I spent a bit of time this morning snooping around in my archives from Januarys past. This was partly down to simple curiosity. What was I thinking/writing about at the outset of previous years? How have I approached the first post of a new year in the past? It was also due to being faced with a rather uninteresting lack of inspiration in the present. Writers block isn’t something I tend to face with any degree of regularity, but it’s annoying on the occasions when it does make an appearance. Perhaps revisiting themes from New Years past would result in a eureka! moment, and I could stand back and watch the insight and creativity pour forth!
I read… I waited…
I did, however, notice a few trends from previous first-posts-of-the-new-year. First, I tend to eschew the practice of making New Years resolutions. I have tried and failed (and seen others try and fail) far too frequently to believe that swapping one digit for another on a calendar will magically make me a more disciplined, resourceful, and consistently loving person. Second, wherever my New Years musings might begin, they tend to meander their way toward grace as a landing point. Gratitude for grace, appreciation for grace, grace to trump human effort, grace for inevitable failure, grace as the heavenly backdrop for another spin around the sun.
As I observed this trend in my morning tour through the archives, I confess I grew more than a little annoyed with myself. Really, Ryan?! You’re too cynical to even try to make (and keep!) a New Years resolution? You’re just gonna throw your hands up in the air and say, “well, why bother?” and lazily marinate in the sweetness of grace? How very admirable of you!
I promptly resolved to be less pathetic in 2014.
But after resolving thus, I began to think along more serious lines. I wondered if refusing to make New Years resolutions was, far from some kind of self-congratulatory badge of honour—refusing to follow the unwashed masses in their stampede toward over-reaching and inevitable frustration—more a failure of imagination, even a lack of faith.
What are we saying when we wish each other a “Happy New Year,” after all? To be sure, the expression is often a rather benign wish for pleasant experiences, good health, and the vague sentiment that we hope the coming 365 days will contain more things that make us feel good than things that make us feel bad. And that’s not particularly lofty or inspiring. We’re not exactly wishing character transformation and personal improvement, or refinement through suffering, or deep and lasting connection with God and neighbour for each other. We’re wishing each other happiness. Plain, nice, safe, non-threatening happiness.
But I think that behind our “Happy New Years” is the conviction, the wish, the desperate, frantic hope that genuine newness is possible. We know ourselves well. Too well. We know our dark secrets, the habits that eat away at our souls and our relationships, the private grudges we nurse, despite our best intentions. We know that we are people who are at least as familiar with weakness and failure as we are with strength and victory. We know the way things tend to go—the way things have gone in the past, and the way things will probably go in the future. We know that pain probably looms around the corner, if not in 2014, then in 2015 or 2016… We know that we have not often proven up to the task of joyfully and confidently living as disciples of Jesus amidst the withering cultural winds of cynicism and despair and the myriad challenges of life.
But we also know that we need this rumour, this possibility, this hope, however faint, that things can change. We know that even though oldness so often seems like all we know, newness is what we were made for. We know that the God we stumble along behind was, is, and will be a God for whom newness is the modus operandi. We are just stubborn enough to believe in the possibility that the God who says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” might just be capable of doing it in us.
And so, we say “Happy New Year” and we make our resolutions, not because we are particularly virtuous or disciplined or because we have such an excellent track record, but because we believe, finally, that God loves us, that God has better hopes for us than we do for ourselves, and that God really can be trusted with all of our hopes, fears, frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, right steps, missteps, and half steps.
And because the swapping of a digit on a calendar is as good a reason as any to breathe new life into these hopes.