New Year: New Song

“Sing a new song to the Lord, for he has done marvelous deeds.” – Psalms 98: 1

Over Christmas, as our family sat waiting for Mass to begin, the choir was singing a different version to a song I’ve always loved.  Hearing it with new words and a slightly varied melody made this old favorite a ‘new song’ of sorts, for me.

As the soloists took turns with each verse, I found myself hanging on each word anew to hear the story they were singing unfold (though the story itself–the nativity story–was also an old familiar one).

Then, this week, as I read the readings from the lectionary, I kept seeing this Psalm repeated throughout the week’s readings.  And I kept thinking of that old familiar song our church choir sang anew, and I couldn’t help but make a connection between it being a new year, and the desire to want to start so many things in a new way as we humans do.  Perhaps one of the most important things we can make new, though, is our prayers.

It is no secret that our prayers are not meant to change God, but rather to change us…change our hearts, change our thoughts, change our focus to something better, higher, more holy than we might first imagine.  So, what better way to start that change, than by approaching our prayer life…our “song” to God, if you will…in a new way?

Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Start praying.  If you haven’t made prayer (conversation with God) a regular part of your daily life, then make this the year you start.  Pick something you naturally do each day that will trigger you to remember your prayer time.  I have a friend who always said her prayers in the shower because it was the one thing she knew she would do consistently every day!
  • Go the opposite.  If you already have a prayer life established, we can still get into ruts from time to time.  Has your prayer life become a list of complaints to God?  Try telling him instead what you are grateful for!   Has your prayer life become a long litany of you asking God for things you’d like to see him do?  Try asking God what he would like you to do…and take some quiet time to wait for the stirring in your heart that just may be his reply.
  • Go simple.  If conversation with God seems unnatural to you, try starting with what’s familiar to you.  Perhaps you are  familiar with the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary but you don’t really know what they mean or how they came to be.  Use this opportunity to do some research and find the true beauty and depth of humility in these simple words.  Or, if formal prayer doesn’t seem natural to you, but you don’t think you can come up with your own words, you can google prayers for  all kinds of things! (The internet isn’t all bad, you know.)  There is no shame in using someone else’s words for a while until you can find your own.
  • Keep at it.  It is easy to think that once we’ve tried something a few times, “we’ve got this” but only the slightest of interruptions to our schedule, can find us going hours, days, or weeks without prayer, and we simply forget to begin again or build it back into our daily life.  Even more common is to simply grow bored with prayer, because it is easy to fall into the trap of believing our prayers are going unheard or unanswered (because we are used to immediate results) so when we don’t get results, we give up.  Prayer is not something (in many cases) that will change us over night. Instead, like a newly planted seed, it is something that takes patience and persistence and faith before we’ll see the “fruits” of our labor.
  • Accept imperfection.  It’s easy to think that when we are doing new, we want to  “get it right.”  God is so much bigger than you or I that he can do very much with our very little!  This means that when words flow beautifully from you and you can pour your heart out to God, God understands and hears you!  But, also, when no words come, only tears and pain in your heart… God also understands and hears you!  God doesn’t need us to be perfect in our prayer. God only needs us to make ourselves available to him.

In a way, we are all beginners when it comes to prayer.  Whether we have “prayed without ceasing”  (1 Thess 5:17) as Paul urged the people of Thessalonica to do long ago, or whether today is our first day in years (or ever!) of saying a  prayer, let us remember that our goal is simply to make some time to offer ourselves to God.

He is sure to notice.

And in doing so, may we discover (whether for the first time, or again and again), that prayer really does change us.  Sometimes in shocking, mind-blowing, dramatic ways. And sometimes in small, but welcoming ways…like an old song, heard new.

Seeing God’s Smile in the New Year

“May the Lord bless you and protect you.  May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you.  May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.”

Numbers 6:24-26 (NLT)

I still remember the first time my first-born child smiled at me.  I had worked sooooo hard for that smile.  Trying to coo and coax it out of him.  Worrying that perhaps he was missing that all-important milestone all the parenting books insisted he was fully capable of reaching by now.

And then, one day as I sat there with him on my lap gazing up at me, and me exhausting myself by making faces working so hard to get a smile out of him,  I remember I took a break and glanced up to catch whatever was on TV at the time.  When I glanced back down ready to get back to this business of making-my-son-smile, there he was gazing up at me and, just like that, a big smile broke out on his face.

What a beautiful moment, right?  Mother and infant child gazing with total love into each other’s eyes?  Well, unfortunately my reaction was much different, and doesn’t exactly get me Mother of the Year.

I screamed.

Not like, “Yay for you!  What a good boy!”  But instead– I guess because it was so unexpected– I scooped him up and held him away from me suddenly (like I would have if he had just filled his pants)… and I screamed.  (In my defense, it wasn’t a long horror-movie scream.  Just a quick, “Agh!”)  Not surprisingly, my holding him away from me and the loud noise I made were enough to completely ruin the moment.

He started crying.

Yep. Good feeling gone.

I was reminded of that moment with my son as I read today’s readings and wondered how I would feel if I were able to see God and make him smile.

At first, the thought of this inspired me.  I enjoy laughing and being with people who make me laugh and smile. I often consider it a great gift and one I like to pass on to others when I can.  But God?  To make God smile?  How much greater would that be?

And then I remembered how all that hard work I put into trying to make my son smile caught me completely off guard when he offered his first smile up to me without any work at all.  And how the shock of that made me react less like the loving mother I long to be and more like one of the Three Stooges.

And yet the lesson is still there, isn’t it?  That we don’t need to work so hard at it.  We only need to bask in it.  Turn our faces towards it.  Return the smile.

Because God does smile upon us, and he is smiling upon us, and always has.  As he created us into being.  As he brought us his only Son.  As he sacrificed himself on the cross.  As he rose from the dead.  As his poured out his Spirit that lives and moves within us today.  And though the thought of that may be a little intimidating (go ahead and scream about it…I won’t judge you!), the truth is that as hard as we try to make him smile, we will miss it unless we take the time to bask in the light of it.  To hold it up before us and give it back in turn.  To carry it in our hearts and wear it on our faces as we go about our day.

My son is now a teenager and some days I find myself working just as hard as I did those first few weeks and months of his life trying to get a smile out of him.  But then, often when I least expect it, there it is…his big, toothy grin.  And the thought of it even now makes me smile.  No less a gift today than it was sixteen years ago.

Also a gift is the ability to sit –even for only a moment– in prayer and think of God’s smile.  Him as creator.  You and me as his creation.  Being smiled upon.  Returning the smile.

As we start a new year, perhaps hopeful (or perhaps not), of what this new year holds, let us take a moment today to remember that regardless of whether or not we feel it, God IS smiling on us.  He is smiling at you.  He loved YOU into being. His love is radiating in and through us–you and me.  His peace, which my Bible footnotes (NAB translation) tell me are from the Hebrew word Shalom meaning an all-encompassing hope of happiness, good health, prosperity, friendship, and general well-being, is a free gift he offers us, if only we are willing to turn to him.

You need not work so hard for it like a first-time mom might.

Simply trust in it.  Soak it up.

And let the Spirit of it guide you.