PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Out With The Old, In With The New

A few years back, I decided to toss away the idea of New Year’s resolutions and instead embrace the idea of a “Word of the Year by Which to Live.”

The idea is to have one word for the year that you focus on and each day you work on that word. It becomes a centering principle by which you approach life and your daily decisions, an overarching theme for your year..

For example, if you are struggling to be more open to new things, you might pick the word “willing,” and every chance you have to do something you might be reluctant to do, you say “my word is willing. I need to do this.”

Or if you are trying to enhance your sense of joy, you deliberately try to distinguish the difference between joy and happiness and learn to “count it all joy” by finding God in the mix of daily life.

You can Google a list of word of the year ideas — for example gift, accept, strength, discipline, believe, love, deliberate, kindness, elevate, gratitude, patience, simplify, kindness, perspective, contribute, step shine breathe, brave, relax, focus, just, organize and bloom  — the list is endless.

I officially adopt the word  on Jan. 6, the day we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. Epiphany is when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, The word epiphany itself means to reveal  — so it seems completely appropriate to see this word as a gift that guides me through my journey during the year. It is a deliberate chance to open myself up to new revelations about who I am and how I encounter the world.

I see it as an opportunity to truly be guided by the Spirit, and that openness to guidance became completely evident to me even as I chose my word this year.

Normally, I spend a great deal of time discerning my word. I start on New Year’s Eve and plan to spend a week reading words, praying over my decision and deciphering what word I intend to embrace. This past year that led me to the word “communicate.” When I selected it, I had NO idea I would be given the chance to do just  that, week in and week out, as I pastor a congregation in diaspora. Trying to figure out ways to communicate when we can’t be together became an overarching theme for my  life.

This year, rather than a long, deliberative process,  it took me all of a minute to find the word I chose.  As soon as I saw it, I knew it was MY word. Oh, to be fair, I spent some more time searching words, but to be honest, I didn’t even have to pray about it because I KNEW this was my word immediately:


The second I saw it, it spoke to me as the most relevant word for me for this time and this place.

The dictionary definition of emerge is to move out of or away from something and come into view; to become apparent, important or prominent; to recover from or survive a difficult or demanding situation; to come into being through evolution; to spring up.

As we enter this new year, and there are glimmers of hope with a vaccine and a return, if not to normal, at least a “new” normal, we have an opportunity to see what emerges, what bursts forth after this fallow time of separation.

In Isaiah, as the people are returning to Jerusalem after years in exile in Babylon, the prophet wrote that God was speaking to them a word of hope, and that word of hope was “Behold, I am doing a new thing;  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it; I  will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)

In other words, God was allowing new things to emerge and come forth that the Israelites had either not seen or that had not existed before. But in order to experience them in their fullness, they needed to be open to the movement of God in the process of change. They had to let God allow things to emerge.

My plan, as I center on that word this year, is to do the same. To see what is bubbling up, what is evolving and what is becoming apparent in a new way, as I respond to the changes and chances of life wrought by the pandemic.

In order to do that, I need to step out of my preconceived notions and ideas, open the eyes of my heart and truly let God reveal to me what is transpiring. Rather than try to shove a square peg into a hole that has become a circle, I need to allow myself to not revert to thinking that I had before the pandemic, but instead “ponder anew what the Almighty can do.”

The key to allowing things to emerge, for me at least, is to step aside from a “let’s get this done now” approach as things open up and instead commit myself to more prayer and reflection, allowing new ideas to nurture and grow and develop.

For example, during the pandemic, my congregation, Emanuel Lutheran in Hartford, Conn., has developed a wonderful online presence through our Wired Worship. While I yearn for the time when we can gather together again in the sanctuary, I am also aware that the pace of life for those who are more active precludes Sunday morning worship at times and that the frailties of life keep others from being able to attend.

So the question becomes “What can emerge from this situation? How can we still maintain the vitality of gathered worship, while responding to others who cannot attend or who have become part of our community even though they are physically distant.” Opportunities like livestreaming will not just be part of our pandemic ministry, but they will emerge as part of what we do as a 21st century parish.

Another example is our food pantry ministry. What started as a small, emergency pantry has emerged into a vital and fast-paced ministry that engages our members and serves our community as we fulfill our mission to “be in the city for good.” How will this develop and where we will be led?

The same is true for my own life — what emerges from this time when I had to slow down, spend less time in often chaotic busyness and more time in intentional meditation? One of the great blessings of time has been a growing closeness in my extended family, as we gather every Sunday evening for conversation and a night of Trivia. How can I reprioritize connection over meetings and build up the soft skills of community that are harder to promote when we aren’t together. What can I do to  strengthen the ties that bind?

A word like emerge allows me to not be the one driving the train but rather to acknowledge that even though God does not cause all things, God can redeem all things. Just as the death on the Cross emerged as the source of our hope and salvation through the Resurrection, God can allow this time when so much pain and suffering has occurred, as well as times of deep loneliness, to be an opportunity for new growth and transformation.

My prayer for all of us is that as 2021 unfolds, we can step aside from our own preconceived notions, turn to God and see what emerges that allows us to grow closer to God and one another and to be more deliberate in our efforts to “Be in the city for good.”


God of transformation, help us to open our eyes to what you make new, knowing that as you made streams in the desert and a way in the wilderness that you will allow life to emerge after a time of exile. In the name of your Son who turned death into life, we pray.  Amen.

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