I mean, is this for real? Have you had your watch checked? I remember in high school in the 1960s when I read George Orwell’s 1984, and I thought, that’s a long way in the future. Then at some point there I woke up on New Year’s Day and it was actually 1984 and while there were some signs we had given up some of our privacy to the government, it was not full-on totalitarianism by then; not even as much government intrusion as had been common in fascist or Communist regimes of that time.
Some time later in the 1960s, I saw the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001, A Space Odyssey. That movie predicted a future where there were human astronauts going to Jupiter in a spaceship run by a computer named Hal who could think for himself. But when I woke up on a New Years’ Day and it was actually 2001, we didn’t have manned missions to Jupiter and computers could do a lot of things, but thinking for themselves wasn’t one of them.
As a kid, I was an avid fan of science fiction stories and movies, and I always looked forward to the future. We would have it all worked out in the future.
When we wanted to go anywhere, we would just teleport. Or get in our personal airplanes or just strap on a jet-pack and whoosh over to the next town. When we wanted to talk to anyone, we would dial them up on our two-way wrist radio. Well, that part has almost come true. We would long ago have solved the problem of food shortages, and most of what we would eat would come from containers warmed up individually. That part, also, is edging closer to fulfillment.
The engines that were supposed to drive all this, that were supposed to chauffeur us into our future world of peace and plenty, were two: science and democracy. Science didn’t have all the answers, but it was moving forward to get them. Science would protect us from epidemics, from alien invasions and from meteors on a collision course with our planet.
And the people, properly educated and knowing where their self-interest lay, could be counted on to choose wise, knowledgeable leaders who would always govern in the public interest.
This was the optimism of America after World War II. We looked forward to a bright future for our country and for the world. Now this dream seems to be imploding. Let’s face it, the future isn’t what it used to be.
January is named after the Roman God Janus, who is often depicted with two faces, one looking ahead and one looking back. Whether your calendar be Gregorian or Jewish or Celtic, New years is traditionally a time to take stock, looking back at what the past has given us and looking ahead to that terrifying blank slate on which we are called to write.
In the big picture, humans are the only animal we know of which structures its world according to words and ideas. And there is a fundamental disconnect between the system of words and ideas in which we structure our understanding of the world and the world itself. The world is forever changing. The Buddha grounded his outlook on life on the fact that everything is impermanent, not just our individual lives but most of what we deem permanent. Heraclitus says you never step into the same river twice. The river is always in flow, and so are our minds with it. But where does the disconnect come? It comes because we cling to the notion that the words and ideas with which we seek to describe and understand reality are fixed. We have a notion of ourselves that does not keep up with the flow of the river of time.
How many of you can remember writing out the date on a document and starting the year with 19? That has been wrong for the last eighteen years of our lives but it was right for the first fifty or more. These old habits die hard.
I want to try to take stock of where we are personally and collectively through one of my favorite poems, one written by a beloved Cape Codder who was also Poet Laureate of the US. Stanley Kunitz poem “The Layers” has been holy writ for me for about twenty years now. I once was fortunate enough to hear him read it in person. He introduced it by saying that a dream had come to him one night with this odd message: ”Live in the layers, not on the litter.” He had written the poem to try to discover what those words meant, and the result is one of the greatest summing up poems we have.
And he starts with this tension between permanence and change in his own deepest core:
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.
Does this ring true to you? It does to me. This year I turn 70, and I am not who I was when I was 60, when I came to Chatham, nor who I was when I was 50, when I was in seminary, nor when I was 40 and a lawyer in South Carolina. Yet I would recognize each of my earlier selves if I met them on the street.
Rummaging through some old boxes recently, I came upon a diary I had kept the last two years of high school. Reading it was joyful and painful. For example, it reminded me that I had gotten my first banjo as a Christmas present from Santa Claus in 1966! There was also lot of really bad poetry and a lot of philosophy and struggles with young love, and a lot of ambition and dreams for the future. Some of those were fulfilled, though often not in the way I thought they would. But I certainly recognized my 16 year-old self, there was some core of being which abided from then until now.
The poet continues:
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.
The New Year is a milestone and that can be taken as freighted with meaning or as essentially meaningless. I remember on long car trips when my dad would try to occupy our minds by talking about the odometer, the device which measured miles. If we were about to pass a hundred or a thousand mile anniversary, he would invite us to look as a row of zeroes edged out the nines.
Does the arrival of 2018 really constitute some milestone of significance or is it just like the rollover of an odometer? The poet says he looks back because he is compelled to look back in order to gather the strength to continue on the journey ahead, and when he does he sees the milestones stretching away. If you put yourself in his position, what milestones would you see in your life? Certainly the transitions between phases of your life, marriages, divorces, the births of children and grandchildren, entry into schools or graduation from them, coming to or going from jobs, houses, cities, churches.
Not only are there milestones, but the poet also sees smoke from abandoned campfires, positions he has been through in his lives, and which are still being picked clean of meaning by “scavenger angels.” In our case, this year 2018 recalls not only the Allied victory in World War I, which some might see as the beginning of the modern era, a century ago, but also a half century ago, the tumultuous year 1968. The recent film on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lyn Novick brought that back to my mind, and I felt an active participant, demonstrating against the war as a college sophomore, thus encouraging an antiwar democrat, Gene McCarthy, to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. And then the shock when Johnson took himself out of the race, followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the tortured Chicago convention and the presidential victory achieved by Richard Nixon – treasonously as it turned out.
The poet continues:
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.
The last fifty years have been a time of unprecedented mobility. In my own case, I was pretty well settled in a small southern city with a wife and two children. One of the things I loved to watch in that era was Joseph Campbell’s take on religion and culture on the public TV station, and his message was “follow your bliss.” I wondered whether my bliss was in a different kind of service to my fellow humans than representing them in court, and I took steps to determine whether I would be suitable for ministry. About the same time my children were wondering whether their bliss lay beyond Charleston. In the ensuing events, my marriage came apart and I ended up with the tribe of my true affections scattered across the earth. I have now visited my new grandson on Facetime but I couldn’t hold or tickle him. And I know this is not unusual, that most of us have far-flung families, some because of choices made and some due to circumstances.
Then there are those we have lost, the loved ones the poet envisions as bits of dust which bitterly stings his face. The river of time moves us all downstream, away from those who held us and those whom we held. All of us are on a trip to the same ultimate destination, but some dear ones have already arrived there. The scattering and the deaths amount to a feast of losses and the poet asks how the heart shall be reconciled to this feast.
Yet as bad as this hurts, there is still life-force in the poet as in me, there is still a road ahead:
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.
I don’t know how much life I have ahead of me, but I know with certainty how much I have behind. And like the poet here, I am exulting somewhat that I am still alive. Life expectancy continues to climb for Americans; I have outlived my father by 9 years at this point, and many of you can say the same. So the thing to celebrate is we are here and it’s 2018. Can I get an Amen on that?
Now the world is in terrible shape, I don’t have to tell you that. It will take all our ingenuity and energy and grit and nerve and sinew to hold on to and promote the things that have truly made us great and offer the best hope for humankind: the rule of law, democracy, science, truth against the powers that threaten all these precious pillars of civilization. The going will be tough in the year ahead. We know that.
After he has had his long look backwards and forwards, the poet gets to the mysterious dream- commission which has led him to write the poem.
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.”
What could this mean? What are the layers and what is the litter. I don’t purport to have an authoritative answer, but it suggests to me the way meaning is often laid down in layers. When I was studying anthropology, I used to see society as a series of layers. At the lowest layer was the ecology, the particular environmental niche that the society was located in. The next layer was the economic system by which the people got their human needs met. The next layer was the political organization, how power was used. The next layer was the culture, the ideas, literature, language. On top of that was ideology and on top of that was philosophy and religion. Materialists, such as Marxists, would say that the lower layers organize the upper layers, bottom-up, while idealists would say that the upper layers determine the lower ones, top down.
Now whether this specific layer-cake model has any use in explaining societies, I think it does hint at a characteristic of the word layer, and that is that layers provide some sort of order. You might have a box of chocolates where one layer is chocolates which are cream-filled and another layer is chocolates filled with nuts. A piece of plywood will have outer layers of wood whose grain is vertical and an inner layer whose grain is at right angles to the outer layers.
Layers have some sort of order. A sophisticated reader of a text may find one meaning on the surface of the text and another, even an opposite meaning at a deeper level in the text.
Litter, on the other hand, is just stuff that is randomly thrown together, tossed from automobiles by careless motorists. On any given roadside, a Kleenex may lie next to a beer can, which lies next to a cigarette butt.
Living in the layers means to recognize that life is not simple, and what we think we know may not be the whole picture, may in fact be a delusion.
Now, I am not talking about fake news. It is each citizen’s responsibility to find out what is true for them or untrue. It is said that a characteristic of totalitarianism is that the general public not only cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood, but gives up believing in either. I think this past year has seen astonishing attempts to induce this mindset, but it doesn’t seem to be working so far; I don’t see any evidence that the general public has given up on the idea of truth. About the only effect of this assault on truth has been to completely shatter the credibility of a few individuals. Of course, this is cause for huge worry, because much of this nation’s influence for good in this world depends on its credibility, which is found in its communications.
Live in the layers. Look deeply and see the layered nature of reality. The river of time runs on and we are all swept along by it. We are all changed by it. The poet concludes about his mysterious teaching:
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.
Whether we accept that 2018 has come upon us in due course, no big deal, or whether we are astonished that we have hung around long enough to penetrate this deeply into the century, and no matter how many changes we have behind us, we still have some ahead of us. None of us is done with our changes.
Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity prayer cuts right to the nub of the issue of change in our lives, because some things are within our power to change and some are beyond that power: “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Or as our first hymn this morning put it,
“The past and future ever meet
In the eternal now
To make each day a thing complete
Shall be our New Year vow.”
Let us make each day a thing complete. We are not done with our changes.