Farewell 2023, and good riddance.  In our generation, it is hard to recall a more heartbreaking, crisis-ridden 12 months.  The year-in-review news summaries are enough to turn the toughest stomach. Wars, weather crises, political turmoil, unrelenting gun violence—it is enough to bow the most fervently faithful head.

As we all search the horizon for bright spots, seeking hope anywhere, I started a list of inspirations from 2023.  From the tiny and personal to the global, the private to the very public, here are 10 widely disparate things and people—some more serious than others–that were bright lights for me in a tough year. In no particular order:

Neighbors still help neighbors.  In early summer, a favorite neighbor up the street experienced a sudden and serious medical emergency while alone at home.  Her kind and attentive son, blocked from reaching her quickly by an untimely traffic problem, called a neighbor, who called another neighbor, who brought still more neighbors.  All raced to her, waiting with her for the ambulance and tending to her home and beloved dogs while she got the medical attention she needed in the hospital.  Waiting for her return home, we circled round, making lists of how best to help in the next phase and sharing ideas for what would mean most to her. Interestingly, our street of all recently built homes forms a very new set of neighbors.  There’s such hope in watching how quickly the bonds of community form and sustain.

Sean Dietrich is an influencer of hope.  This writer, a columnist, novelist, and humorist, devotes his career to inspiring readers through sharing stories of the downtrodden, the overlooked, the defeated.  He testifies to how they struggle, and how they rise.  He shared so many memorable stories this year there is no room to list them all, but his blooming friendship with a young blind girl named Becca who has an angelic singing voice has stirred my heart every single time.  You don’t follow Sean to experience literary greatness; you follow Sean if you want to believe that greatness in the human spirit still triumphs in daily life.

I got Wordle in two.  Twice in the same week!  There’s nothing like blazing, blind luck to inspire hope.  If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.  Never, ever, ever give up.

One doctor really listened.  Absorbing my frustration about a medical problem that lingered, unabated by treatment thus far, the young doctor (about the age of my daughter, I surmised) snapped his laptop shut.  He turned on the stool in the examining room to face me directly and hear me out.  My problem was nowhere close to serious or life-threatening, but it was throwing my daily life off balance, and I was getting desperate.  This has been going on too long, I fumed, and he quietly agreed.  Sometimes it takes multiple tries to find the solution, he added calmly.  Can you hang in there with me while we keep trying?  He really heard me, I thought to myself, shocked to realize how rare that has become.  Hope renewed by having an ally, I said I would. And I did.

The Covenant School parents just won’t go away.   The March 27 slaughter at Covenant School of three children and three adults by a deranged former student with an assault rifle was described by our mayor as Nashville’s worst day.  The ripples of heartbreak and despair spread everywhere in the community.  Conversely, there are ripples of hope, maybe small, but still visible, in the determined voices of the Covenant parents’ group that is publicly advocating for improved gun safety in Tennessee.  Soundly defeated, even harassed and vilified for their intervention at a special session of Tennessee’s legislature in late summer, they are already speaking out as the lawmakers prepare to reconvene in the new year.  There’s a faint but discernible glimmer of light in the widening circle of churches and other community-based groups rallying to support their position and kindling the public dialogue.

When love wins, the light reflects on many.  This summer, my daughter married a loving and kind man in a ceremony meticulously planned to reflect their joy in each other.  Watching a child transformed by a loving partnership is surely one of a parent’s greatest gifts.  Watching the parallel joy of her children in their new family unit adds a dimension that beams hope all over the place.

Kentucky re-elected Gov. Andy Beshear.  Major political forces invested heavily in creating a different result, but the voters in my home state nevertheless returned their governor to his office for another four years.  It is so hard, sometimes almost impossible, to like or admire politicians in these times. Yet Beshear inspires hope by demonstrating that public officials can choose to rise above the current tide and lead with vision and decency.  Faced with the pandemic and multiple weather-related tragedies, Beshear speaks common sense, refuses to indulge in ugly partisanship, and openly acknowledges his faith without weaponizing it.  Here’s hoping he has a long and successful career as a public servant in the best sense.

When you need an optimism demo, watch a dog.  Yes, yes, yes, legends are written, and movies are made about all the magical gifts of animals—their dedication, their healing powers, their learning skills and discernment.  On that very long list of things to cherish in their daily lives, I choose optimism.  In my house, there’s a morning ritual as predictable as dawn; my dog spins, dances and prances in front of the closet door closed on his food bin.  Not in so many words, he radiates hope and absolute, unwavering confidence: You’re going to open that door, I just KNOW it, and you’re doing to scoop that stuff for me, ANY MINUTE NOW!  I know you are, I know it, I DO, and I’m SO EXCITED I can’t stand it ONE MORE SECOND.  And I will say ALL this again tomorrow, and every morning after that.

Jon Batiste’s musical genius is getting the attention it deserves.  Many of us first encountered the New Orleans native when he was band director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  In the last couple of years his career has exploded, as he has won Grammys, an Oscar and more accolades for an astonishing range of work that includes movie scores and a couple of full-length albums.  Jon defies genre and radiates hope and faith.  For a quick dose of the power of Jon’s work if you aren’t already familiar, try his song Freedom.

There was a star.  On a chilly Christmas morning, a few days after the winter solstice, the dog needed his morning break just as dawn was barely evident.  Watching him from the back porch facing the woods behind the house, I looked up at the still-dark sky.  There was a bright, single pinpoint of light reflecting in the east above the trees.  A satellite, maybe?  A helicopter hovering?  Or the Eastern Star of Christmas?  I know what I think.

I give the dog’s leash a little tug to move him along from the fragrant, faded fire hydrant he’s been examining in exhaustive detail.  “C’mon, bud,” I encourage him, “let’s go see Jesus.”

Hearing my words aloud, I realize that these are not routine instructions for your average weekday morning dog walk, so I reflexively spin my head in both directions to see if anyone heard me.  There is no one around at 7:05 a.m. on the sidewalk bordering South Main St. on this particular morning, so both my comments and my plan will proceed unnoticed.

It’s only a few steps past the fire hydrant and the street signs guiding tourists to local historical spots to the plot in the city cemetery where I first spied Jesus.  He faces the street, ornamenting a grave in the row closest to the leaning old black iron fence that separates the cemetery property from the sidewalk and the busy thoroughfare that bisects the town. Jesus stands beneath towering pines with arms fully extended, robed in blue and white, affixed in his forever stance to…what?  Welcome, bless, comfort, maybe all of the above, the thousands of daily passers-by. His gaze is forever directed across the street at a row of the routine fixtures of daily life in any busy community:  the brightly lit drive through lanes at the bank branch, the sadly dark Baptist church, silent and quiet in the pandemic, and the corner convenience store, with its brisk flow of plumbing trucks, beer deliveries, workers emerging with donuts and coffee on their way to the day’s tasks.

In the chilly dawn of the fall morning the first time I noticed him, I moved closer to the fence for a better look, wondering at the interesting collage of symbols on the grave.  The statue is about three feet tall, and he stands on his own stone pad in front of the gravestone and between two containers of red plastic mums with a pair of concrete angels perched above his head, also adorned with permanent flowers. All important symbols, no doubt, with their own particular significance to the family whose beloved member rests below. I wondered why they stood him facing the raucous South Main traffic flow, instead of the gentle swells of lawn, quiet rolling drives, and ancient trees that dot the peaceful, historic property on the other side of the fence.

Growing up in the Protestant church and touring through membership in various branches of it as an adult, I have few memories of spiritual icons or religious art.  Many Protestant churches, especially older ones, are spare at most in architecture and interior embellishment, perhaps an intentional contrast.  As a wide-eyed tourist I’ve richly appreciated the remarkable architecture and artistic icons in some of the world’s great churches—St. Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Patrick’s in New York come to mind—but even then, I never contemplated (amazingly) what bond may connect spiritual art and spiritual practice.   Does the heavenly bandwidth speed increase if you are gazing at a magnificent medieval image of Christ, or a gleaming, ornate gold cross, as you offer your prayers?  Do your knees rest more easily, abetting more fervent messaging to the Divine, if the prayer bench is ancient carved rosewood?  Why should any of that matter to the soul that seeks answers, that desires to vocalize faith?

The answers to these things are far beyond my own academic experience and clearly differed in the views of experts through history.  The discovery of Jesus on South Main nudged me to an intriguing page of Google search results.  Why robe Jesus in blue, for example?  Britannica’s section on historic iconography reports that blue is considered the color of life.  And so on.

For me as a person of faith, there’s never been an established prayer ritual, same time, same place, daily and weekly or however often.  Prayer and meditative contemplation run more like a flowing stream, ebbing here and there as the climate requires, higher volume after downpours of sorrow, quietly reflective on the yoga mat, celebratory maybe in the exact moment of an unexpected joy.  I can’t recall every pointing these thoughts and offerings at any particular location or thing, until I noticed Jesus on South Main St.

In these bizarre times, when so much that we understand and trust stands on its head, when the entire world is fighting a deadly enemy no one can see, the eyes and ears and heart keep seeking different answers. How do you maintain, indeed re-energize, spiritual connection when our traditions are taken from us, and we make do with “couch church” on the laptop screen, our hymns and prayers echoing only in our own homes?

Somehow, for reasons that elude me but were known to the spiritual pilgrims and artists of centuries past, there is surprising comfort in praying to something as I stand in front of it.  And so, on the average morning as we stroll along when the morning light rises in the distance, after the dog has relieved himself with characteristic efficiency, we pause near the old iron fence for a few words to offer Him.

On a very important recent morning, I asked for blessings for our nation.  Just yesterday, for the family of a wonderful and giving man who has just been diagnosed with cancer.  I’ve asked Him for help for my mom, who suffers depression and more under the pandemic restrictions in senior living.  For my daughter, her children, and all the families struggling to maneuver home-based schooling and a work schedule.  For my cherished friend who lost both her beloved husband and her job within 60 days.  It seems, this year, that the suffering is omnipresent, immeasurable. The dog waits patiently, appearing to understand that when the words end, we will be moving on.

We all worry (so my friends reassure me) that we are getting a little wacky in this ongoing isolation. So, I still find myself hoping I am not overheard by a passing jogger or truck driver stopped at the stoplight, his windows open. Even on a busy street, prayer still seems like a private, personal exercise.  But maybe one morning I’ll see a member of the family who put Jesus there, fixed him in position for those passing by, arms outstretched and unmoving through the months, years, and decades.  Thanks, I’d like to tell one of them, for turning him to face the street.