In the dark, uncertain days of late 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, England’s King George VI wanted to encourage his nation, so in his Christmas message he read from a poem by 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 words caught the imagination of the British in their first Christmas of the war; they 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 discovered 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, 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. Those words come to mind whenever I have my own little talk with the one who stands at the gate of the year, and I remember them with less need to see into the unknown and with more confidence in the God who leads me where I cannot see.
We need such confidence today, especially when the headlines bring news of things like the covid-19 pandemic, the struggling economy, civil strife and political dysfunction at every level – when uncertainty seems the only sure thing. Maybe you don’t need headlines to remind you how fragile and uncertain life is; your personal experience may be enough. As much as ever before, 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.”
Israel once faced their own darkness, when they heard God’s promise. The nation languished in captivity, overwhelmed by forces beyond their control, deprived of their familiar life, betrayed by their own shortsightedness. And they began to imagine a future that could not be predicted from their present circumstances. “For darkness shall cover the earth,” Isaiah 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, able to see neither the road ahead nor where it leads, let’s remember that our present circumstances, dire as they may seem, do not predict the future that’s 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 the 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’s beyond our control and that controls everything. God asks only that we yield ourselves with confidence to God’s will and commit ourselves to following the way Minnie Louise Haskins laid out in the final words of her poem:
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.