I’ve spent most of the day reading an assigned book for a class I’m taking next week: An Unexpected Journey by J. Philip Wogaman. I dearly wish I’d been assigned to read this book before I came to be a pastor in Washington, D.C. . . . but then again, maybe I would never have come if I had.
We live in a city full of contention and division; that seems, somehow, to be the nature of politics. As Wogaman so poignantly illustrates, sometimes that competitive spirit bleeds over into church life, too.
So, on this eve of a new year, I thought the words of Washington Post Op Ed columnist Colbert King, written last New Year’s Eve, are helpful to ponder:
Old Blessings for a New Year
By Colbert I. King
A few years ago one of my favorite pocket-size publications, Forward Day by Day, published a meditation by an anonymous journalist-turned-minister (the equivalent of curing a leper) on the ringing in of the new year.”It is New Year’s Eve,” he wrote. “There will be cheers and toasts at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow. People will hug and congratulate each other. It will all appear to be very important. But when the sun rises a few hours later, apart from the new calendar on the wall and the increased incidence of headaches, the world will be much the same as it is today. New Year’s Eve is the emptiest and most artificial of holidays. A thousand New Year’s Eves come and go, another millennium passes, and it all becomes yesterday.”
“The trenchant words of a party pooper or the centering thoughts of a cleric out to focus the mind on what matters most? Perhaps a little bit of both, I think, but with a perceptible tilt toward the latter. The observations, at any rate, warrant a closer look.
Tonight’s annual forced-fun events, as the writer suggests, certainly won’t make much difference in the long run. Like fall flowers, they will fade. Don’t get me wrong, however. There’s a place for gaiety, spontaneous or compulsory, in this difficult and scratchy world. But the meditation strikes me as coming from someone who is trying to put the final day of the year in its proper perspective. If so, that makes sense. “The one sure thing,” the writer observed, “is that today will become yesterday tomorrow.”
So, on the year’s grandest party day, how about a few moments of stock-taking before striking out into the night?
Washington is a place where people measure their successes and failures — and thus their own importance — on the basis of victories won and losses sustained in what is a never-ending round of political warfare.
For combatants in Capitol Hill cubbyholes and K Street outposts, among bare-knuckled interest groups on the right and left, and even in the District government, caught between Congress and the White House, the only change that seems to matter is the one that brings advantage over a foe or maybe an adversary’s crushing defeat — preferably played out on the evening news or the front page of the morning paper. Stock-taking done on those terms will produce nothing that amounts to much.
Thus, for many occupants of this town, stepping up to the task of quiet self-appraisal won’t be easy. Pursuing questions about what matters most may even lead to uncomfortable answers — to an inventory of findings that show how much we (or at least some of us) have become alienated from each other and the real purpose of our lives.
Truth is, the games that get played in Washington don’t matter all that much. This year’s loser becomes next year’s top dog; today’s outs are tomorrow’s in-crowd; rising stars soon fall flat, and one person’s stumbling block will turn out to be someone else’s stepping stone. Keeping score of political triumphs and drubbings feeds vanity and self-conceit, but that kind of record-keeping reveals only so much. It documents how much we have become consumed with pride, envy, anger and a lust for recognition. It doesn’t explain what we are or should be. It is like New Year’s Eve, empty and artificial.
The anonymous author disclosed the context in which New Year’s Eve should be framed: “Some things do matter. Every year gives birth to blessings, little acts of thoughtfulness, devotion, courage and self-sacrifice. Smiles unexpected and unasked for. Silent, hard-won victories over evil.”
And he closed with this: “Such blessings change lives, and one generation passes them along to the next. On this final day of the year, why not leave some small blessing for those who will follow after you?”
Whether you close out 2005 in a champagne-filled big bash singing “Auld Lang Syne,” or with a companion or maybe at home by yourself (you are never alone), the invitation to “leave some small blessing” for those that follow just about says it all.
Happy New Year.
Excellent advice; let’s try it. Happy 2007 to all.