Welcome to 2017! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and an enjoyable New Year’s Eve. But now it’s back to business. Back to the grind as it were. Back to the realities of life. Back to the good things as well as the more challenging aspects of living in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Christmas doesn’t fix everything. Even as we sing of Peace on Earth, we continue to live in a nation that finds itself deeply divided. That statement shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Quite simply, with such a varied array of perspectives on any given issue, and an apparent unwillingness to find common ground, there are very few things that one might categorize as a “universal experience.”
Rev. Molly Baskette, however, has perhaps touched on such an experience as she describes the feeing immediately following the opening of her Christmas presents. “When I was a kid, on Christmas morning,” she writes, “there was the ubiquitous tearing through the pile of presents. I always moved slower than my siblings, savoring, because I wanted the feeling of joyful expectation to last. I hated the emptiness that would settle on us when the last gift was opened, and the spell was broken. Inevitably, when we had trash-bagged the riot of wrapping paper, we’d often discover one last present under the tree. True, it was usually for someone else—a family member not yet arrived for our festivities. But even though I knew it was not for me, I could hope and wonder what it was. A fruitcake? A power drill? Cruise tickets? World peace? As long as it remained unopened, it was, in a sense, for everyone. And it could be anything.”[i]
As I read Molly’s devotion this past week, I thought to myself: “What a perfect description of January.” January is the time of year when all the holiday parties are over and all the cookies have been eaten. It’s cold, her days are often shrouded in darkness, and, as I said before, people have settled back into their same old routine. And January is often the month when the house is once again empty. It reminds me of the old hymn In the Bleak Midwinter.
When I was in college I read about another “bleak midwinter” in a powerful book called Night by an author named Ellie Wiesel. In Night, Wiesel wrote of the year he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp. A year-long-night which claimed both of his parents and his sister and where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. And in a particularly moving passage, he told of one terrible evening when the whole camp was forced to witness the hanging of three prisoners. One of them was just a child whose crime was stealing bread. Wiesel said the boy had the face of a sad angel. When the three victims were dying on the gallows, a man behind Wiesel asked, “Where is God?” That question haunted Wiesel. It hung in the air like the foul stench of the camp. But suddenly Ellie said he heard a voice within himself answer the question. “Where is God? God is here, hanging on this gallows….”[ii]
Sometimes we wonder, “Where is God?” And I think that’s a valid question; it’s an important question… It’s important as long as we don’t leave it there. Whatever darkness we face in life. Whatever dark and dreary January may come along, it’s important that we follow up our “Where is God” by actually looking for God.
I mean, consider 2016. For most of us 2016 was a very challenging year to say the least. Facebook is full of stories about celebrities who died in 2016 and the media continues to remind us daily of the uncertain and violent times we live in. There’s plenty to lament from 2016. But, as the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds us, we aren’t the best judges of our own times, for no finite human, the author writes, “can find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” So even as we come to the end of a challenging year and face uncertain times ahead, we have to pause, take a deep breath, and realize that over the course of this past year there were many positive things that took place. In 2016, the death penalty became illegal in more than half the world’s countries. In 2016, Ontario invested $100 million to curb violence against indigenous women. In 2016, citizens of Mumbai conducted the largest beach cleanup in history, 4,000 tons of trash gone. In 2016, black incarceration rates in the US went down—not far enough but still down. In 2016, Denmark became the first country to stop defining being transgender as a mental illness. In 2016, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels did not grow at all. In 2016, the number of East Asians living in extreme poverty dropped to under 4%. In 2016, wild salmon spawned in the Connecticut River for the first time since the American Revolution.[iii] In 2016, the US Economy completely recovered from the recession of 2008 and jobless rates are at their lowest point in decades. And, maybe most important thing of all, in 2016, the Cubs won the world series!
Yes, there is still a lot of work to do in 2017 and beyond. And yes, there are still many things that divide us – too many things. But what if we were to unify around the hope that 2017 brings? What if we were to really look for God in the face of a stranger or listen for the voice of God among the sounds of nature or rededicate ourselves to being the hands of God to someone in need? What if we were to become a reflection of the hope that the final present under the tree represents by living out the Grace of God with kinder words and more compassionate actions? What if we were to practice the forgiveness and mercy that Jesus Christ taught and preached by doing things like, I don’t know, praying for those with opposing views? And not that they will do a 180 and think as I do on all the issues, but pray that we can find some common ground and that we all may come to realize that our strength as a nation, as a community, as individuals comes through diversity; diversity of thought, a diversity of experiences, and a diversity of lifestyles. If we all did that, I wonder how our nation, our world, might be changed? I wonder how each of us, our attitudes, our perceptions of others, might also be changed? I wonder.
[i] Baskette, Molly. The Last Gift Under the Tree. Still-Speaking Devotions, United Church of Christ, 2016.
[ii] Wiesel, Ellie, Night, New York: Bantam Books, pg. 61-62
[iii] Luti, Mary. From Beginning to End. Still-Speaking Devotions, United Church of Christ, 2016.