In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, the surgeon and Harvard professor Atul Gawande shows how doctors can use checklists to save lives and reduce mistakes, especially during surgery. Gawande’s surgery checklist includes the following three “pause points”: before anesthesia, before incision, and before leaving the operating room.
Each pause point is designed to last no more than a minute—just long enough for members of the team to make basic checks (confirm the patient’s identity at the beginning; check for all the needles and sponges at the end).
It might not seem like pausing for a few minutes would make a difference. But the results are striking. Even short pause points before the incision helps to slow down the tempo of a surgical procedure, and that slower tempo leads to better outcomes. In 2008, eight hospitals began using Gawande’s checklist. Within months, the rate of major complications for surgical patients had fallen by 36 percent. Deaths fell 47 percent.
Checklists work because they impose delay. They add a “speed bump” before an important task so people stop and think about what they are about to do. No wonder, then, that Gawande also urges other professions—airline pilots and financial professionals, for instance—to use pause points for their jobs. Here’s one person’s definition of a pause point:
A pause point is a moment in time when we intentionally slow our pace, reflect on where we are, dream about where we would like to go, and experience a whole new direction.
New Year’s Day provides a wonderful opportunity of a pause point – a moment in time where we slow down, reflect and dream – to reset our lives onto a different course. There’s nothing inherently special about his day; it’s just one day in the 365 that will make up 2017. But it is a speed bump in the road of life – a time to slow down.
That’s what we are going to do today and next week – slow down, reflect and dream. There’s no better time than now to do so. The Greek Philosopher Socrates said:
An unexamined life is not worth living.
To help us frame our conversation, to examine our lives, we are going to draw from the time-honored wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, an ancient collection of sayings found in the middle pages of the Bible.
The Book of Proverbs is a 31-chapter collection of sayings, usually one-sentence truths, written by a number of authors – most particularly King Solomon. When Solomon assumed the throne from David, God told him to ask for anything he wanted and it would be given to him. Solomon asks for wisdom to lead God’s people. And God responds:
I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.
(1 Kings 3:12)
As a collection of Solomon’s distilled wisdom, the Book of Proverbs is Holy Spirit inspired common sense. Practical, profound, pithy – it’s a book of the Bible anyone can read no matter where they are on their spiritual journey and be blessed richly.
This week and next as we pause our way into the New Year we are going to name six principles drawn from Proverbs that can reframe and reshape our lives profoundly. So let’s jump in.
First, the Wisdom of Proverbs teaches us to:
Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
New Year’s is all about making resolutions setting new goals – lose weight, get fit, save money, change career – the list is as varied as we are.
The sobering reality is that one study shows that 92% of New Year’s resolutions are never, ever achieved.
But there’s one thing worse than failing to achieve our New Year’s resolutions; succeeding at achieving the wrong ones.
Matt Emmons is a world-class shooter and he had the gold medal in sight. He was one shot away from claiming victory in the 2004 Olympic 50-meter rifle event. He didn’t even need a bull’s-eye to win. His final shot merely needed to hit the target – anywhere.
Normally, the shot he made – his last shot – would have received a score of 8.1 – close to a bullseye – more than enough for a gold medal. But in what was described as “an extremely rare mistake in elite competition,” Emmons fired at the wrong target. Standing in lane two, he fired at the target in lane three. His score for a good shot at the wrong target? A big fat 0. Instead of a medal, Emmons ended up in eighth place.
It doesn’t matter how accurate you are if you are aiming at the wrong goal – if you hit the wrong target.
One of the most challenging statements that has echoed through my life for years is this declaration by an unnamed missionary:
Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.
(New Tribes Missionary)
Here’s a thought. As we enter 2017:
Rather than say, ‘God, here are my plans, please bless them’, why not ask, ‘Here I am God, what are your plans?’
Let me put this another way. Imagine our life’s journey is like climbing a ladder. Each year we climb another rung. Some of us have a very clear destination in mind – financial success, career success, family success – none of them bad things in and of themselves. Some of us have no clear goals in front of us, no defined destination in mind. We just put one foot in front of the other, one year after the other.
Whether we are goal-setters or goal-forgetters one thing unites us. Stephen Covey puts it this way:
If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.
So, what wall is your 2017 ladder leading against? Is it leaning against, and into God and his plans? Or is it leaning into your, or the world’s idea of a successful life?
Perhaps the most famous, and most applicable piece of Proverbs wisdom for this New Year’s day is this:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.
Trust in God, seek his will – and he will show you which ladder to climb!
Proverbs teaches us to Live Deliberately. To introduce our second principle, let me tell you a story.
Two hunters in northern Canada shot an unusually huge moose. They had a problem however. They couldn’t pack this trophy animal out of the woods; it was just too big for their packhorses. Not to worry! Using their satellite phone, they called in a tiny seaplane.
When they tried to talk the pilot into ferrying out this huge bull moose, the pilot responded dubiously, “I don’t know if I can take off with that much weight.”
“We’ve done this before,” they reassured him. “Don’t worry.”
So they strapped the moose in, draping it across both pontoons. But again the pilot begged off. “Look how far we are sinking below the waterline,” he objected. “I’m the pilot. I know how much it takes to lift off.”
“Relax,” the hunters persisted. “We’ve done this before. Trust us.”
Finally, the pilot agreed. He gunned the engine, took off down his runway of water – and crashed into the treetops at the end of the lake. Debris flew everywhere, and the moose carcass lodged in the branches of a tall pine tree.
Down on the shoreline, one dazed hunter called out to the other, “Hey, George! How did we do?”
“Well,” George replied, “we’re about 50 feet farther than last year.”
As we enter a New Year, many of us are carrying too much weight – and I don’t mean kilograms, although for some of us that’s definitely true! The weight I’m talking about is emotional weight – bitterness, anger, unforgiveness.
We’ve been hurt, and we carry that hurt with us – like a dead moose tethered to us. And if we continue to carry it unnecessarily, we will get no further emotionally and spiritually in 2017 than we did in 2016.
John Ortberg makes the observation that we have interesting language surrounding grudges. We talk about them the way we talk about babies: you can hold a grudge, carry and grudge, or bear a grudge. We even talk about nursing a grudge. When you nurse something, you feed it that which will keep it alive and make it grow. Pretty soon it’s full grown. Maybe you have two or three fully-grown, 100kg ‘babies’ of unforgiveness?
New Year’s Day offers us a pause point and a question – do we really want to continue to carry the weight of past hurts into our future? Do we really want to carry the bitterness of 2016 into 2017?
The Wisdom of Proverbs offers another way. If we are to live deliberately, we’re also encouraged to:
Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.
(Proverbs 17:9 NLT)
According to some University researchers carrying unforgiveness can weigh you down—literally. The researchers asked study participants to write about a time when they’d experienced a conflict. Some were instructed to reflect on a time when they didn’t forgive the offender, others were told to think about the time they did forgive the person, and a third group wrote about a comparatively dull social interaction. They were then given a small physical challenge: jumping five times, as high as they could, without bending their knees.
Those who had been thinking about a time when they’d forgiven jumped highest, about 11.8 inches on average; those who had written about their grudges, on the other hand, jumped 8.5 inches. There were no significant difference in the jumps of those in the non-forgiveness and neutral conditions.
The results suggest that the “weight” of carrying a grudge – of unforgiveness – may be more than just a metaphor. The lead researcher for the study wrote:
A state of unforgiveness is like carrying a heavy burden—a burden that victims bring with them when they navigate the physical world. Forgiveness can ‘lighten’ this burden.
You won’t get any closer to the happiness and contentment we all long for carrying the same weight you carried into last year and the year before and the year before that.
In an article in the Canberra times just before Christmas, the author made the observation that Psychologists categorize human behavior as complementary or non-complementary.
Complementary behavior is when we someone is kind towards us we repay them with kindness. If someone hurts us, we hurt them in return – either passively or aggressively. Complementary behavior is our instinctive response. It follows a well-worn path; a familiar script.
If complementary behavior follows a script; non-complementary behavior flips the script entirely. In fact, it has the power to write a completely new one.
Non-complementary behavior is when we repay hate with love, a fault with forgiveness.
Non-complementary behavior refuses to inflict emotional and spiritual violence on our relationships.
Non-complementary behavior refuses to follow the script of retaliation, but instead flips the script.
Martin Luther-King, the great American civil rights leader, refused to follow the script. Taking his cue from Jesus, who himself repaid hate with love, refused to retaliate to violence – physical or emotional – with more violence. He said this:
Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.
Forgiveness is a sword that heals.
In 2017 don’t follow the script written by your past hurts; flip the script! Let God write a completely new one with your life!
In 2017 live forgiving. But also, Proverbs says, live forgiven.
Wisdom teaches us:
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
While some of us are at risk of carrying the unnecessary weight of unforgiveness into 2017, many more of us could carry the crippling burden of concealed sin into the New Year. Sin that’s concealed – hidden from God and others – manifests often as crippling regret, as shame or guilt.
Talking about sin on New Year’s Day risks me being labelled as a killjoy. Actually speaking about sin any day in our increasingly post-Christian culture can led to that label. What is sin and why is it so important to confess it?
Sin is our small and large acts of rebellion against God and his laws. Sin is our doing what is wrong in God’s eyes, as well as our failure to do what is right. Sin is not simply what we do or not do, but also the orientation of our heart away from God – our desire to hide from God, to be our own god.
Sin separates us from God and can alienate us from one another. Sin isolates, confuses, denies and destroys.
Confession of our sin to our merciful God robs it of its power. While sin robs us of life, confession – as hard as it can be – leads to life.
The writer of Proverbs says that the one who confesses sin finds mercy. Why? Because we have a merciful God. The Psalmist puts it this way:
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.
The Apostle John makes it crystal clear what’s on offer when we confess our sin to God:
If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.
(1 John 1:9)
The truth is we cannot change the past, but neither do we need to live in its ever present shadow, carrying with us regrets, shame and guilt like a noose around our neck.
Life doesn’t come with a rewind button. But it does come with a reset switch.
This New Year’s Day, as every day does, offers all of us an opportunity to reset our lives as we confess our sin to God, in him finding forgiveness and a fresh start.
There are two groups of people here who right now as I speak are dismissing this possibility.
The first group are those of us who see no need to confess our sin, to come to God seeking forgiveness. We see ourselves as basically good people who, on balance, to more right than wrong – that our personal balance sheet is in the positive. While I understand that thinking, and at times have succumbed to it myself, it is incredibly dangerous – potentially robbing us of a relationship with the God who created and loves us without measure. My prayer for you is God, our of his love, would first reveal to you the depth of your sin so that you might experience the unlimited depths of his grace and mercy.
The second group pf people are those of us who are completely weighed down by our mistakes and the shame and guilt that comes with it. We find it almost impossible to believe a fresh start is possible for us. But the God we celebrate says it’s never too late for a fresh start. As one person put it:
There is more grace in God’s heart than there is sin in your past.
My prayer for those of us in this second group is that God would reveal the depths of his love that covers over all sin.
I enjoyed a great Christmas present wise. Got some great books, a wonderful new putter that will cure all my golfing woes and a abundance of chocolate, which is now mostly gone.
But Sue and I also got not one, but two Gold Class Movie Gift Cards. Fantastic!
Here’s what I know from painful past experience.
Gift cards often come with expiration dates. In the past I’ve stuffed one in my wallet or a draw and forgotten about it. A gift card can be worth $100 one day and a great trip to the flicks, and then the next day you might as well throw it in the bin because it’s expired. Until its redeemed, a gift card is simply a useless piece of plastic.
God’s gift of forgiveness is more valuable than anything we can imagine. It’s priceless. Jesus paid for it with his life.
This New Year’s Day God is holding that gift out to us, waiting for us to take it. If we don’t accept it and use it, however, then it’s of no value to us.
A gift card is only plastic unless it is redeemed. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
Let me make it as clear as I can. We receive God’s free gift of forgiveness as we confess our sin, and as we place our lives in God’s hands – making Jesus the ruler, the Lord, of our lives. As we do, we find freedom from our past, joy in our present and promise in our future.
Confession isn’t burden. Confession is freedom!
There is a synagogue in Jerusalem built by Hungarian Jews. It has a strange feature – an empty coffin built into the wall that stands as a testimony to the inevitability of death. The Talmud teaches that every person should fully confess their sin one day before his death. When a visitor to that synagogue asks the inevitable question, ‘How will I know what day that is?’, they get this reply – ‘Treat each day as if it were the day before your last.’
How about each of us enter 2017 living each day as it was the day before our last – living deliberately, forgiving others and receiving God’s forgiveness?
Today is a pause point, a speed bump in our calendar where we slow down and reflect. How will make the most of the opportunity New Year’s Day presents you?
Seventy years ago, C.S. Lewis said this:
There are two kinds of people: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, and those to whom God says, ‘Alright then, have it your way’.
Today, which group will you belong to?