Practicing the Present in the New Year

Of all the holidays in the year, I must confess that New Year’s Day has always had the least appeal for me. It is not a bad holiday. New Year’s Day just suffers from comparison with its more glamorous sibling Christmas, which comes robed in red velvet and laden with gifts. The best that New Year’s Day seems to offer is a football game, chips, and dip,  and for some people, a hangover. Between the two, it is Christmas that appeals most to my mercenary nature.

Apart from the presents, Christmas celebrates a historical event: the birth of Christ. New Year’s Day is more abstract. It celebrates a change in the calendar. But I think it is this abstraction that makes New Year’s Day so appealing for many. New Year’s Day is a celebration of the passage of time. But it is more than this. The turning of the year is also a kind of reset. The clock starts over. The calendar begins its cycle of months again. It is a little like the video games some of us played when we were children. We struggled hard but failed to beat the big boss. Then when the music stopped, we popped back up and began again.

When the New Year arrives, for a few moments, at least, we feel as if time has granted us a “do-over.” Like the new calendar, all the days seem to lie before us with nothing written on them. As the clock strikes midnight, it is easy to convince ourselves that our life is a blank page upon which we might write anything we please. But when daylight comes, we will quickly discover that this isn’t exactly the case. The old year follows us into the new whether we like it or not.

As the clock strikes midnight, it is easy to convince ourselves that our life is a blank page upon which we might write anything we please.

To admit such a fact is not pessimism. It is physics. Isaac Newton observed that a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. The same is true of time and circumstances. The changing of the year does not automatically create a wall between us and all the things we have set in motion during the previous year. The cycle of the year begins again, but our lives will continue along the same trajectory they were on before, unless some other force comes along to redirect us.

One of the side-effects of the turning of the year is a kind of double vision. When the clock chimes twelve, we feel caught between the past and the future. The result is a sense of weightlessness that is disorienting but not altogether unpleasant. Depending upon our bent, we may lean either into the past or into the future. Some feel the weight of the past, as the wreckage of the old year comes to rest in the new. They sort through the debris and grieve. It is not an accident that suicide attempts often spike during the New Year’s holiday. Others are eager to hurry into the future where they have set all their hopes. Whether we focus on a future that has not yet materialized or either long for or regret a past that cannot return, the effect on the present is the same. Both perspectives tend to marginalize the present. The present seems like nothing to us.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that we respond this way. The Christian faith has a vested interest in the future. The return of Christ is in the future. The ultimate fulfillment of all His promises about the Kingdom will take place in the future. Our resurrection and final deliverance from our struggle with sin remains in the future. It is true that where the Christian is concerned the best is yet to come. Likewise, our Christian faith has deep roots in the past. Our hope is grounded upon promises made long before we were born. The Bible upon which we have staked our faith and our lives was written by and addressed to people who are now long dead.

The present seems like nothing to us.

The Bible admonishes us to remember what we have received and heard, as well as to remember those who have believed before us (see Revelation 3:3; Hebrews 13:7). Remembering is a fundamental discipline of the Christian life, and the primary reference point for those who remember is the past. Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living (Luke 20:38). This makes Him the God of our past and of our future as much as He is the God of our present. He is the one who has promised and called in the past. His grace is the remedy for all our regret. His assurances are our guarantee and our hope for the future. But our experience with Him is always in the present.

God’s ultimate purpose for us lies in the future, but His business with us is always in the present. He has left us a record of His faithfulness in the past, but that is so we can be confident of His dealings with us in the here and now. Satan’s strategy is to distract us from the divine present by directing our attention either to a past that we can no longer affect or to a future that does not yet exist and may never come to pass. This may take the form of a dogged pursuit of the future, which leaves us blinded to or dissatisfied with the present. Or it may be an obsession with the past, whether it is a longing for the glory days or an overwhelming sense of regret over decisions, actions, and experiences that we now cannot change. Each of these perspectives makes us vulnerable to the same error made by the people of Haggai’s day. Either we will not see what God is doing in the present or we will note it and dismiss it as “nothing.”

As another year passes away and a new one dawns, I am suggesting that we reorient our thinking to the present. Or more accurately, I suggest that we reorient our thinking in the present. Practicing the present is not a matter of forgetting the past or dismissing the future. It is not a meditative state. Practicing the present begins with the recognition that, to some extent,  we cannot help but practice the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. When we practice the present, we view our present circumstances, whatever they may be, through the lens of the sacred. We live our lives in the here and now. The present is where we learn to obey God. The present is the place where we experience God’s presence.

The first step is to put the past behind us. This begins not with forgetting but with honest reckoning. The sentimentalist recasts the past, smoothing out its sharp edges and minimizing the damage done. The cynic looks at the past through a jaundiced eye. Practicing the present involves the double discipline of honestly assessing the past while recognizing the hand of God in it. We are not the cause of all the problems that follow us into the new year, but we are certainly the cause of some. Like Adam after his sin, we too are prone to denial and shifting blame. We are inclined to blame others and especially God for our problems. Taking ownership of the present does not necessarily mean that we take all the blame for our current circumstances but it does require that we accept that they are what they are.

Taking ownership of the present does not necessarily mean that we take all the blame for our current circumstances.

The second step to practicing the present in the new year is to sanctify the ordinary. Part of the allure of a new year is the implied promise of adventure. The blank calendar seems to tell us that anything is possible. Who knows where we might go and what we might do? The answer is that most of us will go back to our old jobs. We will engage in the same tasks that we did before. We will live in the same place and with the same people. We will like the people we liked last year and the ones who irritated us will continue to do so. If the new year does bring about change, those changes, whether we perceive them to be good or bad, will be attended by many of the same mundane duties that were ours before.

Those who practice the present cultivate a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane. We sanctify the mundane by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We do not need to be attempting great things all the time. We do not need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).

A third step to practicing the present is to align our vision with God’s. This is a matter of allowing the truth of God’s word to define our reality. We acknowledge our circumstances for what they are and offer ourselves to God as we are. The Psalmist describes this kind of reality check in Psalm 73, where he describes the bitterness he felt when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. The turning point came when he entered the sanctuary and considered God. The Psalmist’s circumstances hadn’t changed, but his perspective did after he traced God’s larger design on the field of his experience. The psalmist’s experience is a helpful reminder that practicing the present is not limited to those times when we feel good about God or our circumstances. It is a discipline for times in the valley as well as for those on the mountaintop. Our problem is not the questions that plague us but the danger that we will ask them dishonestly. We will come wearing a mask instead of showing up as our true selves. Instead of taking stock of things as they really are, we will engage in premature apologetics and attempt to explain away our pain, doubt, or difficulty.

When we practice the present, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss. We do not need to elevate our feelings or put a good face on our bad mood. It is important as we begin to simply take note of things as they are without rendering judgment. This is the way things are. This is where I am. This is how I feel. This means calling our feelings by their correct names. Owning up to our anger, hate, and disappointment is all part of owning the present. To do otherwise is not only dishonest but dangerous. It is only when we show the doctor our wounds that we can be treated. But more than this, ignoring what is really true about me closes the door to genuine communication with God.

When we practice the present, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss.

We do not need to be spiritual giants to practice the present. Is it the spiritual work of ordinary people. We live in an age of life hacks. There are thousands of websites, podcasts, and books that promise to provide us with simple steps that will improve and even transform our lives. Sometimes they even work. Unfortunately, the spiritual life tends to be impervious to hacks. It is not easily reduced to five steps, simple tricks, or quick shortcuts. When I talk to people about Christian living in the present tense, most of them ask the same question: “That sounds good, but exactly how do you do that?” Living in the present tense is not a methodology so much as it is a way of seeing the world. Still, there are a number of spiritual disciplines and practices that can help us acquire such a point of view. Some are disciplines of abstinence, practices intended to wean us away from patterns of thinking and acting that crowd out our awareness of the importance of the present. Others are disciplines of engagement, activities we undertake to add a certain perspective or response. They may be venerable, having been practiced by the church for thousands of years, or they can be situational, because they arise out of our modern circumstances.

None of them is a life hack. They will not provide you with a quick fix or substitute for long obedience that is characteristic of a life of discipleship. Nor are they guaranteed. You will not be able to apply them to your life by way of formula. They are not a doctor’s prescription. You will need to experiment and discover for yourself which ones work best for you. You will probably find that this will be tied to your season of life and your circumstances. The disciplines that work for you now might not be the same ones that will work for you best later on, while others will be perennial. The one thing they all have in common is the assumption that God is always present and engaged in our lives.

I said at the start that the trouble with the New Year is that it does not come laden with gifts the way Christmas does. It seems that I was wrong. The New Year does come bearing a gift. It is the same gift we receive every year. It is the gift given to us with each new day. The gift of the New Year is that it ushers us into the present, that same present where God is also always present. We cannot stop the flow of time no matter how hard we try. Indeed, in a way, our sense of the present is itself only an illusion. The world is always in motion, and so is time. We cannot help being carried along as each passing second hurtles us toward the future. Yet if we can learn to be attentive, we will discover the presence of God in this fleeting succession of moments. We are changing, but He is not. We are aging, but He is not. It is not the present that is the still point in all of this but God Himself. Even as we are caught in the slipstream of busy lives and of circumstances beyond our control, we are always at rest in Him.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

2 thoughts on “Practicing the Present in the New Year”

  1. Your writing is incisive – laying bare our inner most thoughts.
    You need to consider a career as an author!😎

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