I haven’t made any new year resolutions this time around. I know the whole practice is naive but I usually do, and I have to say I did rather well with 2022’s—that’s what comes with setting the bar sufficiently low: take the stairs when possible, and have cream in your coffee more often (they came as a pair).
While I haven’t set any resolutions, I did sit down this week and do that Christian thing where you ask God for a word for the year. Social media tells me that when other people do this, they get things like “golden paths,” “open doors,” or something similarly filled with possibility and promise. What did the Lord say to me? “This is what we’ve got to work with”.
But actually, the more I sat with that, it did start to fill me with hope.
Looking back over the last year, 2022 was something of an annus horribilis. Objectively that’s an exaggeration, but subjectively it was rough. I continually butted up against my limitations, became further acquainted with my shadow side, reached new levels of clarity about my weaknesses and that of my family systems. I repeatedly found that even though I could see how things could be better (in my terms at least), that my power to change things was constrained. I grappled with the reality that I cannot control so many things that I care about; no matter how hard I try, pray, work, or hold tight, I cannot make things happen—certainly not in the way I want them to—and I will never be “enough” for all the people, whatever that means.
But this is what we have to work with. And that’s OK.
When that phrase came to me as I sat on the beach in Kaikōura, enjoying some morning solitude before the extended family was up and the bach was bustling, the image that came with it was shaped by the space here.
But not so much the wide sea or the rocks that tell their own story, it is more the remnants of the outbuildings that pepper my father’s family home. The accumulation of sheds, wash-houses, and the old house, where everything speaks of years of life and work, but the paint has peeled and the shine has well and truly fallen off. It’s all a bit daggy here, and I love it.
I saw an image of the craftsman standing before the workbench, surveying her tools and materials—well aware of their limitations but content with that.
The other image that came to mind illuminated what we were NOT talking about here — a kind of apophatic revelation (“not this”), through the snatched remembrance of some luxury car ad I’d seen recently. I forget the brand of car, but it was one of those which convey excellence: every component extensively designed and machined perfectly to create a sleek product and a superlative driving experience. That is not what God is making in me.
The wood has knots and imperfections, but He’ll use that, bring out the grain and make something beautiful. What, I couldn’t quite say, but there was a deep sense of hopeful anticipation about the process of the making.
There are no power tools here, it’s all the work of His hands.
There’s a temptation to live in denial of the weaknesses and limitations of our persons and our communities, to pretend that things are better than we really are. To give all our attention to polishing the outside of the container* because we’re afraid that what’s inside isn’t sufficiently good, beautiful, or true to be valued without the spin or promotion. But eventually we must gaze unflinchingly at what we really have and are. Where we cannot pretend to God anymore, and not even to ourselves.
But here’s the gold: God’s gaze might expose us, but it does not reject us.
God takes us as we are, but in His love He won’t leave us as we are.
God’s gaze emerges from a nonjudgmental presence that names things rightly, without attaching the value judgment. It always knew about our limitations, and was under no illusions about what we have to work with. And it is “we”, God and us, and us in community (Phil 2:12-13). The challenge for me, in particular (feeling more enneagram 1 in this confession than in every time I reorganise the dishwasher), is to extend that nonjudgmental gaze of my loving Father to myself and to others.
And so, I take hope and will claim that statement for my year. “This is what we have to work with”. Knotted maybe, daggy perhaps, limited certainly… and glorious no less.
These simple thoughts have been sitting unpublished for some time because I’ve been waiting for them to be, well, better. Today, the quiet morning minutes which I had hoped to give to polishing this piece were interrupted by the littlest one. For a moment I felt defeated, but then I realised:
Oh well, perhaps this is enough, after all this is what we have to work with.
*In Falling Upward, Fr Richard Rohr describes how the shift between the two “halves of life” involves moving from preoccupation with building the container of one’s life, to attending to what one will actually fill it with. He writes, “The task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: ‘What makes me significant?’, ‘How can I support myself?’ and ‘Who will go with me?’ The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.” Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 1.