STAND, LOOK, ASK, and WALK:

A Prayer for The New Year

By Rev. Dr. Jack L. Daniel

The twentieth-century German pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke observed how once a year, on New Year’s Eve, we observe time differently than we do on the other 364 days. He noted that the rest of the year, it is time that moves us. We are driven by the clock as we rush to meet deadlines and keep appointments. On New Year’s Eve, however, we become conscious that actually it is time, not us, that moves. On that last night of the year, we sit with family or friends and watch the celebration in Times Square. Thielicke writes,

“The last minutes of the old year have come. And for a moment we hear the stream of time. . .  One must be very blasé or very stupid if one does not feel a little shiver going down one’s back when it happens” (Christ and the Meaning of Life, 1975, p. 30).

The rest of the year, if we don’t get something done today, there is always tomorrow. We are lulled into a sense that time is abundant. On New Year’s Eve, though, we are subtly conscious that time is slipping by. Another hash mark has ticked on the time line of our lives, and there is no going back. Maybe that is why we are naturally in a reflective mood at this time of year—why people make resolutions and set goals. We feel that time is moving, and we want to live better in the time that remains.

In the sixth chapter of the book of Jeremiah, time is running out on the Jews of ancient Jerusalem. The city is under attack by the great nation of Babylon. The prophet has repeatedly warned that Babylon is God’s instrument of punishment for Jerusalem’s apostasy. In a remarkable single verse, Jeremiah calls God’s people in Jerusalem to do four things. To me, these four things form a timely New Year’s prayer.

This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” But you said, “We will not walk in it.” (Jeremiah 6:16)

STAND.

With a traveler in mind, Jeremiah invites us to stop, to stand still where we are on our life’s journey and take our bearings. Travelers, both ancient and modern, need to check the route they are on from time to time to ensure they are still heading in the right direction. I love my phone map app and my Garmin GPS, but in rural New England where I live, I also need a road map. GPS simply has a tough time finding the best route. I suppose it is because many of the oldest roads here date to colonial times when those roads followed ancient Indian trails, which were in fact the migratory routes of caribou in a time when herds roamed our area. They are the most twisted, circuitous roads in America.  GPS tries to send me via the most direct route, which may mean a long and rutted dirt road or a track that disappears into the woods or a beaver pond. So I keep a map in the glove box so I can periodically pull over and take my bearings.

The prophet’s word invites us, on the threshold of the new year, to hit pause in order to take our bearings. It urges us to spend some time in prayer and reflection to be sure we are where we are meant to be. When I was in full-time ministry, it was my custom to take a day in early January, after the kids were back at school, to STAND; that is, to slip away for a daylong retreat. In the quiet of a retreat place, with a few uninterrupted hours, I would take the next step in Jeremiah’s exhortation, and that is to LOOK.

LOOK.

This means to prayerfully notice what God is doing in your life. Christians in an earlier age called this the Prayer of Examen. The term examen comes from the Latin word for the pointer on a set of scales. The little tongue or weight indicator on a scale gives an accurate assessment of the weight of an object. In his book Prayer: Finding The Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster points out that the prayer of examen has two aspects: conscience and consciousness. In the conscience component, we examine our lives with Jesus Christ as our guide to show us where we have fallen short of the glory of God. We let Christ shine a light into the dark corners of our lives so that, by his Holy Spirit, His word, and His sacrament, he may cleanse us and restore us. In the consciousness part, we try to become more aware of what God is saying and doing in our lives. We ask Him to help us understand the events and circumstances of our lives. We examine the events our lives in prayer to get a more accurate gauge of where we are on our journey.

In this year of COVID-19, we have heard so much about the essential and the nonessential workers; doesn’t it make sense to try to see the essential and nonessential in our lives, ministries, and relationships. Christian author Henri Nouwen, in his book The Way of the Heart, challenges pastors:

“Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing.”

As we stand between the old and the new year, receive Jeremiah’s counsel to LOOK at your life before forging ahead. This leads us to the third word from the Prophet, and that is to ASK.

ASK.

Jeremiah writes, “Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is . . . .” In this travelers’ metaphor, the best route would be the oldest, most well-traveled route, not some new shortcut. He seems to be referring to the Torah, or the Law and Prophets, which the people of Jerusalem had long neglected. The Hebrew word Torah means “to guide or instruct”; Jeremiah is urging his people to go back to the Torah that it might guide them rightly on their journey. In our New Year’s prayer, we need to go to the Lord with Bible in one hand and our calendar in the other, and ask Him to show us His will for the upcoming year. This is also part of the Prayer of Examen. It involves us asking the Lord, “What do you want me to do for You in this new year?” It also involves the Lord turning the question back on us and asking, as He did blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” We often forget that what the Lord wants to do for us is infinitely more important than what we can do for Him. In prayer we bring the deepest needs and yearnings of our hearts to Him and wait in expectation for His answer. Finally, after we ASK for the ancient paths and the good way, we read the final word: WALK.

WALK.

This is the Prophet’s counsel to take action, to live out what the Lord reveals to us in His Word and through His Spirit as we have spent time alone with Him. We now stand on the brink of a new year, and with it we have an opportunity to walk into the future confident in His will. In the words of Isaiah (30:21), who spoke a generation earlier, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, you will hear a voice behind you saying ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”