“In my beginning is my end . . .”
— T. S. Eliot, East Coker
Now that it is safely out of earshot we can admit that for many of us 2016 was an annus horribilis, a horrible year. We need not recount the passing away of the many artists, musicians, poets, actors, leaders, and guides whose presence graced our times. They are the foreground to the constant thrumming background of deaths to terrorism, to the roiling tempest of wars, and the tossing about of millions of refugees. We think we know them, the celebrities, but we do not presume to know the masses that perish beyond our peripheral vision.
For many of us, 2016 brought the eviscerating awareness that politics was war by another name. If the thin veneer of humanity that overlays our social realm seemed to blacken and curl around the edges in the blast furnace of the vox populi of Facebook and Twitter, then we also realized that by beholding we become deranged. Many of us will recoil from social media in the months ahead while we absorb the news of the day strained through a much more critical filter.
Millions of us stumbled through November 9 nauseated and apprehensive. In the endless purgatory that was the election cycle of 2016, Donald Trump morphed from a clown and a buffoon to an improbable winner whose jaw-dropping ability to defy the political odds was matched only by his bottomless cynicism. A businessman who consistently failed upwards, he supplied the demand for the open expression of hatreds that were usually masked.
For some of us the ties that bind us to our religions and our faiths frayed, parted, and dropped away. The corrosive effect of policies without principles exposed the pillars of faith to rust. Actions taken by Ted Wilson and the General Conference executive committee at the 2016 Annual Council seemed to double down on the divisive vote of the 2015 General Conference Session against the unions allowing women to be ordained to the pastoral ministry. The sentence of a year for repentance and reconciliation by the offending unions only puts off the inevitable; the unity demanded will not paper over the divisions that are grounded in conviction.
This was a year of quiet revelations for me. Crises provoke self-examination or self-destruction; if we’re attentive we can ingest the former and avoid the latter.
I learned that my professional aspirations ran deeper than I had understood, and paradoxically, that my enthusiasm for teaching—part of my self-identity for decades—was cooling. Was my perception that my teacherly powers were diminishing really accurate or was it simply an erosion of my self-confidence? As the gap between my expectations for my students and my awareness of their personal situations widened I realized how tenuous this process we call education really is. No amount of multivalent incentive matrices can make up for the fact that learning is a solitary endeavor made authentic and real in a community of individuals. Nor should the pollution of educationist jargon disguise the fact that much educational theorizing is simply the flare-off of useless gases.
In matters of faith and reason I remain a believer and a doubter, inherently driven by doubt while longing for more faith. I attempt to thread my way between the Scylla of the scientism of the age and the Charybdis of religious fundamentalism. My spiritual mentors this past year were Thomas Merton, as usual, and Barbara Brown Taylor, whose sermons and essays enliven the imagination and bring me to my knees in gratitude. Surprisingly, Charles Taylor’s massive magnum opus, A Secular Age has been a source of wisdom and a model of incisive but courteous criticism.
This year it dawned on me that faith is best defined as the courage to follow Jesus. I lack courage of any sort and I wish only to come to the end of the day and not be ashamed of who I was in the world with others. But I also know that in the days ahead, in a myriad of ways, we will be asked to be courageous in resisting and transforming the casual brutality of the Trump administration.
I am most fortunate: I have a son with whom I am best friends, a loving wife who is my better by far and my complement in every way, and a stepdaughter who delights with her creativity and her droll way with words. I have friends, some of them former students, through whom I can be myself. Why then, as I reflect on 2016, was this a year in which I often felt a flattening of the life force, a dull ache where there should have been a bright flame?
Well maybe it’s the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning (Joni Mitchell, Woodstock)
I imagine that at the end of a year the virtues and the gifts of the Spirit we have been trying to cultivate gather round for inventory. Courage, Moderation, Prudence and Wisdom, all have their say. Last to speak is Hope: “I didn’t see much of you this year,” it says quietly. “Do we have a future together? Should I go or should I stay?”
And I imagine myself, startled and stuttering to say, “Stay, please stay! It’s you who makes the others even possible.”
(Photo courtesy of Randy Preston)