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Reflecting on Your Past as You Prioritize Your Future

Waiting for New Year’s Day can be an exercise in passive patience or an episode of agitated impatience or even a process of slow release anticipation.

Alternatively, waiting can be a time of fallow resting, allowing new ideas to seed and propagate in the fertile mulch of memory, previous hopes and newborn choices.

It’s strange how the threshold of a date can be disturbing, interrupting the routine flow of days and weeks.

Birthdays, anniversaries whether of gladness or sadness, liturgical mileposts in the year’s journey, and that end of year full stop when midnight gives way to a new year.

The clock and the calendar are little different from the scrape marks on the prisoner’s wall – a way of dividing time, recording how much has passed. There are no ways of assessing how much is still to come.

For years now, I have tried to save a day of quiet sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day for fallow resting. With a few sheets of paper, a pen, a Bible, a diary and enough time to think backward – and forward.

The cliché about the unexamined life not being worth living, like all clichés, has enough truth to make it bear repeating.

But the over-examined life isn’t much fun either. A life dissected, analyzed, appraised, evaluated by various criteria from productivity and achievement, to pleasure and fulfillment, can become an exercise either in self-congratulation or mass-produced guilt.

So marking out fallow time, to think back and think forward, and allow our forward thinking to be shaped by our backward thinking, is not so much an exercise in self-praise or self-blame.

It is the ongoing attempt to live wisely. It is the courtesy of listening, taking time to listen to our lives. It is a bid for freedom from unexamined routine.

It is a taking seriously of this self that is a changing continuity that thankfully can never be pinned down to a definitive me.

It is one practical way of trying for once to be obedient to a word of Scripture. “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).

Numbering our days in turn means more than accurate chronology. It surely has to mean weighing the days for significance, which in turns begs a question: Significant for whom, and for what?

Only when we honestly reflect backward can we have some sense of what worked out, what mattered then and still matters, what was achieved and at what cost, and was it worth it.

What are the triggers of joy, the events that shaped us, the circumstances that drew us out of complacency toward challenge and change, the encounters and relationships that inevitably become part of our history and, some of them, of our identity?

It has been a long year. So I am ready again to spend a day waiting.

Thinking of the story so far, in the company of the one whose presence is the driver of the narrative. How different from that is prayer?

The poet psalmist was humble enough to recognize that careful numbering of days is not our default setting. It has to be learned, and therefore has to be taught.

His words are an honest prayer for wisdom that cannot be imbibed like raw data, but is the fruit of reflection, humility and seriousness of purpose going forward.

That contemporary management cliché, “going forward,” seems to suggest there is no such thing as going backward, or if there is, it isn’t a desirable state of affairs.

But reflection is exactly that: a going backward, a retracing of steps, thoughts, choices, encounters, events, circumstances and everything else that makes up the interwoven but patterned tapestry that is our life.

Reflection is two-faced, though. It is also a going forward in thought, choice and hopefulness.

The question is this: Having reflected backward, what will we now choose?

What we hope for, and, thus, what we decide will now be the priorities of those days still to be numbered, and on which we have no right to presume, other than in the mercy of God.

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.