Let’s face it, 2021 was not the new new year we were hoping for. The sermon I prepared for the Minnesota Conference for January 2 (or later) is entitled, “Can We Have a New New Year?” Among other disappointments is the tenacious persistence of the coronavirus, which had an impact once again on our Christmas celebrations, and with the omicron variant, looks to be with us well into the new year. We are in a better place than a year ago, particularly with vaccines that decrease the likelihood of contracting COVID, and significantly decrease the likelihood of a severe infection requiring hospitalization. To be effective, however, vaccines need to be taken.
So, we begin a new year accompanied by the pandemic that began in early 2020. While we are all weary of COVID, many of us are finding moments to consider things that have sustained us or brought us a modicum of joy in this difficult time. I can’t say that the pace of my life has slowed—just the opposite with episcopal responsibilities in two conferences. Zoom is not just a meeting platform, but often a descriptor of my experience of time. Even so, I have discovered or re-discovered things that sustain. With two new grandchildren in our family, I have re-discovered the gift of simply holding a small child. It is a form of meditation and a wonderful time for prayer. All that you are asked to do is be present to the wonder of new life. Different pieces of music have also been sustaining: Bill Evans’ jazz piano, Waxahatchee’s album “St. Cloud,” and ’70s soul music, among others. I enjoy the painting of Edward Hopper, even in book reproductions. I have discovered Scandinavian detective fiction, read in English translation of course. I have developed a deeper appreciation for the grace-filled moment, however fleeting. One morning during the pandemic, I heard the poet Maggie Smith discuss her book “Keep Moving.” Coming out of a divorce, figuring our how to parent and write, Maggie Smith began posting a goal for herself on social media, one day, then the next: “The question I asked myself over and over in those first days and weeks was, ‘What now?’ And that question inspired the last sentence of every goal: ‘Keep Moving.’”
Keep moving. In a sense, we have no choice. The calendar changed from December 31, 2021 to January 1, 2022 regardless of what we did or didn’t do. Yet “keep moving” is not about the inevitable movement of time, it is about our emotional and spiritual life. Will we stay frozen, stuck, or keep moving? There are days when just keeping moving is quite enough for that day. We have all had such days, and we will have such days in the new year. Keep moving.
At the same time, I invite us to something more—to not only keep moving, but move with some sense of grace, style, and rhythm. I am hearing the mid-1970s soul song by the Blackbyrds, “Walking in Rhythm.” Keep moving, walking in rhythm.
As I think about what that might mean for 2022, four virtues come to mind, virtues always appropriate for a life lived in the rhythms of God’s grace, but particularly pertinent for this coming year: curiosity, compassion, creativity, and courage.
Curiosity. In a recent essay in The New York Times, Peter Wehner (citing theologian Martin Copenhaver) notes that “Jesus was more than 40 times as likely to ask a question as answer one directly, and he was 20 times as likely to offer an indirect answer as a direct one.” Wehner goes on to write: “With his puzzles and paradoxes, Jesus is trusting our discernment, knowing that the Bible includes contrasting approaches on matters ranging from why people suffer to keeping the Sabbath to how we should treat our enemies.” Curiosity. There is always more to learn about the wonder and mystery of life and the love and grace of God. We can always see more broadly, feel more deeply, think more imaginatively, and love more profoundly. We can always open our minds, our hearts, our spirits a little wider—to others, to God, and even to ourselves. Curiosity as openness to wonder and mystery is an essential dimension of humility. One of the things plaguing our society is our lack of curiosity about the lives and experiences of others different from us—different in race, different in class, different in education, different in the settings in which we live our lives (e.g. urban/rural).
Compassion. At its best, our curiosity should lead to compassion, an ability to not only think about others, but to feel into their lives a bit—their hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears, wounds, frustrations. Compassion as “feeling with” is intended to move us to action. Recently the world lost a powerful moral voice when Archbishop Desmond Tutu died. Tutu’s moral voice was deeply rooted in his Christian faith, and that voice will reverberate in my heart and soul forever. Among Tutu’s powerful words was this reflection on compassion: “Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action.” Tutu’s words are rooted in the words of Jesus: “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36, CEB).
Creativity. “In the beginning, God created” (Genesis 1:1). God keeps on creating. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17). “And the one who is seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5). From the beginning of the Bible to its end, God is about creative work, about making new, and we are invited to join in that creativity. If we are going to address the pressing issues of our day and time as followers of Jesus, we will need to be creative. We need creativity to address our racial history, climate change, growing economic inequality, deep divisions, declining churches. “Being creative—creating, making from scratch—applies not only to your work but to your life. Be creative in your daily life. Practice the qualities of a creative person: observant, innovative, open. Keep moving” (Maggie Smith, “Keep Moving,” 209)
Courage. To live with compassion and creativity requires courage, for it opens the possibility that not only may we need to change, but we will want to work to change the world. Courage is not the absence of fear, nor the pretense of invulnerability. Author Brene Brown has written, “Feeling vulnerable, imperfect, and afraid is human. It’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous.” Courage is to hold space. It is to live, in Brown’s words, with a soft front, a strong back and a wild heart.
There have been a number of times in my life when a scripture reading arrived at just the right time, when it connected deeply with my heart and soul at a specific moment. One was when I was at district superintendent training in 1998. While there, I was reading Colossians. Late in the first chapter, Paul is writing about helping people mature in Christ, and he ends with these words: “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that God powerfully inspires within me” (1:29). That verse shaped my understanding of the kind of district superintendent I wanted to be, and has continued to shape my understanding of the kind of pastor and bishop I want to be. To help people mature in Christ, for this I will give all the energy God powerfully inspires within me. Rather new into my ministry as bishop, I Corinthians 16:13-14 touched me profoundly: “Keep alert. Stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” Verse 14 about letting all that you do be done in love had long been important to me, but the addition of verse 13 touched a deep place as I was becoming a bishop. Courage. Courage to be curious. Courage to be compassionate. Courage to be creative. Courage to be vulnerable. Courage to love.
As I think about the coming year, I want to keep moving, and to keep moving in the rhythms of curiosity, compassion, creativity, and courage. I enter 2022 not with a list of resolutions, but rather with a determination to keep moving, walking in the rhythms of curiosity, compassion, creativity, and courage, so as to live more deeply in God’s grace in Jesus. Join me.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church