It’s important to consider that the new year is not just another year. At least that’s how I hope it will be.
I’m writing this on what is officially the final day of my employment contract as Principal of Whitley College. Tomorrow I begin another year, another phase of life. I have some employment, but that’s not the point: It’s a new stage of life, and that means it will be different, and I want it to be.
What makes the difference between a new year and another year? To explain, I will draw on an incident some of my readers may have heard from me before:
This happened when I was training as a Secondary Teacher, back in the 1970s. It was a very creative time in education, and teachers were trying new approaches to classroom teaching, curriculum and many other aspects of schooling. It was an exciting context—except at one school where I spent some time. It was a school with a very high reputatation, and many very committed, creative and devoted teachers. The Principal, however, was of another kind. When I was there he was in his final year, about to retire. The staff were keen to implement many of the new ideas and approaches, but whenever any such idea was put forward at a staff meeting, he would knock it back with his classic put-down line: ‘I’ve had 38 years of teaching, and I know this will not work.’
One meeting, however, another older teacher who himself was soon to retire but still had a creative vision for how schools could be better, and who supported his younger colleagues, decided to oppose the Principal. It was a breathtaking moment. When, as predictable, the Principal used his put down line, this man responded: ‘No you haven’t Principal: You have not had 38 years of teaching, you have had one year of teaching and you have repeated it 37 times.’
It’s an insight that has stayed with me ever since: many people have years and years of the same experience, over and over. The next year is not a new year, but another year.
I am hoping that 2017 will be a new year. For this, there are basically two essential things necessary. First, there has to be an openness to change, and that requires resisting the temptation simply to repeat all that is familiar. Sometimes even our problems have a kind of comforting familiarity. It is easier to stick with the known than risk the unknown … We have to be open to the new year.
Then we have to be prepared to look for the new. At my farewell service at Whitley College, a scripture passage was read from the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah: the historical context of this writing addresses a people in exile, a people whose hopes were utterly dashed. To them, the prophet addresses a word from God saying:
Do not remember [or perhaps cling to] the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43. 18 & 19)
The colleague who read this passage told me that it had been significant at a number of points in her life journey, and I said that it has in mine too. The wider context, the verses before and after, give a richer meaning to it all. But for now I simply want to note the importance of this idea that a new thing is already happening, and the people are invited to see it, to reach out for it, and not to cling to the old or familiar, even though those were the things they most valued and longed for—their home land, their culture, their place of worship and family traditions. All wonderful and good things! Yet they are urged to see something more, something new.
For this to be a new year, I think we have to be open to new things and to the possibility that amidst great uncertainty—and I really do think that 2017 could be a very difficult year for many people, and a very frightening time for those of us committed to social justice and ecological concern—even so God is inviting us to learn new ways of working together, perhaps ancient ways of communal resistance, creative change in the face of domination and oppression. This was indeed the way for the earliest Christians, in the face of the Roman Empire. It is the way the Hebrew people lived during that time of exile. They learned to retain their identity through change, even to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
For this to be a new year, and not just another year, we look for and pray for God’s creative presence. Openness to change is not easy and is something we can help each other to maintain. Some new things are and will be very welcome, others not so pleasant. Yet in all these things we are alive, together, in hope.
May it be a new year, and in this deeper and more hopeful sense a happy one!