Looking Back, Looking Forward, Being Here Now

January 19, 2021 by Maggie Harmon

For me, the month of January is always a time of contemplating the beginning, a place from which to start. Just as the sun has started to turn back to the north we are inclined toward renewal and think of beginning again.

As I think about beginning, I always find it difficult to consider that word without my mind reciting, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” which leads to another pause and reflection: God did not create humans first, but last and with a special task of caring for the good world that came before us. Even in our very creation, our beginning, there was something that required us to look back, to look at what came before in order to understand our role and place in time:

“God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

The word ‘subdue' is a little tricky with connotations of control that can be uncomfortable, but there is a less common use of the word that I find helpful in understanding what is being asked of us: ‘to bring under cultivation, to care for and support.' When we are being instructed to go forth and subdue the existing creation God is charging us to care, to cultivate, to help grow – indeed to be careful stewards of all that is. Also, worth noting though, is that cultivating is not the same as preserving. Growth requires change; we are constantly moving.

January then becomes in an important way a time for readying oneself at the beginning for the task of caring for that we are called to in the very essence of our existence. We are looking ahead to our task even as we seek to understand what has come before.

Culturally there is a collective movement toward this contemplation and planning in the act of making resolutions for the new year. What do I want to do moving forward? Who do I want to be, and how do I want to be? To answer these questions and to effectively make any change, it is necessary to reflect on where we have been and what has been true. If we go back to thinking about our charge in Genesis, it is necessary to take the time to get to know and to understand all the beings of the earth who were there before us in order to provide proper care.

The ancient Roman deity Janus, who is often associated with the month of January, is responsible for guiding people in beginnings and endings, through passages and transitions. Across cultures, the deities who are guardian of births are commonly the guides of death; and in our faith, the birth of Jesus is marked by a gift of myrrh that presages the death he must pass through in order to unify our life in God. Endings and beginning and endings all keep happening together even as we live in the moment where we are.

January is a time of beginning, a new year, a new sun cycle, even as it marks an ending. What does this mean for us in the church, how does this inform and support the work we have been tasked with from our beginning: caring for creation?

Too often we react with a binary response to the end/beginning of the year: “out with the old and in with the new” we proclaim, or longing for what has passed keeps us from being fully in the present.

I would suggest that in-between looking backward and forward we find presence, the place where we are supposed to be as stewards. Stewardship requires “being” in the time-space-place in which you find yourself, right now. You need to care for what is before you, tending to the needs of now even as you lay the foundation for what is to come. And we do this by building on the experience of the past. We learn from where we have been in order to effectively take the actions needed to guide us to where it is we want to go. To be an effective, caring, careful steward, you must be present to what is, neither stuck in the past longing, nor so far into the future that the work of today is neglected. It is the great balance of right now, with knowledge and awareness.

As the church, as followers of and seekers for the way of Jesus, this means we can do as he did in the totality of our stewardship: we can look to the past to guide us, we can respond to the needs that are present in front of us, and we can build up the foundations to support those yet to come. With love to guide us, we are fully attuned to being God's hands in our world, working to make the path easier for those who will come after us.

May this year, and every year, be your time of presence and hope.

Maggie Harmon serves as the Ministry Relations Officer for the Southwest. She works with congregations to create a culture of generosity, offers seminars and workshops, develops gifts and fundraising plans for ministries and provides coaching to leadership, finance, stewardship and endowment committees. You can reach Maggie at Maggie.harmon@presbyterianfoundation.org.