Adding It All Up

The end of the year for me is always a reflective time, as I look back on the year stretching behind me, full of moments of happiness and peace, and uncertainty and the occasional stress and upset. There were problems, but they worked out. There were questions, and they got answered. If your year was like mine, it was full of things that didn’t go right—and things that did, some plans that worked out the way you’d hoped and some that never even got a good start. Whatever we did with them, 2021 was full of possibilities—opportunities to respond with faith, with prayer, with God’s love to whatever was before us. And every single day of 2022, whatever experiences we meet, we will always have the choice to remember God and let God’s love guide our response.

2021 was a year full of reality that might—or might not—have measured up to what we wanted. Many, many people—across the country and around the world–dealt with crises they couldn’t have foreseen—natural disasters and economic changes and of course the pandemic, which was the backdrop for everything we experienced all year long. Even in the months where things seemed better, when numbers were low and the virus seemed for a bit to be in decline, COVID-19 made itself a constant part of our thoughts and plans.

Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” and when we reach a point of transition in our lives—such as the end of one year and the beginning of another—it’s not unusual for us to look back to see how or whether things add up. Was there a reason for what we went through? Did our dreams pan out? Were our efforts worth the trouble? Are we closer to peace, more at ease, feeling more secure than we were this time last year? The answers will be as varied as the lives that ask the questions. But this kind of reflection is good for us, a kind of taking stock. We reflect on the path we’ve traveled, which helps us be ready—maybe more prepared, more aware, wiser, more open—for the journey ahead.

One aspect of our tendency to reflect is more important than others, and it’s something we Friends do naturally as part of our faith. When we look back with the intention of better understanding our lives and our selves and our circumstances, we don’t look alone, because God’s Light illumines what it is we need to see and provides the grace to help us understand it. What God shows us will help us live the next part of our lives with more love, more understanding, more peace.

As the new year begins I always think of the poem called “The Gate of the Year,” written by Minnie Haskins in 1908. It became popular after King George VI quoted it in his Christmas broadcast to the British people. His then 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth, now the Queen, had placed it in his hand not long before.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown".
And he replied:
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way".
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Our Old Testament reading today talked about putting our hands into God’s hand, trusting God to make sense of our experiences—to make everything add up—and to protect us and be our guide whether the way is easy or difficult. The psalmist asks God to preserve his soul and he makes it clear to God that he’s doing the best he can. “You are my God,” he says. “Save your servant who trusts in You. Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I call to You all day long. Bring joy to Your servant for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

Similar to the character in “The Gate of the Year,” the psalmist knows that the future is uncertain because we can’t know what’s coming, but with his hand in God’s, he can be sure of the One who accompanies him. He knows he is never outside the reach of God’s love. And the same is true for us. In fact, it’s kind of a big idea but it is literally true that in our very bodies—me sitting here and you sitting there–we each embody our past and are fitted for our future. Every one of us, aware of it or not, physically, incarnationally bridge the gap between past and future, between body, mind, and spirit, between time and eternity. What guides us, what loves us, what protects as we go is the living, blessing presence of our living, blessing God.

That sounds like a good way to start the year, doesn’t it? Similar to past years, 2022 is sure to have the full range of human experiences that seem to find their way into all our lives and we’ll no doubt feel it all—worry and confidence, despair and hope, frustration and joy, irritation and laughter, anger and love, upset and forgiveness, and so much more. And God’s Light shines in and through it all, teaching us, moment by moment how to live closer to God, which helps us love more, hope more, care more, and give more.

We have, though, a funny habit of looking for signs in things, don’t we, especially at the beginning of the new year. We want reassurance that what is coming will be good—or that we’ll at least be able to handle it. If something unfortunate happens at the first of the year—we break a plate, or knock over a plant, or the dog chews up our shoe, we think—Oh no! Is this how the whole year is going to be? But that kind of sense-making-in-advance doesn’t really work—we can’t see from small moments how the whole of the year is going to go. And deep down we know that. But still we squint at our experiences and try to add them up. What do they mean? Perhaps the fact that I won the first game I played on my phone yesterday morning means…that I won the game. Nothing bigger than that. It’s not likely to be a harbinger of a whole year full of winning. But because our brains make sense of things by looking for patterns, and because it makes us anxious to stare into the unknown, we sometimes search for meaning in little inconsequential things that don’t really add up. With our hand in God’s, we don’t have to work so hard to understand it all. And the anxiety can simply melt away, like the little bit of snow we had last night.

We also just naturally tend to resist the flow of change. It’s just what most humans do. Remember how much trouble we all had with the change in Daylight Savings Time? I complain about it every year and the older I get, the more jarring it feels. It’s hard to adjust. And opening our hearts to the future—especially when the most recent past has been stressful—takes courage and faith. Just yesterday I read this poem from the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, called The Way:

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I’ll make here my place,
{The road leads on),
Stand still and set my face,
(The road leaps on),
Stay here, forever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
The journey’s done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

The surest way of finding comfort and assurance for the road ahead is  putting our hands in the hand of God, trusting God’s vision and mercy and intention because God cares for us and has a place in our lives. We don’t need to know the full span of the year and all it will bring, because we trust and listen to the One who travels with us and guides us through it all.

Our New Testament reading for today tells us why this all works so naturally and well. It’s because we are all truly, deeply, eternally connected, and all we do—whatever we encounter, and what we can expect—flows directly from God. Jesus said,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener …I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

So here we go, Friends, into another new year. The road before us is open, and it’s anyone’s guess what we will encounter as the weeks unfold. But we have so much—in this moment, today—that helps us start off together with confidence. We can look back and see all that God did for us and with us in 2021; God brought wonderful new members to our meeting; God answered many prayers and met many needs; God inspired us with new ideas and provided solutions to help us manage the ongoing work of our meeting. God helped us find our way through the pandemic and helped us continued to care for one another and strengthen our community in an extreme and challenging time. We know what we encountered and we know how we responded: We chose peace. We chose health. We chose Love, and we chose God. And in the year ahead, we have all those things and infinitely more on our side, because the Light of God’s presence continues to surround and direct us, comforting and enlightening us, showing us step by step the path we need to follow to stay in His Love. That’s all it takes for our Joy to be complete. And that guarantees that—come what may—2022 will be a good year because of Emmanuel, God-with-us.


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