Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Meditation

"You crown the year with your bounty" (Psalm 65:11).

What is the meaning of the "year"? The earth laps the sun once more, the seasons pass: leaves gather, grow thick and luxuriant, then dazzle us with gold, red, then browner, falling to the earth. Life is not just a single arrow flying, but a circle, a web, life given, life lost, life renewed, so natural, God's constancy played out annually.

The Christian marking of time is not the fiscal year, not the calendar year. We begin, rather weirdly, just after Thanksgiving, with Advent, a little ahead of everybody else, and when the darkness is long. Every year we re-rehearse the full Bible story: Jesus is born, is baptized, tempted - and so we observe a 40 day fast during Lent. Jesus is raised, the Holy Spirit comes - and so we observe Easter and Pentecost. Every year of our lives, we rewind and re-watch the Bible's dramatic epic; we live inside the story, and discover our place on the stage - not asking Is the Bible relevant to my life? but Is my life relevant given the Bible?

In his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan asked "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Maybe the Christian asks each year, Am I closer to God than last year? Am I serving more faithfully? Have I grown in my giving? in my prayer? in holiness? It's just one more year - but then recall how fraught with profound meaning the numbers we attach to a year can be. 1967? My grandfather died. 1986? I got married. 2001? 9-11. 2012? That was the year I got serious about my faith...
My grandfather’s tombstone shows eight numbers with a little dash in the middle: 1904-1967. Peek under any such dash and you see a year, and more years (and there never seem to be enough of them when you love the person), a moment here, an act there, a lazy afternoon, working past dusk, a trying week, a blissful month, a year of anxiety, three years of declining health, a decade on the best job you ever had. Our attention spans are short (and getting shorter all the time) - but Christians, especially at the turn of the year, take the long view, as God does: “A thousand years in Your sight are like a day” (Psalm 90:4). We stop, step back, soar up high, and gauge the broad sweep of time, in which this afternoon's situation is merely a pebble on the beach, in which my entire life is a single measure in the triumphant symphony of God’s great composition of the universe.

How many years will I have? and what would make them “full”? In faith, we look back: can you remember what God has done in your life? Rifle through the boxes of old photos in your memory and notice a hand, a smile, a circumstance, a moment, and notice what God has done to bring you to this place. There are wounds, too - and you go there, and let God’s healing mercy heal.
But like Janus, we look back, and then turn forward. Inevitably our orientation is toward the future, God’s future. Today’s agonizing sorrow, or today’s heady success, will be eclipsed. Martin Luther King, coping with terrible setbacks, said “I am no longer optimistic, but I remain hopeful.” Optimism says everything will be better tomorrow; but hope is prepared for whatever happens tomorrow. Optimism depends on you and me doing better; but hope depends on God. The year to come is in God’s hands, and I would put myself into God’s hands now, and all year long.

And so we pray that classic John Wesley prayer for the New Year: I am no longer my own, but yours. Put met to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours.