YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

As holidays go, our western New Year is a pretty strange and maybe even pointless holiday.  To start with, there isn’t really any purpose or point beyond marking the passage of an arbitrary passage of time.  Other cultures in the past have had annual celebrations that actually  make sense:  the change of seasons; the annual flooding of the Nile river; the beginning of harvest or planting seasons; annual astronomical events or anniversaries of special events.  But in the west, we have a holiday stuck in the middle of a temporal nowhere, remembered only because the calendar says remember it.

To make matters worse, it is just a week after one of the biggest cultural events we have.  Whether we celebrate Christmas or some other December party, we arrive at New Year’s pretty much worn out and somewhat broke.

All that means that we don’t have much of a sense of how to celebrate the holiday.  When the new year is marked by the beginning of planting, we celebrate by planting.  When it marks the harvest, we celebrate by harvesting and feasting.  If it marks the anniversary of some important event, we can celebrate and remember the event.  But for us, well, we have this day when the most significant thing is that the old calendar has run out of days.

As a culture, we try to celebrate.  We are encouraged to do a review of the past year and resolve to do better next year.  We commit to making changes:  lose the Christmas weight; start Christmas shopping earlier; be a nicer person; give up some vice or another.  We have a party.  But in the end, we likely don’t change much, probably because the whole thing is so artificial and contrived.

I am not calling for a change or anything like.  This is more of a “Isn’t it strange” post.  I suppose I could do some research and discover why we ended up with such a strange and unremarkable time for a recognition of the new year–but up to this point, I haven’t been interested enough to put the effort in to the process.  As it stands now, I don’t expect to develop it anytime soon.  Maybe, when I someday actually retire it will make a good project to stave off boredom.

But for now, I will simply point out how strange a choice for a new year recognition and wish you a Happy New Year.  Now, I have to go and change the calendars.

May the peace of God be with you.

DARK, DREARY AND COLD

            Let me begin with a confession:  I like winter.  I love snow and I like cold weather.  A winter blizzard is a real treat for me.  And I don’t just enjoy winter through the window while sitting in a comfortable chair in a warm living room while enjoying coffee or hot chocolate (or a cup of both combined).  I do enjoy that but I also enjoy being outside in the storm.  While I don’t really want to drive in the blizzard, I am not opposed to cross-country skiing or show shoeing in it.  I even like shovelling snow, in moderation anyway.  I am aware that many people I associate with on a regular basis, including the majority of people who form the congregations I have been called to pastor think I am a lot strange because of that but that is really their problem, not mine–I am very comfortable in my minority position.

But as much as I like winter, I am aware that behind the banter and joking that I do with the congregations, there is a deeper and more painful reality.  Winter in Nova Scotia puts some serious and significant limitations on lives.  There are the obvious ones:  difficulty travelling, disruptions and closures because of storms, dangers coming from walking on ice and snow, the issue of cold and darkness caused by power failures and so on.

But there are also some significant psychological emotional issues that many people face.  The restrictions often mean that people don’t get out all that much and that isolation creates havoc with our needs to be social.  The lack of sunlight because of shorter days and increased cloud cover is depressing, causing things like Seasonal Affective Disorder and so on.  Some people also develop a fear associated with winter and its difficulties, expressed in comments and questions like, “What if I get sick in a blizzard–how will I get help?”

A lot of the feelings and difficulties associated with winter get worse in January.  We enter January tired from the Christmas rush and stress.  January means the party is over and we have to get back to normal, although the normal is often negatively affected by the weather, or our perceptions of the weather.  The post-Christmas let down coupled with the winter darkness and travel restrictions provide the perfect breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and interpersonal tensions.

Now, because I like winter, I am not as prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder–if I am going to get depressed, it won’t be because of snow.  Lack of snow in January might do it but normally, my depression is tied to my perceptions of what is going on in my life.  But because I know depression from personal experience, I have a lot of empathy for those who get down in winter.

While many believe an early spring is the best cure for the mid-winter blahs and a trip to somewhere warm and sunny is a good temporary fix, there are other ways to deal with the issues that many people struggle with at this time of the year–or six months from now south of the equator.

The first step, as with any issue, it to accept the fact that it is happening and it is happening to us.  Often, we like to pretend that we are find.  We aren’t fine, we don’t feel fine, everyone else can see we aren’t fine–but we still pretend.  Denial might seem like an effective coping mechanism but in the end, it really only postpones the inevitable need to actually deal with whatever is going on.

So, we begin by accepting that we are depressed or tense or worried or angry or whatever we are feeling because of the mid-winter winteriness that surrounds us.  We admit that we are fed up with snow (that statement sounds seriously messed up to me personally), with not being able to do what we want to do, with feeling on edge worrying about the weather–whatever is there, we get it out in the open first for ourselves and then for others.

This honesty is different from whining about the weather, something that is almost guaranteed to increase social isolation.  This honesty is based on being willing to admit that we are  not right and that there are things we can’t control that contribute to the not rightness.  For some, this admission might itself be enough to start turning things around.  Self-honesty is as much a tonic to the soul as cross-country skiing in a blizzard can be to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I have often wondered why our culture ended up with New Year’s in the middle of nowhere chronologically speaking.  By that I mean there is really absolutely nothing to mark the transition except an arbitrary mark on a calendar.  Other cultures have clear and explicit reasons for the new year beginning.  Judaism ties the new year to the events connected with the Passover.  Islam connects it to Mohammed’s return to Mecca.  Agricultural societies use planting season as a mark for a new year.

But us, well, we get a new year beginning a week after Christmas.  If we didn’t need to replace calendars, we could easily miss it, except for the parties and so on that go with it.  But even they would be more fun if we had them at a time when we weren’t already partied out from Christmas.

I did some quick research and discovered that according to some sources, the Romans started the practise of using January 1 as New Years Day.  The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is portrayed as having two faces so he can see both forward and backward and therefore that makes him a god who can split time into new and old years.   But even with that insight, our new year is an entirely artificial and somewhat pointless holiday in our culture.  It doesn’t mark the time when I need to get busy planting the crops I need for food next winter.  It doesn’t mark the transition of a season.  It commemorates no significant date in our cultural history.  It just sits there, requiring us to change calendars and remember to change the last digit of dates.      As one of the guys said after worship one day, “The only thing New Year’s does is make you a year older–and I really don’t want that much.”

Perhaps some of my discontent with New Years comes about because many seem to think that I need to preach a sermon about the holiday–and given the realities I have just pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it in a sermon.  There are a few sentimental poems and stories that I could toss in; I could reflect on the past year and hope for better in the year to come; I could suggest a list of resolutions we would all benefit from; I could even proclaim the coming year “The Year of (Something)” and call people to commit to that.

Of course, all this runs smack dab into one of the painful realities of New Year’s worship services:  the worship service after Christmas is easily the worst attended worship service of the whole year.  I have often suggested that people who attend worship the Sunday after Christmas are probably going to receive a major reward when they reach heaven.  Clergy–well, we get paid to be there so we probably won’t get a reward, unless it is for figuring out what to say that isn’t trite, sentimental or pointless.

So, again this year, I will struggle with what to preach on New Year’s.  I may deal with the New Year and then again, I may follow my more traditional approach of ignoring the day in favour of something more Biblical and more significant.  That I will work out later–I have time still–not a lot but still some time to figure what I will be doing.

But for now, since New Years is coming and it does mark a change in the calendar, I will follow protocol and wish you a Happy New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.