(Christian Courier column, Jan. 25, 2016)
It’s January 2nd. I’ve been reading year-end columns. James Bratt of The Twelve offered an intriguing sweep of major historical events that occurred on January 1, 2, and 3. Examples include the pivotal 1492 surrender of the Moorish Grenada to Christian victors and the 1905 Russian surrender of Port Arthur to Japan, a catalyst in the fall of the Czarist empire. He ends his survey provocatively with a wry “And with those echoes, gentle reader, a very happy 2016!”
Analyst Gwynne Dyer took the opposite approach, assessing our current global state. No wars in Asia or the Americas, and Ukraine the only trouble spot in Europe. Forty of 50 African nations relatively stable. The Middle East is a powder keg, he conceded, but the majority of earth’s peoples are living in areas without armed conflict. He proclaimed 2015 a good year.
Author Leslie Leyland Fields reflected on the story of Jesus walking on water. She’d always admired Peter’s extraordinary faith as he jumped overboard to join Jesus. But then she realizes that Peter’s action actually stems from doubt: “If it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” When he sinks, Jesus rebukes his lack of faith.
When ferocious storms attack, Leyland Fields advises us to stay in the boat – the Word, the Body — recognizing that the Lord is always coming to us: “It is I. Do not be afraid.” In that awareness, she says, we can keep shouting out encouragement to one another, we can find the strength to keep rowing together. She quotes G.K. Chesterton: “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
My gambit was to review my journals. What occupied my attention in past Januaries? In 1996 my dad was dying. My first entry: “Not a lot of time to write. I have to mark French tests and Sounder tests. Just a note about Dad. He has been more and more fatigued. Mom says he needs to take more morphine each night just to get through the evening without falling asleep. They are going to play with the amount a little to see if he can take it earlier and so be able to stay awake for the evening.”
In 1997 I was struggling with an intractable student: “I have a lot of mixed feelings about going back to school tomorrow and dealing with Jennifer (not her real name). I want to stay positive; I don’t want my kids to think working is a mere burden. Lord, I pray for all my students, but especially for Jennifer and me. Help me be whatever she needs me to be. For tomorrow I plan on remembering the song from (singing duo) Siep and Marg: ‘He’s not far; he sees you where you are.’ Also this: ‘The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and he knows them that trust in him’ (Nahum 1:7). Hopefully, that will get me through the day.”
Some entries, like those from 1999 to 2003 are too sad to share. Those were the years when our family imploded with difficult situations that are still painful to remember.
On New Year’s Eve, as is traditional, our congregation sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” With its spotlight on time, “like an ever-rolling stream,” it’s fitting. But the hymn’s bald depiction of our fleeting lives is somber indeed.
Surfing the net, I happened upon British artist Andy Goldsworthy, creator of ephemeral art. His raw materials include only natural elements like twigs, mud, ice and rain. The artworks are intended to decompose or disappear, their beauty and significance intimately shaped by time. Goldsworthy explains, “It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last.”
Inspired by Goldsworthy, I’m envisioning my earthly life as an ephemeral work of art designed by God. It’s not going to last, but while it does, it’s a one-of-a-kind piece, lovingly sculpted by his hand. He’s invested a great deal in me – surrendered his own flesh and blood, monumentally, on the cross — a physical act rippling through infinity, the very antithesis of ephemeral.
Despite my cowering spirit, I survived all those Januaries. With the help of family, friends and church, I stayed in the boat. And Jesus was right there in those storms. He saw me even when I couldn’t see him, my vision blurred by whipping wind and waves. Every year brings new challenges, but until I reach my eternal home, God promises to be my shelter from the stormy blast.
He promises the same to you.