It is ‘between’ times: Christmas has passed, and the New Year will begin in a few days. This is a pause period when I reflect on the past and plan for the upcoming year. Most people will look back on 2022 with mixed to negative feelings. The economy was a bust as inflation and the financial markets shed financial value. Most Americans felt poorer, and their feelings were reflected in opinion polls. The Ukrainian war began last February and continues with no end in sight. We were inspired by the Ukrainian people who defied a much larger aggressor. We mourned the loss of life and suffering that never should had happened. Climate dominated the news most of the year. My Austin summer was the hottest on record. A drought devastated western ranches and farms. Massive wildfires destroyed homes and forests. Just this past week, a winter storm paralyzed Christmas travel and sadly, people froze to death. Covid deaths continued throughout the year, along with high RSV and flu cases. Such was life in 2022.
Besides reflecting on the past year, I am, by nature, a planner. I like to accomplish goals and feel in control of my destiny, although this is impossible. For most of my adult life, the ‘between’ times would be spent packing Christmas decorations, watching a few bowl games, and creating goals for the upcoming year. My goals would be sorted into categories: physical (workouts, weight management, accomplishments), professional (company targets, personal development), financial (spending, investing), family (vacations, household projects), and spiritual (prayer, church activities, discipleship). I would develop the activities required to achieve the goals and forecast completion timings. Before the New Year was rung in, my goals were completed and on New Year’s Day, the activities began in earnest.
During seminary, I was introduced to the Greek word telos which means “end” or “purpose.” This is an important theological term when trying to discern Scripture meanings. For most of my life, I was telic; I worked towards a goal or end state. I did not ask myself if I enjoyed the journey along the way or if the end goal was truly meaningful. For example, in my early adult life, I ran marathons and set completion time goals. To achieve these running times, I prepared workout schedules, gym training routines, and nutrition regiments. I carved out time around my work and family obligations to achieve my marathon goals. The training was exhausting and time consuming. When I achieved a goal, I felt the joy of accomplishment that lasted for a while. However, I never asked the more difficult questions. Was the goal worth it physically and mentally? Should my training time be better spent with family and friends? What are the long-term negative effects of marathon running?
During this Christmas season, I decided to be atelic: just enjoy the journey. My wife and I agreed not to buy each other gifts. My son and daughter wanted cash gifts, so we transferred money into their bank accounts. My daughter sent a list of gifts for our three grandchildren, and we ordered them on-line in a couple of hours. They were shipped directly to their house, and we wrapped after we arrived. My wife did most of the Christmas cards and reduced the number of mailings. We did not buy a Christmas tree since we traveled for Christmas. We spent less time decorating the house, although it did appear festive.
We flew to my daughter’s northeast city the Wednesday before Christmas and luckily beat a major winter storm. Our flights were uneventful (a blessing) and we packed mainly clothes. We rented a car upon arrival and had few definitive plans except to spend time with my daughter’s family and my son. Once there, we bought groceries in anticipation of the winter storm and spent most of our time in unstructured family activities. It was too cold to exercise outside, so I usually waited to go to the gym until the family was up. On Christmas day. I assembled a large fire truck and a Hot Wheels racetrack, something that required infinite patience when surrounded by young children who wanted it done instantly. I searched for hidden pictures in a Highlights magazine with my granddaughter. Each morning, she made fruit smoothies with me. When finished, she put her finger into the mixture to taste it. Fortunately, it met her high standards. Simple joyful pleasures like these were spontaneous. What mattered was the journey.
Most meals together were ad-hoc. Breakfasts were individually created. Lunches, when it was warm enough, were spontaneously decided upon during shopping trips. Dinners were daily trips to the grocery store, leftovers, or created from existing inventory. There wasn’t a detailed Christmas week food plan. Each day was an adventure to be discovered. Even when we departed their house to return to Austin, each person said goodbye at different times. It was unstructured, just like the holiday week. Our two flights back to Austin were uneventful (a blessing, especially after reading about the holiday travel disruptions).
This Christmas gave me the opportunity to observe the balance between telic and atelic. Both are needed to live life abundantly, but balance is so very necessary. For example, I should have never gone to the gym the day before we departed. My daughter did not get up in time to take me to the gym, so my son-in-law took me along with two of the grandkids. Once at the gym, there was little for them to do while I exercised. I should have taken a walk since the weather warmed into the mid-20’s during the afternoon. My telic side demanded the workout, but my weaker atelic side should have fought harder. Physical exercise, especially at my age, is beneficial and important to schedule, but it must not be so rigid as to create havoc for others.
Spirituality is a balance between telic and atelic. If I don’t plan my prayer life, it usually doesn’t happen. I need a quiet space to spend time with God. But I also should relax more often and let the Spirit move rather than proceed in rote prayer. I need structured Scripture research to prepare for my weekly Bible study but also unstructured conversations during the meeting. I need to listen intensely to the preached Word and later have open-ended discussions about the sermon with my wife over Sunday lunch. Life is a journey, and it requires a map and compass. My telic side keeps me homed in on moving forward a telos. Wholeness requires atelic paths and rest stops to encounter unexpected beauty, community, joy, and peace in the everyday moments. May your 2023 be both telic and atelic.