I want to suggest something theological, so I begin with a question, which is the source of all good theology:
What distinguishes us as persons? That is to say, what distinguishes one person from another? How do we assess the quality or success of an individual’s life? The other part of this theological question is: What distinguishes us as humans, collectively? What makes us different from the other life forms on earth?
One of the central or essential ingredients has to a person’s life has to do with promises—making and keeping promises.
For example, I promise that I will not talk about the presidential election this morning! The mere mention of it makes us uncomfortable; it has been an uncomfortable time, to be sure.
So I’ll begin with a comfortable old poem, like an old pair of slippers; I’ll mention something about the dangers of making promises…especially implicit promises…and I’ll conclude with a favorite Sam Keen story about a peach seed monkey—a story about a promise kept.
Here’s the trusty old poem:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost was asked about the line, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
“Were you writing about death, the big sleep?”
“It’s my poem.” he replied, “A poet I can take credit for any interpretation, whether intended it or not.”
A poem is like a dream. We bring our own interpretation and there’s no right or wrong answers, only our own meanings which the poem or the dream sparks.
So I’ll tell you what this little poem suggests to me. First of all, it has always been associated in my mind with Christmas. There are tightly-packed images of a sleigh and snowy woods—the sleigh is perhaps filled with presents, and there’s a man, a working man, headed home with those gifts, a man, a sensitive man who stopped to watch the woods filling up with snow—a poet, and this common man is reminded of that in his life which is most important to him—the people he has in mind when he mentions the promises he has to keep.
The line, ‘the darkest evening of the year,’ suggests the winter solstice, which is the reason Christmas was put on December 25—when the days start to grow longer after the turning of the year.
You’ll remember, perhaps, that the early Christians borrowed the date from the Romans who celebrated on December 25 with reveling and gift giving. Their holiday, Natalus Invictus, celebrated the rebirth of the invincible god, the sun.
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” paints a picture just right for a Christmas card.
Robert Frost might have penned the poem while looking at a Currier and Ives print.
Now we’re easing into the holiday season. There’s a big sign over this season that says, “Approach with caution!”
Christmas and Hanukkah are characterized by gift giving with special emphasis on the children.
Gift giving is, of course, connected to keeping promises.
We all make promises. We make promises to ourselves and one another; to our children, our parents, our partners and friends, and for those so inclined, to God or to Life, something greater than ourselves.
What promises have you made? What promises are explicit—clearly expressed, leaving nothing implied?
What promises are implicit—understood though not specifically stated?
Our unspoken promises may be the deepest, most meaningful, most important promises of all. The explicit promises are contractual, either verbal or written, and we can be held to them, either in a court of law or by having someone say, “You promised!”
In a very real way, we are judged or evaluated by the promises we make and the ways in which we keep our promises. “I have promises to keep and miles to go…”
We judge ourselves in this regard. Maturity requires us to be careful about the promises we make.
When I arrived here seventeen years ago I talked about the promises I was making by accepting the call to this pulpit, to this congregation, and I talked about the temptation to promise more than I could possibly deliver. Barbara and I talked about promises as she prepared for her ordination and installation. The day after the service she had a new insight into those promises, implicit as well as explicit.
We worry that we won’t be able to live up to or keep our promises. “I have promises to keep and miles to go…”
Romantic promises fall into a separate category—we hear songs about guys who promise her the moon and stars, and she promises things like forever.
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is a simple poem; it’s about an ordinary life, uncomplicated and down to earth. It talks about real estate deeds, about who owns this particular lot—someone who has a house in the village, and won’t see him stopping, possibly trespassing. It suggests something Chief Seattle said a long time ago, that in truth we do not own the earth but we are responsible for the care of the earth.
It also suggests what Chief Yellow Lark referred to when he asked the Great Spirit to ‘let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.”
The depth of one’s spiritual life depends on stopping to create a Sabbath moment, finding the sacred in the ordinary day-to-day world. “Take the shoes off your feet for this is holy ground.”
The narrator of the poem is obviously keeping one of those unspoken promises to himself, regarding his spiritual development. He is observing a Sabbath Moment, in the only real way a Sabbath can be observed. He stopped. He stopped going. He stopped moving. He stopped and watched the snow, he listened to the harness bells, he listened to ‘the sound of easy wind and downy flake.’
It was one of those special moments that we cherish. We have to remind ourselves that this is the time to stop. This is not dress rehearsal. If you are driving a sleigh through the wooods and you realize the beauty of it all, then you must stop, even if only for a moment. That’s what makes one moment different from the other moments. That’s how a sacred moment is realized. By stopping.
If I have to stretch too far for some theological notion, or to find and hold images in an intellectually obscure poem, I feel diminished by it. It’s as if the poem is only meant for the intellectually elite.
If I have to stretch too far to feel the theological truth in someone’s definition of the Sabbath, I feel disconnected rather than included, and the theology separates me because it’s only meant for the in group.
I can relate to Robert Frost’s pretty little poem. I can find myself in it, wanting to stop, to rest, to notice the snow and to hear the harness bells and the ‘sound of easy wind and downy flake.’
What is the Sabbath, and why was it invented? The Sabbath is sacred when you stop. Notice. Appreciate. Then you move on, because there’s more to be done, there are promises to keep, and miles to go.
A nice poem is a breath of fresh air. We’re used to so much hot air.
The endless battle in the Middle East is often traced to an explicit promise the Bible says that God made to Abraham, that he would make of him a great nation, and that the land of Israel would be given to his descendent.
The descendents of Abraham’s first born son, Ishmael, the Muslims, claim the land as theirs, promised to them. The descendents of Abraham’s son Isaac, the Jews, claim that God promised the land to them. Paul, writing to the Galatians, to counter-act the influence of Jewish Chistians who de-emphasized Christ, wrote: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, and to seeds as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ.”
Such a promise!
I’d rather have Robert Frost! His communication is direct, and real. We long for the real, the pure, the simple. It doesn’t have to be so complicated, so obscure, so distant.
I thought this would be a good time to bring us back to basics, to the simple, honest words of a poet, and one of the most well-known poems in the English language.
Another of my favorite stories about promises is from Sam Keen’s book, To a Dancing God, and his Relections On a Peach Seed Monkey:
Once upon a time when there were still Indians, Gypsies, bears, and bad men in the woods of Tennessee where I played and, more important still, there was no death, a promise was made to me. One endless summer afternoon my father sat in the eternal shade of a peach tree, carving on a seed he had picked up. With increasing excitement and covetousness I watched while, using a skill common to all omnipotent creators, he fashioned a small monkey out of the seed. All of my vagrant wishes and desires disciplined themselves and came to focus on that peach-seed monkey. If only I could have it, I would possess a treasure which could not be matched in the whole cosmopolitan town of Maryville! What status, what identity, I would achieve by owning such a curio! Finally I marshaled my nerve and asked if I might have the monkey when it was finished (on the sixth day of creation). My father replied, “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday.”
Days passed, and then weeks, and finally, years, and the someday on which I was to receive the monkey did not arrive. In truth, I forgot all about the peach-seed monkey. Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all of those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was merely delighting in their existence. One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle, and to grow.
In the pure air and dry heat of an Arizona afternoon on the summer before the death of God, my father and I sat under a juniper tree. I listened as he wrestled with the task of taking the measure of his success and failure in life. There came a moment of silence that cried out for testimony. Suddenly I remembered the peach-seed monkey, and I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence: “In all that is important you have never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me—you never carved me that peach-seed monkey.”
Not long after this conversation I received a small package in the mail. In it was a peach-seed monkey and a note which said: “Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
Two weeks later my father died. He died only at the end of his life.
For me, a peach-seed monkey has become a symbol of all the promises which were made to me and the energy and care which nourished and created me as a human being. And even more fundamentally, it is a symbol of that which is the foundation of all human personality and dignity…
(The) civility which separates (us) from the lower animals depends upon the making and keeping of promises, covenants, vows and contracts. As Nietzsche so aptly put the matter, “man is that animal who makes promises.”
Yes, we have promises to keep.
We have promises to one another, here in this community.
We have promises to keep with our children; with our parents and partners.
There’s an implicit promise to ourselves, which is nicely illustrated in Frost’s poem—to stop, from time to time, to notice the woods filling up with snow…
…to notice a flower, to marvel at the face and fingers of a new born; to create a Sabbath moment by stopping the hectic pace, to notice, to say a silent thank you…
…and then to move on, to keep all the promises we’ve made and by so doing to become the person we want and need to be.