the start of the church's new liturgical year -- which occurs this Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent -- as my own New Year.
Thanksgiving weekend (the fourth Thursday in November in the U.S., we note for our international readers) is an ideal time to review the year in order to recall and relish the many things for which we are grateful. As we go back over the year, it's also a good time to revisit our goals for the year to see how we are doing.
We can celebrate the ones we have been graced to achieve -- still more reasons to be grateful! However, sometimes we spot one that we haven't achieved -- but which we can accomplish before the end of the calendar if we focus on it for the next month.
Unfortunately, sometimes there also are cases where we have to admit that we have dropped the ball and the goal is way too big to achieve in the one busy month left to us in the calendar year. If the goal is worth pursuing at all, we have to resolve to try again to accomplish it in the coming year.
I like observing this early New Year and making New Year's resolutions as Advent begins because it gives me what sports fans will recognize as an "exhibition season" to get into shape and try to live well -- consistent with my own mission and vision -- as Christmas comes closer and I try to prepare my heart to welcome our Savior as a tiny child, born ever so humbly in a stable.
Soon after Christmas the official New Year arrives and we observe the tradition of making New Year's resolutions. I begin that process by first examining how I have done with the resolutions I adopted as goals at the dawn of Advent. If I have done badly -- not exactly a rare thing in my case -- I am forewarned that achieving my goals over the next 11 months before Advent arrives again will take more than good intentions and mediocre effort. I will have to try harder than I have tried heretofore. And I will probably have to engage the assistance of others in my efforts because by myself I am obviously not up to the task.
Beginning the calendar year with a little humble pie is not such a bad way to focus.
As it turns out, over the years I've learned that I'm more inclined to stay on track if I reach out and see Lent as a third occasion to take honest stock and renew my New Year's resolutions. In fact, experience has taught me that having a fourth opportunity during the year would be helpful, so if you have any ideas for another occasion to do this between Lent and Advent, I'm certainly open to your suggestions.
Through it all, it should be clear to aspiring S3 Jesus-like Leaders that the key to making progress as an effective leader is keeping first things first -- and that means keeping Jesus' first commandment above all else: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment" (Mat 22:37-38).
Unfortunately, it's also the toughest to keep. There are so many things to distract us, so many things to concern us, so many things to discourage us, so many things to entice us. There is also our own "God project:" Who but me will look after me?
This weekend in our faith communities we will proclaim in one voice: "To you, O Lord, I lift my soul." Make that your first resolution in this new liturgical year. Begin each day by focusing on the God who gives you life and who loves you unconditionally.
Then renew that resolution on Jan. 1, and again any other time you find a moment to take stock of your life and your leadership. Try to put loving and serving God first, above all other things.
If you can do that with some consistency, Jesus' second commandment will come much easier. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mat 22:39). And your leadership will be a grace from God to the world -- a world so badly in need.
Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute