I just read this fantastic post by one of my very best friends, Daron. He’s been so influential on my life the last decade or so, and is the one who introduced me to my Word for the Year thinking.
Here’s the way he explains our tradition (much better than I):
I was listening to a podcast once about Jewish Holidays. It struck me that the Jewish faith purposely incorporates a time meant for reflection. I would not consider myself a Jewish scholar, but the rabbi on the podcast explained that three very important holidays, distinguished as “high holidays”, stood out from the rest. The rabbi described the Jewish concept of time like this. Imagine a spiraling river flowing upward around and around and around. Each time it completes a circular curve flowing just above the last it can be thought of as a year in the passage of time as we know it (the Jewish calendar is a little different from the western calendar, but roughly the same amount of time passes). The river moves forward ever winding and surging. Although the forward direction is always the same it is not linear, it does not leave its latest path in the past. It moves back, swirling just above where it just flowed. Now imagine three brilliant beams of light shooting up from below soaring up to the heavens as far as the eye can see. These beams of light touch the flowing, spiraling river at the same point in every rotation. These beams of light are the three high holidays. They bring together the past, present, and future. Despite the current location of the river, the beam of light is the same and brings tradition, connection, and stability every time it touches the river of time.
Two high holidays in particular caught my attention. These were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year’s Day, and ironically the day of remembrance. It can be found in Leviticus 23:24-25. It is the day Jews look back not just over the year but also to the beginning of creation and to Adam to reflect. They take in how they measure up to the creation that they were intended to be and reflect of the flow of the river to this point, specifically to their personal point on the river. Most importantly putting creation into perspective with the concept of God‘s sovereignty. I am told that one of the practices of this holiday is to walk along a river bank and empty your pockets into the river (for the environmentalist out there, don’t you fret. The practice calls for filling your pocket with bread before hand). Symbolically this is the act of “casting off” sins. So, during this holiday you are taking stock in where you have come and where you have deviated from the path of God and from creation.
The next holiday, Yom Kippur, is 9 days later. It is the Day of Atonement. So, having taken stock of your life, your community, and your origins during Rosh Hashanah you recognize where you have fallen short and it is on this day of Yom Kippur you work to right your path. In Old Testament it was on this day that the “High Priest made an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. This act of atonement brought reconciliation between the people and God.” It can be found in Leviticus 16:8-34; 23:27-32. It is traditionally when Jews attempt to make amends to those they have wronged. It is a day of fasting and repenting of sins. In some respects it is a day to align and calibrate oneself with God for the coming wind in the flowing river. It is a day to start fresh and in step with the purpose for which you were created in the first place. A very cool holiday, I must say.
So after wading the deep waters of the concepts of time, atonement, and alignment I began to ponder. What would my life look like if I were standing at the end of the year that has yet to happen? How would my perspective on helplessness and the ziggy, zaggy nature of my life change? What would I do differently? What would I have done differently? As I found myself at the end of each year and imagined being there before it began I started to recognize patterns. Each year did flow into the next. I was just so focused on what was unfolding in front of me that I could not take in the perspective that God was sovereign and because I was aligned with him I was never helpless.
So, I set out to “live atoned.” There is a place where this idea is contemplated everyday. In the smoke filled rooms crowded with those who know a far heavier burden of the zigging, zagging peril of losing your way from creation a prayer is recited. This prayer acts as a life vest in the raging river of life for those caught in the grip of addiction. It is called the serenity prayer. “GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen. – Reinhold Neibuhr, 1926”
This is a lot easier said than done. How do I balance the tensions of being fully present in my life while fully open to the desire of God for my life? I stand on the edge of the current year and ask, “Who am I with my current strengths and weaknesses, and in my current circumstances?” I do a mini Rosh Hashanah. I then take an imaginary motorboat to the end of the bend in the river and I ask, “Given who and where I was, with those strengths and weaknesses and in those circumstances at the beginning of this year, what will I say the year was about? What will I have been involved in? How will I have invested my time and energy? What would have been wise to think about and to do?” Then I race against the current back to the present for a mini Yom Kippur, a day of atonement. I calibrate with God, and live my life in a way for God to use me. I don’t force my desired path. I don’t make plans that cannot be broken. I simply do the things that I can do to make a way for God to use me and do the things only He can do. There are times God will still zig and zag, but I find that I do not feel as blind sighted. I find that aligning my day-to-day life brings the stability of a life connected to all He has done before me and all He will do once I am gone. I have the peace of a connected story.
To make this tangible I choose a theme word for the year. It is a word that describes the year to come. I am open for it to change (and it has), but it is a word that gives the year a sense of course. I also choose a scripture that embodies this word. It is often something that has leapt out to me as I read and attempted to align with God. It is not something that I try to shape for my own purposes or needs, but one that makes sense. It acts as a word of encouragement from God. Finally I choose a theme song for the year. Why a theme song? Well, because it is cool. Seriously, wouldn’t life just be so much better if you had theme music like a movie or your favorite television show? I mean seriously, how much better would driving to work be if the theme song from Magnum PI was playing in the background? There is a secondary reason for the theme song. It is a very effective antidote to the inevitable wane in momentum (think Rocky as he nears the top of the seemingly insurmountable series of steps to the tune of Eye of the Tiger).
And that’s a much more developed explanation than I gave. Great, now that he’s got it written down I can read this every year to get ready for the New Year! Thanks, Daron!