I wrote the above title, “welcoming in a new year” and then found the sarcastic, cynical part of me (and yes, that is a reality inside this head of mine, though I try to keep it there… we all have voices we don’t usually share and this one is mine) declaring, “yeah, right.” After all, we know that January first it is not going to suddenly be brighter and shinier than what we have known this last year. There isn’t some magic about the first of the year that says, “Okay, great! Now we can start over. Now we can start again,” though I think we’d really like to believe that there is. Many of us wish we could somehow do a “redo” of the year, a “do-over” of this last year. Many people have lost loved ones to COVID, we’ve been isolated and alienated, kept from being together with those who really matter to us, kept from visiting the places that have meaning for us, kept from watching grandchildren and other young ones do the growing up that they were meant to do this year. I’ve watched this last year the disturbing trend of my kids becoming more distant from their friends, more absorbed in the computer for homework and then for entertainment, less interested in the real work, less engaged with real people. And again, January 1st will not mark some miraculous change in this. As I sat down to write this, I received an email from the local school district saying that while they had planned on re-opening January 11th, that is no longer in the cards. 100% distance learning will continue for the foreseeable future. My eldest daughter’s college has yet to make those decisions, but my guess is they will choose the same. This hasn’t been the year we expected. Or wanted. Or hoped for. And my guess is that the New Year will pretty much start the same way.
I’ve been thinking about my own approach during this time. When we first went into “stay at home” I was okay with that. I liked having my family around me constantly and I was incredibly grateful for this time with them – a time that is not usually given to parents of teenage kids. Our teens are usually in school, and then activities, and much more focused on their friends. So, to have this time with them, and especially with my eldest who should have been far away at college, was a gift. I enjoyed the greater flexibility of being able to sleep in a little and stay up later to work. I have found other gifts as well: as I’ve called folk, I’ve been able to connect in many ways more deeply with people than I had just seeing them on Sunday mornings or in committee meetings. I’ve enjoyed the quieter neighborhoods with less traffic and the increased sound and sights of nature, the cleaner air of a less car-polluted area. I’ve enjoyed working in my garden, and dreaming about my house being fixed. I meditated more, walked more, read more. And I saw that all of this as good; gifts in the midst of the struggles.
But sometime this fall, the focus on the good in this time left for me. Maybe it was in part because my kids now each separate into their own rooms to do their school work, and David is in our room, leaving me alone in the family room to do my work for most of the day. Maybe it’s because work ramped up to such a degree that walking wasn’t happening as much and getting out became harder first because of the smoke and then because of the cold. Maybe it’s just that this has gone on long enough: what was an interesting and different challenge is now just an experience of loneliness, hard-work with less of the rewards of time and interaction with people. Maybe it’s the continual unknown of when this will end, and the stressors of making hard decisions when health and lives are at stake. But the time became different for me also because we now known people who’ve had Covid and even a couple who have died from it. David has a very close friend in Ohio who is very ill with Covid, as is his wife. We don’t know if they will survive it. We also now know people who have lost their jobs and who are deeply struggling financially. More personally (but less seriously) I’m looking at this next year: my eldest will turn 21, my son will turn 18 and my youngest will turn 16. The trifecta of big birthdays. And since all of their birthdays are in the spring, it is probable that we will not be able to truly celebrate them with even our families, let alone friends. My son is missing his entire senior year of high school, my eldest missing her junior year of college, right after she’d finally come to a place of enjoying that space. I haven’t seen my family (my father excepted) in nine months now. I’ve also been sick this whole time, and only yesterday learned I am allergic to cats among other things (that’s a nice challenge for us as a family to have to face!). When things become personal, when they start affecting our lives in more personal ways, it is harder to stay in the positives.
Our faith still calls us to have different eyes to see. It’s not that we ignore the bad. But we are called to look deeper, and we are called to dive into the places where God is manifesting. And in that, in that is the hope. Because we know that where there is pain and suffering, God is there. Where there is hardship, God is there. Where there is a sense of insecurity, of the unknown, God is there, too. With us, among us, around us, God is there: loving us, pushing for the better, always bringing new life out of death and hope out of despair. That’s what God does. And our call in all of this is to choose to see, to listen, to open our hearts to where God is, even now, even in this, even when we are hurting.
And so, my call for all of us is not to “look to the new year” because the new year is just a new day, another day, another passage of time in a time that goes on always. Instead, my call is for us to look to God – in this moment, in this place, in this now. Christmas is a reminder that God is with us. And Christmas calls us to look in the unexpected, extraordinary places for where God is manifesting. But this is not something we look for on a specific day, after all Christmas is something that, as Christians, we celebrate every day. So, too, we cannot determine that 2021 must be better than 2020. Instead, we are called to look for the new year, the new beginning everywhere and in every time. It is something that comes every day for people of faith looking to see how God is doing a new thing THIS day in THIS place.
So, whether you are reading this in December or January or august of 2037, I invite you into a New Year of God’s presence among us, with us and around us NOW and HERE. Amen.