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3 New Year's Resolutions for Christians

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1. Say grace. Many people, including me, begin most new years resolving to eat better. This is a good goal, but it can sometimes cause us to think about food as sinful and mealtimes as a scene of temptation or deprivation.

Saying grace before meals reminds us that above all food is a gift. It's a reminder that we are nourished and cared for by divine and human hands: by the cosmic forces that turn the planet and the seasons, and by the labor of bakers and bumblebees. Our meals depend on the work of the men and women working night shifts in a cannery or stocking shelves at the bodega.

I don't think I'll ever pray visibly in restaurants; it feels artificial to me, like something out of Norman Rockwell. But I love saying grace with friends and family who pray. And this year I resolve to remember to pause for a second before eating a lunchtime energy bar at my desk to remind myself: Yes, even this is grace. And to remind myself to say thank you.

2. Pray without ceasing.

I inherited my grandma's prayer book, and I keep it by my bed. I never met my grandmother -- she died long before I was born -- but it's meaningful to me that over half a century ago, when she was struggling with mental illness and the aftermath of a painful divorce, she sought comfort in prayer.

I love my grandma's prayer book, but I rarely use it. Most mornings I'm caffeinating against the clock as I rush off to my first class or meeting of the day, and realistically I know that's unlikely to change. This year, instead of setting aside a designated prayer time, I'm resolving to remember the apostle Paul's injunction to "Pray without ceasing," and I'm going to try to make prayer, rather than worry, my default inner monologue. I'm likely to break that resolution every day, but every day I can keep bringing myself back.

Sometimes my inner life seems like an endlessly scrolling to-do list. My resolution this year is to turn this dreary soliloquy into a psalm of gratitude and desire. My mantra will be that old Gospel song from back in the days of landlines:

Jesus is on mainline.

Call him up and tell him what you want.

The line ain't never busy!

3. Pay God first. It would be easy for all my money to go to paying off my student loans and supporting my 20-year-old car. It would be even easier for all of my money to go to buying boots I don't need and filling up my Christmas Kindle with the complete works of Agatha Christie.

Financial experts say to "pay yourself first" -- to put some of your paycheck in savings before you do anything else with it. This year, as an experiment, I'm resolving to pay God first and myself second. I've been inspired (or guilt-tripped!) into this by Peter Singer. This fall I assigned his classic article "What Should a Billionaire Give -- And What Should You?" to my students at Yale, and many of us were persuaded that we could be giving more. Singer argues that if everyone who could gave 5 percent to 15 percent of his or her income, world poverty could be eradicated.

I'm also inspired by the ancient biblical practice of giving God the first fruits of the harvest (not just the leftovers). Giving is not just a part of faith, it is the core of faith. As it says in the book of James, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God ... is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress."

There is plenty of distress to go around these days! And in these crazy economic times, giving is more necessary than ever -- not just for those who need money, but for those who give it. Like saying grace before meals, paying God first reminds us that everything we have is a gift, and it belongs to whoever needs it.