These are trying times. Political and social divisions have widened in recent years. And religion, despite its universal claim to advance the cause of brotherly love, doesn't always succeed.
At the start of the new year, we wanted to know from local clergy and religious leaders what preoccupied them most, so we asked them this question: As a religious leader, what is your top concern for 2014? What will you work on hardest?
Their responses often struck a similar chord.
My top concern for 2014 is that we all see ourselves as God does, as we are created by Him in His image. We must treat ourselves and each other as our Heavenly Father would desire.
There are too many in our community who die suddenly, whether from homicides, suicides, water or traffic fatalities. The number who die unexpectedly in 2014 will decrease if we follow the encouragement of Scripture: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself."
May all of us have the New Year's resolution to follow our Lord, in seeking all that is good; it is good that we care for ourselves and those around us.
The Rev. Rob Dewey, Senior Chaplain, Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy
I am highly concerned about the deification of human beings. Especially of Miley Cyrus. In all seriousness, we will be successful when we recognize that no one person has the power of God, and that because of this, we're all in this together.
Adam J. Rosenbaum, Rabbi, Synagogue Emanu-El
To be more discerning and to spend more time in prayer ...
The Venerable Calhoun Walpole, Archdeacon, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
For the year 2014, I believe that it is important for us to reclaim a portion of the theme used by the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack H. Obama: hope!
Some people in 2013 were hopeless because of the many negative life situations that dash hope. I will not go to the grocery store seeking hope. I will not go to any of the department stores for hope. I recognize that it is possible that God might deposit some hope in strange places, but the spot of the deposit is not the source of the deposit. I believe that God is the source of hope! We can go to God for the hope that we need to face 2014 with confidence! 2013 hope won't work in 2014! We can ask God for some 2014 hope. For 2014, may I suggest that we take with us this acronym H.O.P.E.: Help Over Predicaments by the Eternal.
The Rev. Leonard O. Griffin, Pastor, Morris Street Baptist Church
In the Gospel, Jesus said that he came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Perhaps it sounds trite, overused, naive or overly pious, but I want to understand more deeply what the love of God means in the gift of Jesus in 2014. This is not purely personal or devotional. Like a cup that runs over, perhaps understanding the good gift of God in Jesus will overflow in love and service of others. I will plan and pray toward that end in 2014.
The Rev. Rob Sturdy, Associate pastor, St. Andrew's Church-Mount Pleasant
As I approach the end of my full-time pastoral ministry of more than 40 years now, I would say that my top concern and my chief work for this new year would be no different than what was clearly the top concern of Jesus at the close of his earthly ministry: the unity of his followers with him and with one another "so that the world may know" the love of God which Jesus had come to reveal and to demonstrate (John 17:23).
We continue to live in a fractured and divided world, one longing to know acceptance and love and ultimate meaning. Sadly, God's people too often exhibit judgment and condemnation of one another and of those outside any faith community, rather than the unity and love that Jesus both modeled in his earthly ministry and prayed for on that final evening in the garden prior to his arrest and crucifixion. So my concern and work will remain his for this new year and for the foreseeable future.
Some would disagree with me and argue that the pursuit and promotion of the truth should be the primary task of God's people (John 17:17), that this mattered to Jesus as well, and that truth somehow even trumps unity and love. Yet, while truth, unity and love must be held together in a mutually dependent and fragile balance, the "world" will never hear or receive the truth unless it feels loved, embraced and valued. This seems to be what Pope Francis is calling for among Roman Catholics, yet it is a needed word for all people and communities of faith.
The Rev. Daniel W. Massie, Pastor, First (Scots) Presbyterian Church
I am most concerned that Christ followers will settle for a rules-based religion rather than a vibrant relationship with Jesus.
In John 10, Jesus said that he has come that we may have an abundant life. But often as his followers, we have reduced our faith to following a list of rules and trying to play it safe. I think we sell Jesus way short when we do that. I don't think we represent the Father's heart when we do that.
Jesus' most heated arguments weren't with the local governments on how they handled controversial issues. His most heated arguments were with the religious leaders of the day because they held so tightly to their rules and traditions. My concern is that we would have more zeal for the law than for the Good News that is Jesus.
As a leader, I'm going to work hard on living a life that is worth following. Paul said that we should follow him as he follows Christ. I want to be able to say the same.
Josh Surratt, Weekend Experience Pastor, Seacoast Church
My top concern, in general, is the need for people to think deeply and change their views for the benefit of all humanity. Moral degradation and the lack of inner good qualities of heart and mind can be as dangerous as weapons of mass destruction.
I personally see the decline of social, moral, family and ethical values as the most damaging delusions potentially leading to massive pain and suffering.
My moral concern is for everyone to improve the human values of love, compassion, forgiveness and religious harmony. Cultivation of these values is not just religious teachings, and should not be confined to places of worship without being practiced in normal society and the world. Love and compassion are the source of all peace and happiness.
I personally will work hard on my own shortcomings and imperfections before pointing my fingers at others and attempting to correct them.
Geshe Dakpa Topgyal, Resident teacher, Charleston Tibetan Society Dharma Center
Personal devotion! The basics of prayer, fasting, Bible reading and fellowship are both essential and the easiest to "let slide" in our frantic American lifestyles. These basic disciplines have historically and Biblically prepared the church for the permanent and sustained growth of new members. Sounds simple enough, but implementation takes effort and consistency. God has never turned a deaf ear to the desires of a church body who prays, fasts and studies the Word of God.
John Pharis, Pastor, City Church of Charleston
Over the past year I have seen first hand the pain and destruction caused when brothers and sisters in Christ choose up sides, with each side declaring, "Jesus loves our side better than your side, because we love Jesus right, and you don't." My prayer is for a day when followers of Jesus understand that evil is their enemy rather than their brother or their sister with whom they disagree.
The Rev. Jon Van Deventer, Pastor, Johns Island Presbyterian Church