I have always had mixed feelings about New Year resolutions. In previous years, January has always been the biggest time for new gym subscriptions—but most don’t continue the habit past the end of the month, and many gyms run on the subscriptions of people who never come. This suggests that January isn’t the best time to make changes in life—September works better after the summer period of reflection. And perhaps ‘making resolutions’ is not the way that most people embrace lasting change.
So instead of suggesting resolutions, I offer here four prayers, or poems-as-prayer, for the new year.
The first is very well known, usually under the title ‘The Gate of the Year’, and is by Minnie Louise Haskins, a poet and academic working in the field of sociology. Though first published in 1908, it was made famous when George VI read it in his New Year broadcast in 1939—a prophetic word for a country on the brink of global conflict. I remember seeing it cast in iron at the chapel in Windsor Castle, where George VI is buried.
Most people know only the opening sentences, and not the poem that follows. It challenges me to accept God’s mysterious work, though perhaps suggests too much that discipleship involves passive acceptance rather than active embracing.
And 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 out 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.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.
Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.
The second poem comes thanks to Revd Richard Coles, who posted it on his Facebook page. It was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in 1850, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate. It originally formed part of an elegy to his sister’s fiancé who died aged 22, and you can hear hints of grief particularly in the third stanza. It has been set to music several times, and (slightly curiously) is read as part of the public celebrations in Sweden every New Year. I like the rhyming pattern (1–4, 2–3) which is chiastic, suggesting beginnings and endings, as well as the implicit claim at the end that Jesus is in fact the key to all change in life, and in particular the movement from death to life, from despair to hope, and from the past to the future. The penultimate stanza also hints at postmillennialism, which was a widely held doctrine in the nineteenth century.
Ring out, wild bells
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
My friend Thomas Renz pointed out to me another poem that uses some similar ideas, in the hymn written by the late Michael Perry, and which is used at the service when the bellringers ring in the New Year in the parish of Monkey Hadley.
Ring out the bells, and let the people know
that God is worshiped by the church below:
to all around this truth the bells declare
‘Your needs are lifted up to God in prayer!’
Ring out the bells, and let the people hear
let hearts be open now, and faith draw near;
receive the grace that only God can give
by word and symbol feed and grow and live.
Ring out the bells, and let the people sing
through changing seasons to our changeless King:
all perfect gifts are sent us from above
respond with praises for such faithful love.
Ring out the bells until that glorious day
when death shall die and sin be done away:
then comes our God so everyone shall see
let all the bells ring out in victory!
My third offering is a Puritan prayer from a collection The Valley of Vision edited by Arthur Bennett in 1975 (pages 206–207). It was sent to me by a friend Tabitha Smith from Poulner Baptist Church in Ringwood, Dorset. I love the challenge of the Puritan tradition and its absolute sense of dependence on and dedication to God. Alongside that, I also find the tradition austere in its demands, and want to find God in celebration and the ordinary business of life as a counterpoint to the strenuous demands of total discipleship. But I love the way the second half of this prayer deploys the metaphor of sailing rooted in the triune action of God.
Length of days does not profit me
except the days are passed in Thy presence,
in Thy service, to Thy glory.
Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides,
sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from Thee,
but may rely on Thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth Thy praise;
testify Thy love,
advance Thy kingdom.
Give me They grace to sanctify me,
Thy comforts to cheer,
Thy wisdom to teach,
Thy right hand to guide,
Thy counsel to instruct,
Thy law to judge,
Thy presence to stabilize.
May Thy fear by my awe,
Thy triumphs my joy.
The last of my four is a personal favourite which I used to have pinned on my study wall. It is often claimed to be by Francis Drake, and similarly deploys the metaphor of sailing (not surprisingly). It is claimed that he wrote it in 1577 as he departed Portsmouth on the Golden Hind to raid Spanish gold on the west coast of South America. He returned with booty worth half a million pounds, and received his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, so I guess that would count as a prayer answered. In fact, all this is something of an urban myth; it actually has nothing to do with Drake, and this blog tracks it down to a certain M K W Heicher in 1962.
Disturb us, Lord
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
There is another prayer often attributed to Drake which goes as follows:
O Lord God,
when though givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter,
grant us also to know that it is not the beginning,
but the continuing of the same unto the end,
until it be thoroughly finished,
which yieldeth the true glory;
through him who for the finishing of thy work laid down his life,
our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
But it turns out this wasn’t written by Drake either, but adapted in 1941 from a letter written by Drake to Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State, on May 17, 1587:
There must be a begynnyng of any great matter, but the contenewing unto the end untyll it be thoroughly ffynyshed yeldes the trew glory… If we can thorowghly beleve that this which we dow is in the defence of our relygyon and contrye, no doubt but out mercyfull God for his Christ, our Savyour’s sake, is abell, and will geve us victory, althowghe our sennes be reed.
or, in modern English:
There must be a beginning of every matter, but the continuing unto the end yields the true glory. If we can thoroughly believe that this which we do is in defence of our religion and country, no doubt our merciful God for his Christ our Saviour’s sake is able and will give us victory, though our sins be red.
The last phrase appears to come from Isaiah 1.18.
None of these, perhaps, offers a rounded sense of discipleship. But each offers some powerful and challenging images for renewed discipleship in the year to come. What is your favourite prayer for the New Year? Add it in the comments below. (I previously shared these prayers in 2015.)