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New year Message 2011 from Professor the Right Reverend Dr William Peter Stephens, Bishop of The Methodist Church of The Gambia

Jan 3, 2011, 3:17 PM

Methodist missionaries came to The Gambia in 1821, and so for 190 years Gambian Methodists have been saying, ‘Happy New Year!’ It gives me, therefore, great pleasure as the leader of the Methodist Church to wish not just the Christian community, but all of you in the Gambia, ‘A Happy New Year!’

People used to date events by the birth or death or reign of kings. But one event in history changed that, and that was the birth of Jesus Christ. Since that most momentous event in the history of the world, we date everything in the world by his birth. We refer to BC which stands for Before Christ and AD which stands for the Latin words Anno Domini in the year of the Lord. As another year passes, we move from the year of our Lord 2010 to the year of our Lord 2011.

How should you and I celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of another? The first mark of our celebration should be thanks - giving thanks to God for the year that is past.  

I do not know what your year has been like.

For some of you the past year has been marked by sadness, perhaps deep sadness- the death of someone you love, the onset of a serious illness, the loss of your job. It is much harder for you to thank God. Yet even you will be able to thank Him that He has brought you through this year when so much has gone wrong, and that He has been with you in the pain and sorrow you have been through. Already some of you will have found that God has brought good to you or to others through these difficult experiences. But if that has not happened, you will still be able to thank God for all the other blessings which you enjoy every day of your life.

For some of you, however, it has been a good year. You have a new job, a new home, a new baby. For you it will be easy to give thanks.

To all of you I would say: remember the words of the song: ‘Count your blessings /Name them one by one /For it will surprise you /What the Lord has done.’

The second mark of our celebration should be learning from the past year. As you look back over the past year, ask what you can learn from it. Whether you are a sportsman or a politician, a teacher or a student, a cook or a cleaner, you can almost always learn more from your failures or mistakes than from your successes. You may prefer success to failure, but learning from your failures gives you the chance to grow and to do better.  A new year like a new day gives us the chance to learn from the past and then to turn over the page and begin a new chapter of our life.

The third mark of the new year is making resolutions – what we call New Year’s resolutions. You are all familiar with the typical New Year’s resolution – to work harder, get up earlier, help in the home, save more, spend less. I have no doubt you will make one or two resolutions. But as you know, making them is easy; it’s keeping them, which is difficult. That requires discipline and determination. The discipline of the athlete who day after day rises early to train, watches what he or she eats and drinks, goes early to bed. The determination of the scientist who spends not days, but weeks and years working at the same problem till he or she makes the breakthrough. 

Let me share a  New Year’s resolution, which we have made in our Methodist schools. It is that when we invite people to a meeting or a sports day or a speech day, we will start at the time we say (or at least not more than a quarter of an hour after that time). It will not be easy. Why? Because old habits die hard. We know that most things don’t start on time. (I remember once when I came on holiday to The Gambia  that we were told on the way to the hotel that GMT meant Gambia Maybe Time!) I have been to meetings of all sorts which will start, we are told, at 9 o’clock prompt, and they start at 10, or 10.30, or 11!

It will be hard to begin on time because people won’t believe us – or not at first. We have devalued our language. The one thing that 9 o’clock prompt does not mean is 9 o’clock prompt! It means perhaps 9.30 or 10.00 or 10.30. How far that is from the Bible which tells us, let your yes be yes and your no be no. We shall be reluctant to start on time because half the people will not have come (but why should the half who have come wait?) or because a speaker or a guest may not have arrived. We have a duty to our hosts to arrive at the time they indicate and we have a duty to God not to waste the time He has given to us and to others.

The Methodist Church pioneered education in The Gambia – in 1821, that is 190 years ago. As we set an example by pioneering education for boys in 1821 and for girls in 1823, perhaps we can set an example in this, so that all schools and colleges start everything on time.  Starting on time is not new for Methodists.  One of the rules John Wesley gave to his helpers almost three hundred years ago was: ‘Be punctual.  Do every thing exactly at the time.’

That resolution concerns the time which God has given us and for which we are accountable to Him. Let me now mention a resolution which concerns the world which God has given us and for which we are accountable to Him. Think of the many ways in which we pollute this beautiful world which God has made and the many ways we misuse it.

You know that once a month, usually on the last Saturday morning of the month we have ‘set-settal (look and clean)’.   When cleaning the nation started some seven years ago, I think we thought it would need to happen only once or twice and the whole country would be clean. But seven years on we are still spending one morning every month cleaning the nation. Why? Because every other morning, afternoon, and evening we are dropping our litter rather than putting it in a bin or taking it home with us. That is not just an offence against others, it is an offence against God.  He created this beautiful world and He has put us in it both to enjoy it and to look after it for Him.

Besides polluting God’s world, we also misuse it. Think of water. It is a precious commodity. It is in such short supply in some countries that they fight over it.  In The Gambia we are blessed with a plentiful supply, but as every society develops it uses more and more water. Let us learn now, while there is time, not to waste it, not to let the tap run, but to use only the water that we need. God’s gifts are not to be wasted, but to be used for our good.

In our Methodist churches we have Watchnight Services on New Year’s Eve. One is broadcast live on the radio, though unfortunately the one on  television will not be live, but will appear on New Year’s Day. As a church we do what we have done every year. In the Watchnight Service we give thanks to Almighty God for the year that is past and both then and on the first Sunday in January commit ourselves afresh to His service.

Whatever you are doing and wherever you may be at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I wish you A Happy New Year. Enter the new year with God and let Jesus Christ his Son go with you throughout the year – everywhere you go