We are now launching into 2023 whether we are ready or not. This year, I have felt the least “ready” for a new year than I can remember. I know that there can be a few reasons for this. For example, I don’t know about you, but for me the Holidays often seen like a blur. There is so much to do in a compacted period of time. It feels like it goes so fast that I have little time for reflection. What is ironic is that I seem to help folks this time of year slow down and ponder about their lives in a grace-based manner. I guess it is easier to offer it than to receive it. That truth is doubly ironic this year because I planned for it. While I did take the most time off than I have in years, it seemed I avoided any opportunity of needed contemplation. I think I did this because of my impending retirement and not really knowing what my life looks life after I leave the Triad Church Network (formerly, the Pilot Mt. Baptist Association). Fear of what the future might bring can cause us to be like Rip Van Winkle and seek to sleep through difficulties. I felt locked within the cycle of avoidance and passivity.
And yet the Gospel tells us to, “Awake, O sleeper and arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14). The Gospel is not about self-improvement, although we grow and develop as we follow Jesus. It is really about living life through resurrected lives and thus resurrected eyes. Because Jesus has brought us from death to life, everything has changed. In the following verses Paul show us how through resurrected lives and resurrected eyes we can see pleasure differently, culture differently, worship differently, friendship differently and even marriage differently. I have come to realize that I need to be fully awake to see and hear what God has for me next. Trying to “sleep” through it only makes me dull to God’s present gifts.
The second reason I have struggled with reflecting about the past year and planning for the New Year is that the weight of my illnesses had pushed my head down and seemingly limited my vision. We are typically closed the last week in December. Because of that, I try to spend some time hunting. Even if I don’t harvest anything, it is time well spent in prayer and refection. This year was going to be enhanced because Gina was able to travel to California to spend time with our oldest granddaughter Hadleigh and her mom Molly. I was free to hunt as much as I wanted. Unfortunately, my second day into this break found me sequestered in my home bent over in excruciating pain. During those four days I endured the most intense period of pain in my life where no medication could dull its relentless stabbing assault. I could barely walk. As a result, I had no energy or interest in doing anything. I thought about calling an ambulance but just didn’t want the hassle or the embarrassment. At one point, I felt locked within this cycle of exhaustion and desperation.
And yet the Gospel says, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18). When I read this amazing statement my first thought was not very spiritual. The PG Version of it was, “Sure Paul, easy for you to say.” Upon reflection on this whole chapter I was humbled to see once again that Paul went through more than I probably ever will. Yet, in great suffering he was able to call it light and momentary. How? By comparing it to the glorious future we have awaiting us. No matter what, pain in this life will never surpass the pleasure we will have in the next. I now had renewed ammunition to hunt down truths to live by as I processed my pain.
Avoidance, passivity, exhaustion and desperation call all cause us to want to retreat. But as followers of Jesus we can face a painful present and an uncertain future with muscular hope in God. I close with some words my friend Meredith Snoddy shared with me from the late Queen Elizabeth:
“I once knew someone who spent a year in a plaster cast recovering from an operation on his back. He read a lot, and thought a lot, and felt miserable. Later, he realized this time of forced retreat from the world had helped him to understand the world more clearly. We all need to get the balance right between action and reflection. With so many distractions, it is easy to forget to pause and take stock. Be it through contemplation, prayer, or even keeping a diary, many have found the practice of quiet personal reflection surprisingly rewarding, even discovering greater spiritual depth to their lives.
Reflection can take many forms. When families and friends come together at Christmas, it's often a time for happy memories and reminiscing. Our thoughts are with those we have loved who are no longer with us. We also remember those who through doing their duty cannot be at home for Christmas, such as workers in essential or emergency services.
And especially at this time of year we think of the men and women serving overseas in our armed forces. We are forever grateful to all those who put themselves at risk to keep us safe. Service and duty are not just the guiding principles of yesteryear; they have an enduring value which spans the generations. In the year ahead, I hope you will have time to pause for moments of quiet reflection. As the man in the plaster cast discovered, the results can sometimes be surprising.
For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God's love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach. On the first Christmas, in the fields above Bethlehem, as they sat in the cold of night watching their resting sheep, the local shepherds must have had no shortage of time for reflection. Suddenly all this was to change. These humble shepherds were the first to hear and ponder the wondrous news of the birth of Christ – the first noel – the joy of which we celebrate today."
May these words give you balance and passion as you face the challenges and opportunities of 2023.
Your fellow traveler in the journey,