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…”
King George VI used those words in his Christmas address to the British Empire, in 1939--three months after World War II had begun. They seemed prophetic, given the “unknown” massing across the English Channel.
It seems appropriate again, as we head into a new year in which the unpredictable Donald Trump is likely to be even more explosively unpredictable, a new year in which China and Russia flex their muscles, in which financial markets display suicidal impulses, and in which global warming draws closer to irreversibility.
The night looks dark.
“Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown…”
Although King George invoked that poem at the onset of the Second World War, it was actually written before the First World War, in 1908, by an obscure economist (and perhaps even more obscure poet) named Minnie Louise Haskins.
Haskins published two books of poems. Only this one--which she titled “God knows”--achieved any lasting fame.
Indeed, after the opening lines, the rest of the poem settles into saccharine assurances that an omnipotent God has everything under control. Given the savagery of the century of wars that have followed, her sentiments seem overly optimistic.
Minnie and I part company on lines like,
“God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God.”
I, for one, can no longer believe in a supreme engineer somewhere out there who controls all the levers that keep the world running--smoothly or otherwise. That’s not a denial of God’s existence. I am not an atheist. God may indeed be an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent entity. I’m just saying that I can no longer believe in such a being.
I now find God in the infinitely complex network of relationships that we have with each other, and with every other living thing on this planet.
Other planets? That’s someone else’s problem. It has no practical relevance to how I act here and now.
Relationships may affect how we react to natural catastrophes, but they do not cause them. Relationships may become acrimonious, but they never plan into the future.
Minnie Haskins went on: the “man who stood at the gate of the year” 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.”
Again, I take a metaphoric view. God doesn’t have hands. Neither do relationships. But both can and do offer support and encouragement. In tough times, I have “put my hand” into the warmth of the relationships that enfolded me, and no doubt other relationships that I wasn’t aware of.
So as I stand today at the uncertain gate of a New Year, I can endorse Minnie Haskins’ metaphor when she writes,
“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…”
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Not much in the way of letters responding to last week’s column about watching the lights on my Christmas tree late in the night. It was, frankly, sentimental self-indulgence – I wrote it for myself, as much as for anyone else.
But a few people told me, personally, that it had moved them to tears.
Regular writer Tom Watson commented, “Thanks so much for sharing your memories! And let me take this opportunity to thank you for all your columns over the past year.
Bob Rollwagen responded to the metaphor of light in the darkness: “Merry Christmas Jim, you put a light into the world that shines every week. Light is a symbol of energy, leadership, vision, social action, caring and many more such verbs. Yes, verbs. Thank you. It is good to shine a light on all our life memories.”
Ken Nicholls picked up on the fact that Christmases are not always joyful: “I live in Thetford, Norfolk. England. Each year the Methodist Church holds a Christmas Tree Festival when the whole church is filled with trees donated and decorated by organisations, individuals or groups from the Church and town. The church is filled with light. At the front is a special tree on to which people can hang white paper poppies on which they write their prayer requests. This year it was noticeable how many were not really prayer requests but heartfelt comments about loved ones who had died. They were thinking of the gaps that there would be around the Christmas table. It does us good to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others and for many Christmas is not a particularly joyous time as it simply reinforces their loss as they remember past occasions.
This Sunday’s psalm selection is, of course, about the coming of a new year. Here’s a version of Psalm 148.
2 Within the womb of the heavens, the orb of earth leaps to praise its Creator.
3, 4 As the pearl necklace of the planets swings around the sun,
as the shining oceans embrace the continents,
so do all living things praise the gift of life.
5 For the Holy One expressed a thought, and the thought took form.
6 God decided to speak, and the Word became flesh and lived among us.
7 In that Word was holiness,
the spirit that makes every life more than the sum of its chemicals.
From the tiniest plankton in the sea to the great whales,
from the ants that burrow in the dust to the eagle that soars in the heavens --
all owe their existence to t the same holy implulse.
8 Fire and hail, snow and frost, sun and drought, wind and rain--
all things work together for good.
9 The mighty mountains erode into rich silt;
fruit trees and cedars aerate the atmosphere.
10 The dung beetle depends on the wastes of cattle;
birds and breezes carry seeds to new orchards.
11 No one is cut off from the energy of life,
neither corporate presidents throned in corner offices nor derelicts huddled under bridges.
12 For in God there is neither male nor female, old nor young, black nor white.
13 All have been equally created;
their lives all witness to God's grace.
14 With profligate generosity, God scatters new life among weeds and rocks.
And all of creation responds with rejoicing.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet