A Defiant Faith for the Year Ahead

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In the final hours of December 31st, I noticed a common feeling about the year that was ending.  Not a consensus, to be sure, but an overwhelming pattern emerged in conversation, news stories, and Facebook posts.  The New Year’s Eve attitude sounded something like this: “good riddance, 2011, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Even though 2011 wasn’t as harsh on me as it was on my friends, I remember having the same feelings about 2005.  The midway point of the millenium’s first decade wasn’t kind to me and anything that 2006 brought would be better than the previous year.  Depending on your past twelve months, the hope  in the air on New Year’s Eve can be a better Christmas present than anything you opened a week prior.  When the clock approaches midnight and the calendar year changes, we hope for happier times, better memories, and calmer seasons.

But amid the hope for better days comes apprehension that the coming year will be more of the same.  A thought steals through the back door of our minds: “what if 2012 is actually worse than a terrible 2011?” How can one prepare for the unexpected days ahead, especially when mental and spiritual exhaustion have already been the order of the year?

The Old Testament readings from the Daily Office have wisely planned portions of Elijah’s story for the first few days of the year.  This morning’s reading from (January 2) tells of an exhausted Elijah, running for his life from Jezebal (1 Kings 19.1-8).  In a manner of speaking, Elijah prays to God, “Just end my life; my life hasn’t fared any better than your other prophets.” Exhausted from life and prayer, he collapses into sleep.  What does he find when he awakes?  Angel’s food–some bread and water come from heaven.  He barely has enough energy to eat a few morsels, because in his state, he needs sleep more than food.  The angel wakes him a second time and guides him to eat again: “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”

Whether 2011 was a terrific or terrible year, of this I am sure:  the journey into 2012 is too great for us.  We do not control the unforseen; we cannot anticipate the unexpected; we cannot prepare for hidden disappointments or accidents that await.  If I believed in chance, I might think that statement is a bad omen for the year ahead, an invitation for the gods to curse my coming days.  But there is no god but God, who alone holds our days in his hand.  Enter the psalmist’s courage and defiance when facing the unexpected: “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever.  He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord” (Psalm 112.6-7).

My posture to the coming days is not shoring up a futile, calculated defense against what I cannot prevent; rather, my hands are open to receive the bread of angels.  Paired with Elijah’s story on January 2nd is the Jesus story where he feeds a crowd of 5,000 (John 6).  Rabbi, disciples, and crowds are all exhausted.  The visible resources are depleted to 5 loaves and 2 fish.  Yet the one who sent an angel to feed Elijah hears the prayers of his exhausted children.  He sees a journey ahead too great for them to bear.  He feeds them before they take another step.

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Jesus feeds his people and feeds them to the full.  The sign of this feeding anticipates the Eucharist where Christ feeds us, not with angel’s food, but with his very own self, the King of angels.  When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we are not only given sustenance for the journey that is “too great for us,” we are filled with new confidence, even defiance, for the difficulties that may come.  The Eucharist feeds us with contentment in Christ; from contentment we are emboldened with courage for any bad news we might receive.  The prayer of Psalm 112 only makes sense in bread and wine.

The Eucharist is our best teacher, but there are other teachers along the way, too.  A repenting worrier, at best I am a novice in this defiant faith that is fearless of the future.  But in the mysterious communion of saints, I learn from those who, being constantly fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, look into the unknown future without anxiety.  The 17th century Anglican bishop, Jeremy Taylor, known as the Shakespeare of Anglican theologians, has been my tutor is this fearless faith.  In his classic work, Holy Living, Taylor reflects that Christ feeds us with contentment, not anxiety:

Contentedness in all accidents brings great peace of spirit, and is the great and only instrument of temporal felicity. It removes the sting from the accident, and makes a man not to depend upon chance and the uncertain dispositions of men for his well-being, but only on God and his own spirit.

Knowing the “sting from the accident” has been removed in Christ, we move towards a different kind of preparation for the days ahead, leaving behind our fretful schemes:

Let us prepare our minds against changes, always expecting them, that we be not surprised when they come; for nothing is so great an enemy to tranquillity and a contented spirit as the amazement and confusions of unreadiness and inconsideration; and when our fortunes are violently changed our spirits are unchanged, if they always stood in the suburbs and expectations of sorrows…[Consider] the apostles, who every day knocked at the gate of death, and looked upon it continually, went to their martyrdom in peace and evenness.

The serenity that stayed Jesus in the stern of a storm-tossed boat is available to today’s apostles and disciples, too.  Knowing not where the wind may pick up, unable to anticipate the direction it might blow, we may expect without surprise that troubles will come in 2012.  Yet our meditation does not belong with the sorrows that have not come, but in the Man of Sorrows who takes away the sting of bad news.  

So, in the spirit of Jeremy Taylor, here’s a New Year’s prayer for repenting worriers, exhausted disciples, novices in holy courage, and anyone who bid 2011 “good riddance, don’t let the door hit you on the way out”:

Prepare our minds, Lord Jesus, for all that awaits us this year.  Feed us with yourself and fill us with your courage, so that we might be emboldened with a defiant faith to endure all changes that we cannot see.  Give us that spirit which you carried to the cross, the spirit which filled your apostles, that dares to knock even at the gate of death with peace, confidence, and hope in your resurrected life.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 thoughts on “A Defiant Faith for the Year Ahead

  1. Thanks Jack. I appreciate the word that our meditation begins and is focused upon the “Man of Sorrows who takes away the sting of bad news.” This is a helpful response to either the empty optimism for tomorrow (simply because it is tomorrow), and the deadly pessimism that has lost all hope. We walk in neither but in the Way of the One who gives us hope even in the midst of the Crucifixion.

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