At the gate of another year

Long ago I stopped making resolutions for the new year. Instead, I turn to a poem that has been passed on in my family for at least three generations since it became widely known at the threshold of World War II and that opens to me in greater depth with each new year passes.

In the dark, uncertain days of late 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the war, 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 teacher at the London School of Economics, Minnie Louise Haskins. The poem, “God Knows,” (which you can read in its entirety at the end of this post) 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 gatekeeper of each 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 season or adventure of 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.

Maybe you don’t need the daily news 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.”

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

God doesn’t ask us to be in control of our future. 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 I will yield with confidence to God’s will and commit myself to following the way Minnie Louise Haskins marked out, 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.”

“God Knows,” by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)

And 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 out 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.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life,
Our human life, to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

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