Mark T. Nance
In Spain a few hours ago, thousands of Spaniards gathered in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and on main squares across the country to try to gulp down a grape with each of the 12 gongs of the bell at midnight. They’ll have spent the hours before with family and friends, recalling the events of 2011 and looking forward to a better 2012. Success in slugging down 12 grapes in about as many seconds brings good luck in the New Year. Their distant relatives across Latin America will have done the same.
In Germany, a normally staid people turned to the streets to throw powerful firecrackers, drink champagne, and wish each other “einen guten Rutsch,” a good slide, out of the old year and into the new.
In the fundamentalist church where I grew up, we often gathered for a “Watch Night” service, where we had church and, to really mix it up, sometimes watched a movie. I assume this ritual was designed to keep us from the temptation of having fun at real New Year’s Eve parties or to teach us that faith-based filmmaking was a bad idea. The sermons and prayers of the night inevitably revolved around the failings of the past year and how we could do better in the coming year.
Outside the walls of independent Baptist churches in western Kentucky, or in other words, you pagans, often sing Auld Lang Syne, or “Old Long Ago,” as a nod to the previous year; then many of us, sinner and saint alike, spend New Year’s Day eating pork, black eyed peas, and cabbage (or greens here in North Carolina) and make resolutions to improve ourselves in various ways.
So it seems to me that New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is a totem for many people, encouraging us to reflect on the Auld Lang Syne and look forward to the coming year; to reflect on how the past year went and take a few steps to promote a bit of better fortune for the year to come. It seems that no matter the culture or tradition, the slide into the New Year represents both continuity and change. It’s within that tension, the continuity and change that the New Year represents, that I think there might be some messages for us, the seekers of faith here at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.
The first lesson might be that it’s useful for us as individuals within a larger collective to look backward and forward. What stands out to us in the past year? For me, that means the chance to watch with great admiration as Nancy continues to fill, and expand, the big shoes that pastorship of this community represents. It includes watching with great respect when this community stood behind her, Carolyn, Seth, and others from the broader community as they engaged in civil disobedience to protest policies that many of us felt were wrongheaded and shortsighted at best, unjust, discriminatory, and damaging at worst. The church also took a bold stand against what we perceived to be the injustice of the proposed anti-gay amendment to the North Carolina state constitution. And it was comforting to see the church engage in a communal dialogue in an effort to clarify our collective stance on this important issue. While similar debates are tearing other congregations apart across the country, Pullen’s approach to discerning our own stance on the issue shows that dogged openness and on-going conversations can turn a potentially divisive issue into a magnetic one that draws us all closer to together and attracts new members to our family.
As for looking forward, I hope we take more of the same bold stances in 2012. We remain in an economic crisis that threatens the security of many around us. The proposed anti-gay amendment threatens our integrity, as well. There are local, state, and national elections that will affect how, and how well, many people live their lives. Pullen needs to stay active in those debates. Not everyone needs to go to jail. But the names of Pullen members should be consistently in the editorial pages. And we need to hold each other, our representatives, and our would-be representatives to a higher standard of justice and grace, regardless of their political affiliation or our own. All should be held equally accountable.
A second message from the turning of a new year is on a more fundamental level. The simultaneous celebration of continuity and change that New Years represents can be seen as a metaphor, symbolizing what it means to be practitioners of a progressive Christianity. On one hand, the label of Christianity, or even progressive Christianity, suggests that we hold some beliefs in common that revolve around some notion of what God is and what God expects of us. That’s the continuity part and I’m not convinced we can go a lot further than that here at Pullen. But that’s where the progressive part, the change, comes in. To profess a progressive Christianity, to me, means to consciously, willfully push our understanding of love, justice, and grace in a world that often rejects all three as impossible, outdated, or naïve. It’s a radical Christianity, one that defines love, justice, and grace in ever broader terms, rather than ever narrower terms as is often true of religious movements past and present.
Doing that, expanding our notions of what it means to express God’s love in this world, is often a frightening act. But, to turn a very deep, theological phrase, what I think is really cool about that process, is that it can simultaneously lead us to re-discover or discover anew the blessed ties that bind us together, as the old hymn goes. In other words, by promoting progressive change, we better understand our core values. It seems possible that the result falls short of our expectations; experiments sometimes fail, after all. But the result might also be a still firmer foundation for our faith as we better understand our communal beliefs: a foundation which in turn provides us a solid footing from which to practice a more radical version of God’s love.
Continuity in our core beliefs; Progressive change in our living of those beliefs.
If we can manage that, we can stand together in one year and know that 2012 was a good year.
Happy New Year to you all.