Burning hopes

It’s hard not to notice the mustachioed man with his shaggy shirt.

His papier-mâché head is enormous and comical. His shirt, a collection of cloth strips with hand-written messages, is intriguing.

I am at a First Night celebration in a nearby college town. My wife and I are about to call it quits, far short of midnight – perhaps we should call this Last Night – when we stop into a building and discover this interactive display. The instructions tell us to write a regret or a resolution onto a cloth strip and pin it to this figure, which will be set ablaze at midnight. Clearly, many people have been here before us.

The curious thing is, nearly all of the messages are hopes for the coming year. I get that. This is the season for new intents. But the concept of writing something to be burned away is an obvious fit for something confessed, not something hoped -- unless these are the scribblings of cynics, gleefully committing to the flame resolutions they have no intentions of keeping.

Not a chance. These are sincere wishes. The truth is that regrets are much harder to voice than hopes. It’s not that we don’t have them, but that they live and thrive in the shadows, where they can leap out and nip us unexpectedly like unchained dogs.

Regrets remind us of our fallenness. Of our powerlessness to make deep change in the short lives we live. I find the sister exhibit, with its “bucket of regrets” under the flames of a giant skull, oddly perceptive. And a bit stark. It’s no wonder the bucket is so small.

Paul gives us the right lens for a new year:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

Paul recognizes his imperfections, but is focused on what’s ahead. His desire is to “press on”– translated “chase and capture” by R.P. Martin in the Tyndale commentary. It’s a wonderfully visual phrase: running after something and grabbing it. There is an intent, an effort, and a realization.

But what’s the source of this forward movement, this power to improve? That Jesus has already done that with us. He chased and captured us. It’s his power in us through the Spirit that can affect deep change.

I take a photo of a woman, hooded in black, standing at the figure. I humorously imagine her as Lady Macdeath, the Prim Reaper, sardonically examining these soon-to-be-cinders intentions for improvement. And I realize what a joy it is to know that Christ has made me his own. And my life – with all its lurking regrets – is heading toward something wonderful.

Father, as the new year gets up to speed, we set before you all the ways in which we fell short of what you wanted for last year. Forgive us. Quiet our regrets. We turn to the future ready to press on, knowing that we belong to you and that you are at work within us.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. And if you liked this, please use the buttons above to share it!

Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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