At the gate of the year

art 06In the dark, uncertain days of late 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, England’s King George VI sought to encourage his nation in his Christmas message. In his radio broadcast he read from a poem by a little-known American teacher at the London School of Economics, Minnie Louise Haskins. The poem began:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

The poem caught the imagination of the British in their first Christmas of the war, and the BBC was besieged with questions about the poem’s origin. The words were read again in 2002 at the funeral of King George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and they’re engraved at the entrance of the chapel where both are now interred.

It was roughly twenty years after King George’s Christmas broadcast that I became acquainted with the poem. A small, hand-written copy of it was found in my grandfather’s wallet after his death. I never heard him speak of it – I’m not sure anyone did – but he found enough meaning in those words to keep them always close at hand, and they must have encouraged him at the beginning of many new years and seasons and ventures in life when the future could not be imagined, let alone predicted.

I recall those words whenever I have my own little talk with the one who stands at the gate of every new year. Maybe some of you know the poem and have found meaning in its words as you have begun a new year or some new phase of your life. As I grow older I remember those words with less need to see into the unknown and with more confidence in the God who will lead me along the way I cannot see.

We need such confidence today, especially when the headlines announce news of things like the struggling economy, war and terrorism, political dysfunction at every level, deaths and natural disasters – you get the idea. One headline even announced that “uncertainty is the only sure bet” for at least the near future. Happy New Year.

Maybe you don’t need headlines to remind you how fragile and uncertain life is. Your own experience may be reminder enough as you deal with unexpected job changes and financial challenges, a sudden health crisis, or some sudden reminder of life’s fragility and the future’s uncertainty. Now more than ever we need to put our hand into the hand of the divine presence “that shall be to [us] better than light and safer than a known way.”

The gate of the year is a good place to remember others who have stood where we stand, facing their own darkness, and to hear again God’s promise. As Israel languished in captivity, overwhelmed by forces beyond their control, bereft of their familiar life, betrayed by their own shortsightedness, they began to see a future that could not be predicted from their present circumstances. “For darkness shall cover the earth,” the prophet intoned, “and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and [God’s] glory will appear over you. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice” (Isa. 60:2, 5).

As we stand at the gate of a new year, on the threshold of a new season in life, able to see neither the road before us nor where it will lead, remember that our present circumstances, dire as they may seem, do not predict the future that is in God’s hands. As Haskins wrote in her poem, “In all the dizzy strife of things / Both high and low, / God hideth his intention.”

We don’t need to be in control of our future. God doesn’t ask us to be in control of it. God asks only for our hand, for our trust in God’s promise and our confidence in God’s providence, for our radical dependence on the Source of life that is beyond all control and that controls all. Today let’s yield ourselves with confidence to God’s will and commit ourselves to following the example of Minnie Louise Haskins, who concluded her poem with these words:

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God

Trod gladly into the night.

He led me towards the hills

And the breaking of day in the lone east.

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