Another New Year already!
Surely not another year gone by already? It was only a couple of days ago when the last one started – or so it seems. Why is it that when I was young, days lasted for weeks, and every year contains thousands of days? Why, as we grow older, do days get shorter, and each year contains fewer of them? Another of the many mysteries of life as yet unfathomed. My wife insists that most changes for the worst in the this world are the fault of men, but that I deny. Perhaps it is to do with global warming, which gets blamed for everything these days.
As a child I wondered, as I expect many of you did, why, on my birthday, did I seem no from different than how I was the day before. A. A. Milne wrote a book titled, “Now we are Seven”, surely implying that the seventh birthday was a day on which momentous happenings came to pass. One expected, on waking up and hearing folk say, “Happy Birthday, seven year old,” that you had changed into someone who was very different from the six year old who fell asleep the night before. Yet, as far as I recall, that wasn’t so. And that puzzled feeling has persisted. The old music hall song reminded us that at twenty-one the key of the door is ours (in modern Britain rather sooner than that). Nevertheless, maturity doesn’t suddenly fall upon one, like a cloud descending from heaven
The day I became entitled to what I still persist in calling the Old Age Pension, in defiance of bureaucrats who want to call me a Senior Citizen, I still felt, thought and acted very much in the same fashion as I had on the previous day. No wiser, just as awkward.
Am I alone in feeling that anniversaries ought to herald a palpable change? A day when the moon shines blue, or geese lay golden eggs. I suspect I am not. And what is New Year but an Anniversary? What was so very different on 1st January 2004 when compared with 31st December 2003? Not very much as far as I could make out.
I thought of some lines from a poem by A.E. Housman. He is describing a reveller who had drunk freely at Ludlow Fair, rolling homeward, but not making it. He fell down and slept where he lay: “Happy till I woke again,” he recalls.
“Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.”
Even if the reveller had caught a taxi home; even if he had slept, sober as a judge as the saying has it, in his own bed, he might still have observed in the morning that “the world, it was the old world yet”. Yes, few are the occasions when, overnight, the world changes from being the old world into something startlingly new.
On the rare occasions when change is dramatic and sudden, it is invariably for the worse rather than the better. The twin towers burn and collapse; the earthquake shakes the ground, destroying buildings and lives of those inside; the car bomb explodes and the innocent die; the waters cover the land, drowning both beast and human being. The fairy god-mothers’ who produce, on the instant, golden coaches from pumpkins, live only in nursery books, or on the pantomime stage. The wise remind us that the magnificent city of Rome did not arise between one sunrise and the next. Instant transformations tend to the apocalyptic. Improvements, as anyone who has commissioned a builder to build a house extension will confirm, take place only over time.
However, tradition demands that New Year is not a time of gloom, but of hope. It is the time when New Year Resolutions are embraced, and very occasionally – kept. Resolutions are the very antithesis of accepting that “the world is the old world yet …. and nothing now remains to do”.
Resolutions are about either doing something towards improving things in our own lives, or for other people; or alternatively, about not continuing with those things which we ought not to do. The world might be the old world yet, but we say, as a new year dawns, maybe we can do something to change it.
Things might not be much different today than they were yesterday, but, over time, changes do come about. When I think about it, not much happened to make the world a better place as I slept through to the morning of my seventh birthday. But as that figure six, and then seven, and whisper it quietly, now eight, moved into the tens column, much has altered to make the world a better place.
Oh, I know some terrible things happen in the world, and much suffering exists: but in our land, in social terms, huge changes have happened and life for many is immensely better than it was for their parents in the depression years of the thirties. Some of these changes have occurred at an almost imperceptible rate, others more rapidly. But changes there have been.
True, one might fairly point out that these are matters which fall under the rather vague heading of political changes. But politicians, some might add cynically, even politicians, can be moved by noble motives.
But those of us who gather here, whilst by no means indifferent to changes which improve the living conditions of our neighbours, have perhaps a wider agenda. This would include those who dwell in lands where poverty and disease is rampant. Those whose lives are not significantly different from the hardships suffered by their fore-bearers. We are touched by what, rather vaguely, we refer to as our conscience, to think beyond our own demands. We believe we have a duty to do something about the plight of others in less fortunate circumstances.
It was fashionable to hear in Unitarian churches at one time, sermons about those great Unitarians of the past who had been committed social reformers. Victorians, and some from earlier generations, who had been in the vanguard of social reform. Others had been scientists, politicians, or philosophers whose enlightened views changed the society in which they worked; changes which continued after their death. I must confess that in some cases the links with Unitarianism seemed a little tenuous, but let us not be too critical. The major point was that, as for the New Testament James, faith and works went hand in hand. The resolutions they adopted were not merely to think good thoughts, but to do good deeds.
We live in impatient times. That was so in the old year just ended; it did not alter as the clocks chimed twelve midnight on New Year’s eve. We may like to think that we can turn everything around for the better on the instant. But we can’t. Change for the better comes slowly, moving day by day, almost imperceptibly, like the hour hand of a clock. It never seems to move as we watch, but look back later and surprising progress has been made.
That oft-quoted passage from the letter of Paul to the Corinthians speaks of changing from thinking as a child to adult understanding. We all go through that process, but not as an instant conversion overnight. The change is subtle and the edges blurred. And similarly when it comes to changing the world. We have our aspirations. We set our goals. The vision is essential, but, altering, scrambling rather, the metaphor, the journey to the city on the hill will be a slow march on foot, not in a sound-barrier breaking Concorde.
Our new year hymns are full of hope. A dream of a peaceful, happy, prosperous world. A belief that things can get better. Man-caused suffering is not inevitable; the figurative lion and lamb can co-exist. We sang at the beginning of our service “… let the new years shame the old”; we shall sing as the service ends of “…nobler modes of life/With sweeter manners, purer laws”.
There is no rationing of inspiring goals, neither are resolutions in short supply. We come here today with a desire for change; a passion to see a world which is better than anything which has gone before. We know that an anniversary is a marking post for reflection about changing ourselves and influencing as best we can alterations to the world around us. At the same time, we accept that individually our influence is small, but collectively great changes are possible. Instant transformation, commonplace in the climax of the traditional pantomime scene at Christmas and New Year, is make-believe, not experienced in the real lives of the audience. Things can and do grow better, if we so will it, albeit at a pace which seems infuriatingly slow.
But this year let us note the words concluding the short prayer used from time to time in our service:“be with us in our dreaming, then turn our hands to the plough.”
Let us resolve this New Year that though we awoke to find that “the world it was the old world yet” we shall not despair and wail that “nothing now remains to do, but begin the game anew”. That is, unless the game is to join those who, slowly as it may be, have enough faith to believe that transformation scenes are possible; given time, patience and determination.
Happy New Year, and may all your resolutions be intact this time next year.
C. J. Rosling 3rd January 2004
Hucklow 4 January 2004