Not Done With My Changes: Readings and Sermon, March 3, 2024

OPENING WORDS John Soos (adapted)

To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death
and the miracle of birth

CHALICE Maureen Killoran

As the kindling of this chalice calls us to community - Let there be light
As this flame reminds us of our values
Let there be light
And as its glow encourages us to hope
Let there be light

MEDITATION

We carry the world with us
The atrocities of war in Gaza and Ukraine
The threat to our planet home
The dangers to our political system and to human dignity and human rights

We are thinking, caring people
So we carry all this in our bodies, even when our minds are elsewhere
Take a moment to notice all the cares your body is holding
And for a few moments here, set them down

SONG: Loosen, Loosen Baby, Aly Harper

READING “The Layers,” Stanley Kunitz

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,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone of the road precious to me

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“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.

SERMON Not Done With My Changes The Reverend Janet C. Bush

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. (1)

Throughout our lives, throughout our changes, Stanley Kunitz tells us, some principle of being abides.

I preached with that poem as my text in Hartford CT on February 8, 2009. The seven members of this congregation’s search committee were guests in the pews. That was a very different sermon, for a different time and purpose. I guess they liked it well enough, because here I am.

Do I know who you are? Do you know who I am? Do I know who I am and do you know who you are?

As part of my spiritual practice I sometimes find a brief reading before sitting in silence, often something from Howard Thurman. This past week I opened to one titled “If I Knew You.”

If I knew you and you knew me, and if each of us could clearly see
By that inner light divine, the meaning of your heart, and mine….
I’m sure that we would differ less.

Thurman says that understanding of anything meaningful - including another person - comes at the price of commitment and hard work. He says we have to “fool around” (he puts that in quotes) the edges of another’s life to get closer and closer to the central place. I think that’s also true about getting to know ourselves, the abiding principle of our being, the center of who we are.

The legendary Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu wrote
at the center of your being
you have the answer;
you know who you are and you know what you want.

There is no need to run outside for better seeing.
Nor to peer from a window.
Rather abide at the center of your being.

What is the center of your being? What abides there and what does your heart know? Does it know any of the same things now that it knew when you were a child? when you were twenty? ten years ago? fifteen years ago? fifty?

Some of you might recognize AA Milne’s poem, “When I Was Six.” “When I was one, I just begun. When I was two, I was nearly new. When I was three, I was hardly me. When I was four, I was not much more. When I was five, I was just alive. But now I’m six, I'm as clever as clever. So I think I'll be six now, forever and ever!”

Milne was better known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, but I grew up on his poetry as well. When I was four and a half, and my sister Betsy turned six, that was the poem she would ask my mother to read to us. Then she would gloat.

One of my very early memories - I must have been two and a half - is of following Betsy down an unshoveled path around our house. Bundled in squeaky snow pants, snow way above my knees, excited and a little frightened, I concentrated on trying to step in the track her footsteps were making as she led us forward saying, “deeper, deeper.”

Deeper, deeper.

In most, possibly all, cultures, birth order has made a difference in forming who we are and in determining our place in the scheme of things. It’s now a matter of disagreement among psychologists about whether birth order affects personality in consistent ways.

But parents do treat first borns and later borns differently, and a child’s experience in a family has an impact on their development and behaviors. Being first comes with privilege and responsibility in many cultures and families. In the Philippines the eldest is expected to take responsibility for the younger ones, and they are supposed to pay attention. Younger siblings use honorifics - terms of respect - when they refer or speak to their elders. My grandson, the youngest, refers to and addresses his sisters as “Ate,” and someone corrects him if he forgets.

I’m a combination of middle and older, and I can see how that has affected me - probably part of what abides. I suspect that a lot of who we were as children is still at the core of who we are.

Six is the age at which, for me, I begin to remember more, and the memories are easier to date them. Elementary school was a new world outside of home, and each teacher was memorable - some more than others - in her own way.

I was expected and (mostly wanted) to be good, not to make trouble, not to break rules. Expected by others and wanted to be best or among the best in the academic parts of school; jealous of the kids who were athletes and the ones who could draw. More serious than silly but with silly moments. Aware of and indignant about injustice - I am remembering the story of the Churkendoose, who was shunned by the other barnyard birds because he was different.

I was a lover of learning, stories, poems, my family. Capable of moments of pure happiness with no reservations. A believer in God, although sometimes confused about how he could be a father and also invisible and everywhere at the same time. I didn’t try to wrap my head around father, son and holy ghost. It wasn’t part of the theology my church spent time on. As children we said our prayers every night, and said grace at supper. The church my family attended started a children’s choir when I was eight. I was an alto. I loved learning to read music as a singer, and getting to sing harmony.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was.

If you made a list like mine, what on it would make you say, “I am not who I was?”

The door between our back entry and the kitchen was the one on which my family kept track of the heights of me and my sisters and brother. There is a different family’s record in the house Booker and I now live in - inscribed in red ink on the door frame to the basement.

Those marks make me think of tree rings, which are formed each year in the outer, cambium region of the tree’s trunk. That region is where cell division happens, beginning when the days grow longer and warmer, and ending the fall. Trees with greater access to the sugars needed to produce growth will have wide rings than other trees of the same age. Tree biologists are starting to learn more about what else ring development can tell about the history of a tree.

Jessica is using the book she read earlier, “Bodies Are Cool,” in the RE program this morning, and she asked me to see if it could fit with the theme of today’s service.

I am not who I once was because my body has changed - from when I was born, to that excited two-year old struggling in the snow - to the chubby preteen and adolescent - to young adulthood, and then through parenthood, middle-age and, now, the edge of elderhood.

You probably know for yourself what experiences have changed you, what a a study of your own tree rings would show.

Learning to live on one’s own, becoming self-supportive, developing a professional identity, changing jobs or the place we call home, becoming a parent, having a mentor, the illness or serious trouble or death of someone close to us - all of these can change our lives and change us.

When they were in their twenties, both of our sons struggled, in different ways, ways that caused us worry and pain. I think it’s true that Booker would agree that those experiences taught us humility. I know I’m more humble now about my own powers and wisdom. And grateful for the ways they have emerged from those times.

It's all over now, baby blue
But strike another match and go start new (Bob Dylan)
Or as Stanley Kunitz said, “I am not done with my changes.”

Kunitz wrote “The Layers” when he was in his mid-60s, and he died in 2006, a few months shy of his 102nd birthday. At age 95 he was named poet laureate of the United States. In an interview after that appointment he said, (2)

“’The Layers’ is a poem I wrote ... after I had lost several members of my family-- my mother, my two older sisters-- after I had lost, as well, several of my dearest friends.... And it was a time when I felt I was ready for a change. I was ready to gather my strengths again and move in a new direction.”(3)

Howard Thurman wrote that it’s harder for those who are older to keep their horizons open. “The first part of your life everything is in front of you, he says, all your potential and promise. But over the years, you make decisions; you carve yourself into a given shape. Then the challenge is to keep discovering the green growing edge.

I started seminary when I was 50, and started as the minister here when I was 56. That was a new direction! As I move into retirement it will take me time to sift through and discover more of the meaning in what has changed, blossomed, fallen away. And to discover a new direction, or several.

Later in the poem we read:
"In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
'Live in the layers,
not on the litter.'"

Kunitz said the words came to him in a dream. “In the middle of the night, I'd had this dream of a voice out of a cloud, and this is what the voice spoke to me. ‘Live in the layers, not on the litter.’ ”

He went on, “I think it's important for one's survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.”

To live in the whole core of our history we need to be able to access it, attend to it, put some of it in places where the parts that hurt us can no longer do their deepest harm, and know and own the principle of being that abides for each of us.
We learn, we grow, and we change.

Our histories, personal and communal, are composed of story and fact, layers and litter.

They include broken pieces that may or may not provide reliable clues. Sometimes we need to work at putting the broken pieces back together. Sometimes, we need to sweep them up and move on.

There are truths within truths, in all those layers. Mysteries and surprises in the stories. Loss, and hope. Things that change, and principles that abide.

May we find our wills intact to go wherever we need to go, every stone of the road precious. And may we, even in dark times, know the gifts in the layers, in all the fullness of our lives.

CLOSING WORDS Sarah York

We receive fragments of holiness,
glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.

Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are
And, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.

Additional Notes:

(1) Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers” in The Collected Poems, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
(2) Portions of Kunitz biography are from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Kunitz.
(3) Quotes are taken from an interview with Stanley Kunitz by Elizabeth Farnsworth on PBS’ The News Hour, October 26, 2000; http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec00/kunitz.html.