Opening Words: From Windy City, Carl Sandburg
Put the city up; tear the city down;
put it up again; let us find a city.
Let us remember the little violet-eyed
man who gave all, praying, “Dig and
dream, dream and hammer, till
your city comes.”
Every day the people sleep and the city dies;
every day the people shake loose, awake and
build the city again.
The city is a tool chest opened every day,
a time clock punched every morning,
a shop door, bunkers and overalls
counting every day.
The city is a balloon and a bubble plaything
shot to the sky every evening, whistled in
a ragtime jig down the sunset.
The city is made, forgotten, and made again,
trucks hauling it away haul it back
steered by drivers whistling ragtime
against the sunsets.
Every day the people get up and carry the city,
carry the bunkers and balloons of the city,
lift it and put it down.
Most of us cook a whole turkey twice a year – at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas.
We prepare much more than we can consume at a single meal, even with lots of family and friends to share it.
So we have lots of leftovers — the unused portion of those holiday meals that don’t get eaten, or even the nightly dinners we prepare. Hosts provide doggy bags so that everyone can have some of those leftovers.
Leftovers make easy meals – no shopping, no preparing, no wondering what to have for dinner – just heat and serve. Sometimes those are the best meals.
The same can be said for sermon remnants that haven’t been digested, or were left in the minister’s manuscript on the pulpit unspoken. So I thought it would be an easy meal for this Sunday after Thanksgiving, just get out some of the things left over from previous pulpit preparations. (I was wrong about that, actually.)
I have several old file folders labeled, “Not used.” Those folders are like the refrigerator or freezer, holding remnants of sermons which I intended to serve up on Sundays but they sit there waiting…they’re very patient. The same thing happens to them that happens to leftovers in the fridge after a few days – they go into the big sermon-freezer in the sky only to be discarded later.
When she was in high school I remember my daughter Susan asking one day, “Dad, should we save this?” referring to a small remnant from a just-eaten meal, and my response, “Sure, save it…we can throw it out later.”
I pulled a couple of sermon leftovers from the freezer:
In a sermon on silence on October 7, I quoted Mother Teresa: “God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.”
The leftover is her response to a reporter’s question about her prayer life; he asked, “What do you say to God in your prayers?”
She responded, “I don’t say anything – I listen.”
So he pushed the point and asked, “And what does God say to you?”
She said, “He doesn’t say anything – he listens.” Then she added, “And if you don’t understand that I can’t explain it.”
Another leftover from a recent sermon is the story of a rabbi who was visiting one of his congregants in the hospital when her son came to visit. She asked her son to pray with her and he said, “I don’t pray…I don’t believe in God.”
The rabbi was surprised at the son’s lack of sensitivity to his mother’s request and said to the son, “That’s ridiculous – you don’t have to believe in God to pray.”
A separate category of leftovers is the poems I intended to parse, but I seldom do.
To parse a poem is to examine it closely, subjecting it to a detailed analysis by breaking it into components – which feels like a sacrilege or desecration, as if there was only one true meaning to a poem, or a line in a poem.
Yet, I sometimes feel compelled to do just that, though I have seldom given in to the temptation – not to tell you what a poem means, but to tell you something about what it means to me. When I have done that, I often get appreciative responses and it makes me think I should do that more often…but I’m running out of time.
So here I am, looking back and seeing ‘the milestones dwindling toward the horizon.’ Time moves forward relentlessly, but memory retraces the steps, going in the opposite direction. Do you recognize the reference to ‘milestones dwindling toward the horizon?’ It’s from Stanley Kunitz’s powerful poem, The Layers.
Let’s take that poem our of the sermon freezer, warm it up in this microwave-pulpit and see if it whets your appetite; I’ve been chewing it over for years. He writes:
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
It’s a powerful piece. The image of ‘walking through lives…many lives…some of them my own’ is a strong image which we can all relate to.
“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I’m not who I was, though some principle of being abides from which I struggle not to stray.”
That’s more than an appetizer – it’s a meal.
What, for example, is that ‘principle of being’ that ‘abides,’ from which we struggle not to stray? Is there some principle of being in each of us – is there an essential us, a unique person at the core of who we are?
As I have moved into this later chapter of my life I have the feeling that there is an essential Self, or Soul, if you will, that has been with me since day one.
I don’t mean something theological, something mystical or magical, but I take the liberty of calling it the Soul. For me, the Soul is that essence…the essence of who I am and what I am…who I’ve been and who I’m still in the process of becoming.
The Hindu and Buddhist calls it the Atman: ‘the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature.’ (But don’t bring leftovers to the Hindu deities – it’s sacrilegious. The The Western version of that sacrilegious act is found in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel bringing their gifts of food to the altar. The story says that ‘God had regard for Abel’s gift – meat, since he was a herdsman – but for Cain’s gift he had no regard.’ The rabbi’s say that Abel ‘gave his best,’ but Cain gave fruit vegetables – he was a farmer – that had spoiled. Leftovers!
The word for leftovers is ort – it shows up in crossword puzzles.
But let’s get back to Kunitz’s poem: In our darkest night when the moon is covered and we roan through the wreckage of our lives – all the days and years we’ve lived that seem to have been discarded like stale or spoiled food in the fridge – a voice comes out of the cloud-covered darkness, like the voice that came to Moses out of the burning bush, and says, ‘Move on…live in the layers, not on the litter.’
The ‘litter,’ is the accumulation of regrets, failures, faults, guilt, anger, resentments, and disappointments that clutter the mind and stain the spirit.
The ‘layers’ are the chapters of our lives that are characterized by some sense of success, appreciation, meaningful connections, caring relationships, and accomplishments that inspire us to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’
‘No doubt the next chapter in our book of transformations is already written…we are not done with our changes.’
The next chapter is waiting, a new chapter, a new layer, another transformation. None of us knows what the future will bring for us, but we can be sure that there will be new challenges out of which will come new rewards and the possibility of deeper meanings.
Do you remember the voice that came to Moses out of the burning bush, telling him to go back into Egypt to free those who are in bondage? That’s the ‘nimbus clouded voice’ in the poem. It’s an inner voice.
In the Moses story ‘the bush was burning but wasn’t consumed by the flames.’
It’s a wonderful poetic image – Sam Keen called it ‘the fire in the belly.’ It’s about inspiration. It’s about exploration. When Moses asks the voice, ‘When I go to the Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go, and he asks who sent me, what should I say?’ And the voice said, “I AM THAT I AM, tell them I AM has sent you.”
A closer translation of the Hebrew is ‘I AM BECOMING.’ That’s my favorite Biblical definition of God in the Bible. (Another is from I John: God is Love.)
The Moses story is about liberation, and liberation is, for the most part, an ‘inside job.’ It’s about going inside of ourselves to free ourselves from the litter, enumerated above. If you are stuck in the litter – the disappointments, resentments, anger, grief, etc. you are not free.
This reminds me of the closing line in James Joyce’s wonderful story of his growing up years, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s about the possibility of transformation, it’s about the possibility of a new beginning. Joyce has Stephen Dedalus conclude his story by saying:
“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
The layers of our lives include the lives we’ve touched: walked through, as Kunitz puts it. “Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered. How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”
The ‘dust of friends who fell along the way’ bitterly stings the face, yet we turn, ‘exulting somewhat,’ and realizing that ‘every stone on the road we’ve traveled is precious.’ We look back so that we can ‘gather strength to proceed on our journey,’ to be ready for the next chapter, the next transformation, the next layer.
W. S. Merwin touches it gently in his poem A Momentary Creed:
I believe in the ordinary day
that is here at this moment and is me
I do not see it going its own way
but I never saw how it came to me
It extends beyond whatever I may
think I know and all that is real to me
it is the present that it bears away
where has it gone when it has gone from me
there is no place I know outside today
except for the unknown all around me
the only presence that appears to stay
everything that I call mine it lent me
even the way that I believe the day
for as long as it is here and is me
May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind always be at your back, may the rains fall soft upon your fields and the sun shine warm upon your face, and until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of his hand.