Reflections on the New Year
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar. Traditionally, this marks the beginning of ten days of reflection during which one thinks back on one’s life of the past year. Appropriately, this time of reflection culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I think this is a wonderful way to approach new beginnings of every kind, so I am unabashedly borrowing this tradition from my Jewish brothers and sisters. I need a fresh start right now and God has seen fit to provide me with a great one.
This has been a year of significant experiences, many of them “blows” of one sort or another.
- This time last year I was “downsized;” my position at Trinity Lutheran in Ventura was eliminated due to budget difficulties. This led to a prolonged, unintentional sabbatical.
- Two days before Christmas my wife, Meri, broke her ankle and had to have surgery to repair it. Christmas was improvised accordingly.
- Not long after that, I had a nasty bout (there are no good bouts) of Meniere’s Disease which resulted in significant hearing loss. I now have hearing aids. My Meniere’s, it turns out, was triggered by allergies; I was found to be allergic to dairy, yeast and eggs, which meant I had to make some serious changes in my diet. I lost 40 pounds I shouldn’t have been carrying around anyway.
- My father-in-law, a man I admired greatly and loved deeply, died suddenly and unexpectedly a week after Easter.
- Two weeks later my own father, who had seemed to be pretty healthy except for a nagging pain in his side, was diagnosed with advanced Pancreatic Cancer. He died only a few weeks after that.
- In August, our daughter gave birth to twins and Meri was hired as a full-time lecturer on the faculty of Cal State, Fullerton!
- As I write this, we are preparing to move so I can begin my new call as pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, a warm-hearted congregation in the town where I grew up.
One doesn’t have a year like that without experiencing some profound internal changes. Oddly, the overall effect has been, for me, tranquilizing. One might think that it’s merely reflexive numbness, but that’s not it at all. I still feel the sharp edges of things gone wrong. I still feel the “high” of the joyful moments, too. But the feelings are somewhat tempered now, balanced by a new kind of perspective. The rational “analyst/observer” part of my mind is stronger and my emotions don’t carry all the momentum of the moment. I find myself smiling a lot and and saying, “Well, that’s just life.” Meri calls it “the Valium of experience.”
I am more grateful for what is. I still see things that I want to change, things that need to change, but I realize that lasting, positive progress in human nature and human institutions can take years, even generations to accomplish. I still have my part to play in making the world a better place, but I realize I’m just one clarinet in the never-ending symphony.
I am relieved to be traveling more lightly. I am more patient with those who are reading the world by a different light. I am more curious about what they are seeing and why.
I feel much freer. At the same time I find that I cherish my family ties, bonds and relationships in a deeper, quieter, stronger way.
I am much more aware of my own mortality. That doesn’t depress me, it enlivens me. It opens my eyes to what a precious gift life is. I find myself tearing up sometimes at the sheer beauty of moments with my family, even when we are all exhausted from the relentless demands of feeding-changing-burping-rocking the twins and tending the toddler. I am awestruck by the wit, wisdom and resilience of my sleep-deprived daughter and her steadfast, rock-solid husband. I am humbled by my son’s creativity, work ethic humor and intelligence, by the way he still makes time for family. I continue to be moved, grateful, surprised, amused and challenged in a good way by my brilliant, loving wife, and I realize more powerfully than ever before that those promises we made to stick with each other through everything life throws at us are a gift I will keep unwrapping until death parts us.
I have learned that it’s not about me. It’s about us. I knew that before, but it’s a lesson that requires homework. This year I got a lot of homework.
Jesus said, “I came that you might have life to the fullest.” He didn’t say that we would like all of it. We can, however, find meaning in all of it. We can learn from it. We can let it inspire us. Life, this part of it anyway, is brief. Savor every drop of it. Even the bitterest bites. We’re supposed to mix the agave syrup with the cocoa. We’re supposed to share the ingredients. It’s the only way we get the full-course meal.
In the last rites of Bokononism, the fictional religion created by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, one of the things the dying person says is, “Lucky me. Lucky mud. Think of all the mud that didn’t get to sit up and look around.” I say that to myself a lot these days.