Happy New Year!

Ten years ago today, the world did not end. It should have, according to the catastrophic worries about “the Y2K problem” where computers would fail to record the correct date as they rolled over from ‘99 to ‘00. In a New York Times op-ed piece today, philosophy professor Denis Dutton reminds us of the hysteria leading up to that great calendar change. Aside from a few dates that registered as “Jan. 01, 101,” I don’t recall any great cataclysm.

In addition to the computers, Dutton recalls the heightened anticipation among many Christians that if Jesus were coming back, he would likely choose a round-numbered date like 2000 for the event. (The same frenzy developed around the turn of the previous millennium.) I already knew by that time that Jesus’ 2000th birthday had probably come in 1996, and I was fairly sure that his return meant something non-literal about the life of the church. All the same, I must admit to having been a little nervous that the apocalypse would catch me unprepared, and I was a little relieved when the sky didn’t open up as the clock struck midnight.

Dutton suggests that our end-times predictions are ways of distracting ourselves from the real social and technical work that would make our world a better place today. More than that, I think this tendency reflects our ambivalence about God’s future. In the big picture, of course, the fulfillment of Christ’s presence would represent a wonderful new beginning, a world of justice and peace for all. At the same time, new beginnings call for a transition away from the way things have been, which is always unsettling. Most of us earnestly hope for progress toward a more blessed world, but the changes required by that progress make us understandably uncomfortable.

Today hasn’t been a particularly apocalyptic New Year, but the turning of the calendar often inspires us to examine the year gone by and make resolutions for the coming future. The tensions expressed in prophecies about the end of time also manifest themselves in the way we think about exercising more, pursuing a new role at work, or reevaluating a program at church. Our excitement for the new beginning runs in parallel with a sense of the impending end of what came before. When the future comes near us, we’re simultaneously fascinated, hopeful, and scared.

This normal human reaction reminds me of the way that young children react when my dog is out for a walk. Duncan loves children, and they love him. Typically, the kids notice him from about a block away, and they’re very excited to see the cute, friendly puppy. Then, as he gets closer, they notice that he’s getting bigger too. Before long, he’s a 70-pound dog who can look them directly in the face with all four feet on the ground. As he gets closer, the initial feelings of joy and excitement mix with surprise and often a little worry. This friend still wags his tail and loves to have his ears scritched, but he’s more of an adventure than he seemed at first.

That’s the dilemma behind our fear and fascination about the future. What’s coming next looks so interesting, yet it looms over us in sometimes scary ways. During the next 12 months, many things will change. Children will join our families, loved ones will die, relationships will begin or end. Jobs will be created, lost, or reinvented. The church will make decisions about activities, facilities, and budgets in light of the gifts and needs our congregation carries into the next stage of its mission. If we take the long view, we often know what kinds of blessings may be in store, but as the necessary changes draw closer, they look ever more challenging.

Later this month, we will mark the new year with our annual congregational meeting. The written reports of our various boards and committees will look back at the past year and suggest directions for the future. As you read the reports, let these new directions play in your imagination. Feel for which of them might grab your soul’s energy. Think about what it might take to make a vision into reality. Pray with the rest of the church that the Spirit that gave us life would continue to direct us into a future that will be even more blessed than our past. Happy new beginnings!

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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