Living In the Moment

November 6, 1994


Living in the Moment

A few years ago, archaeologists at a dig in the biblical city of Eshtemoa made an interesting discovery. They unearthed 62 pounds of 15th century silver. The gems and the silver are worth about $6800, but the jewelry itself is estimated to be worth five million dollars. It was buried only 18 inches beneath the dirt floor of a cottage that has been lived in continuously for 500 years. People have been living for cen-turies within reach of a treasure that would have changed their lives, but for all those centuries they never knew it. I wondered, when I read it, how much treasure some of us live right on top of and never realize it….how much of the riches of each ordinary day we overlook in our preoccupation with the past or anxious thoughts about tomor-row. We have one thing for sure: this moment. Yesterday is gone and no power on earth can bring it back; tomorrow has no guarantee. What we have is today.
I saved a description of today from Frederick Buechner’s book, Whistling in the Dark, and since he is America’s premier poetic preacher I hope you will listen hard as I read it. Today, Buechner says, “is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by dark-ness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.
“‘This is the day which the Lord has made,’ says the 118th Psalm. ‘Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’” Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you are wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you have been waiting for always that you are missing. All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is.”
It sounds a little preachery, I suppose, but sometimes I wake up saying this to myself: “This is the day which the Lord has made. I rejoice to have it,” and I wish I could remember to say it every morning. Because I know how easy it is to join those who spend their lives remembering or waiting. Yesterday was only so-so, and today is not much, but tomorrow — O, tomorrow the sun will rise with a warm crescendo and music will fall from the sky and every hour will be golden. The one thing you can be sure of when you meet people with that psychology is that they will miss most of their lives. They won’t see anything lovely in today, because it isn’t tomorrow and it seems common. They won’t hear anything very lovely today, because their ears are forever cocked for a far-off music that will be so much more exotic than the melody playing now.
I’ve forgotten who shared it with us first but I loved that story we heard from the lectern one morning two or three years ago. It went like this: The other day I met a man who was 102 years old. He seemed hale and hearty, and he had such a happy twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t resist asking how he got that way. He didn’t give me any of the stock answers. He said, Every morning when I get up I go over to the win-dow and look out, and then I say to myself, whether it’s raining or snowing or sunny, This is exactly the kind of a day I wanted. I was deeply impressed by that story, and I have consciously tried many times to say what he did. No moaning over how nice yesterday was, no fretting about what the weather will be tomorrow….a determin-ation, instead, to live as gladly as I can in the moment. It was not long after I first heard that old man’s prescription for contentment that I had occasion to talk with a man whose only child had just died in a swimming accident. He said, “We were always talking about her future: what she would look like, where we would send her to school, a million and one things. And now there’s only a past.” I couldn’t help wonder-ing if his little girl had a present, if her proud parents were so busy planning tomor-row that today got overlooked.
I read something the other day about Dennis Potter, the television playwright who did Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective . He said that when he knew he was dying of cancer he found the present more vivid than it had ever been in his life. ” His exact words were, “The fact is that if you see the present tense — boy, do you see it! And boy, can you celebrate it!” I like that so much when I first saw it that I decided on his phrase, the present tense, as the title for this sermon until I thought you might wonder if you were in for a lesson in grammar. But Potter makes a good point: if you really SEE the present moment, you can have a never-ending string of celebrations.
I used to introduce a course in the English romantic poets by telling students how a couple of them, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, decided to publish some poetry that would be strikingly different from what was being written at the end of the 18th century. They wrote a preface in which one of them, Words-worth, said his part of the enterprise was to wake people up to the glory of the commonplace. He said that familiar things, things we see each day, tend to get a film over them after a while so that what is beautiful about them is overlooked. He said he wanted to write about those things in a way that would cause people to see them again as if it were the first time. So he wrote about rocks and hills and trees and lakes and farm life and walks on country roads and sunrise and rainfall, and at least one man, one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, John Stuart Mill, who had lost interest in everything and fallen into depression, said that when he read that poetry and saw the everyday world with fresh eyes, it literally saved his life. I don’t know whether that impressed my students but it had a powerful influence on my life. I came to feel it was an insult to God, a kind of blasphemy, not to find some way of rejoicing in the present.
Nothing much is new under the sun, of course, and so I wasn’t surprised the other day when I was trying to figure out which of all those Gregory’s in the ency-clopedia was the one known as Gregory the Great, and ran across a comment by this great Catholic pope that fits perfectly into this sermon. Remarking some 14 centuries ago that things which are full of marvels become cheap from custom, he says: ”If a dead man is raised to life, all men spring up in astonishment. Yet every day one that had no being is born, and no man wonders, though it is plain to all, without doubt, that it is a greater thing for that to be created which was without being than for that which had being to be restored. Because the dry rod of Aaron budded, all men were in aston-ishment, but every day a tree is produced from the dry earth….and no man wonders. All wondered to see water once turned into wine, but every day the earth’s moisture, drawn into the root of the vine, is turned by the grape into wine, and no one wonders.” I think I would have liked that Pope and his celebration of the ordinary that is all around us.
During my years in St. Louis I spent a lot of afternoons seeing people at Barnes Hospital, especially in the cancer wards….my own church members at times, but more often friends and relatives of theirs who had come from somewhere else to that great hospital in desperate hope for a cure. It was a long time ago but I can feel as vividly as I did then those times when I would come out of the hospital and see a man and his wife, or a mother and child, one of them too sick to leave a room for weeks and now discovering that the grass, the humble ordinary grass that we walk on every day without noticing it, had become almost unbearably beautiful. I literally saw them bend down and touch it with wonder, regardless of my standing nearby, and then look up at the sky and shed tears of happiness just to be able to see it without a wall between. The leaves of a tree, the white clouds moving, the caress of a light wind on their faces, none of it dull in that blessed moment but filled with the sacred glory of the wondrous present. I stopped behind a man late one afternoon while he ran his hands over the rough bark of a tree, finding some special meaning for himself as he stood there in tears. I had the feeling it would be a long time before he would forget again that this is the day which the Lord has made, rejoice in it and be glad.
One of the truest Christian gentlemen I ever knew had taken that advice to heart. Every morning, soon after he woke up, he went into a little room, not much bigger than a large closet, which he had set aside as a place for meditation, and he knelt down to thank God for the gift of that particular day. Then he had breakfast and went to his job in downtown St. Louis as vice-president of one of the biggest comp-anies in America, ready to spend the day as if it were a miracle of grace….which it always is! He told me one day, as we sat at his dining room table, that a poet whose name he had forgotten, taught him about the wonder of an ordinary day. ”I have walked them through,” the poet said, “and found the quick surprises of their hours: some lovely, unexpected thing to do…I tread them softly, they are hallowed ground, there are no common days.”
What a difference it would make in our approach to life if we truly believed that. “What are you doing?” I ask the student in the snack lounge. “Oh, just killing time ,” he says….and looks bored enough to mean it. What a murder! One doesn’t have to be busy doing something all the time, of course. There is such a thing as creative solitude, a regrouping of forces, but the person who really does squander the day be-cause there’ll be plenty more is the most reckless of all spendthrift. The money you lose you may get back, the friendship you break may be restored, the house you ruin may be built up again….but no power on earth can bring back a wasted day.
I ran across a little composition the other day which had been written by a l4-year-old boy named Jason Lehman, who had either observed his parents failing to live in the moment, or had simply caught on to a great truth all by himself. I’ll try to read his 3-line stanzas so you can see them as you listen: “It was spring/ But it was sum-mer I wanted;/ The warm days and the great outdoors. It was summer,/ But it was fall I wanted;/ The colorful leaves and the cool, dry air. It was fall./ But it was winter I wanted;/ The beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season. It was winter./ But it was spring I wanted;/ The warmth and the blossoming of nature. I was a child./ But it was adulthood I wanted;/ The freedom and the respect. I was twenty./ But it was thirty I santed;/ To be mature and sophisticated. I was middle-aged./ But it was twenty I wanted;/ The youth and the free spirit. I was retored/ But it was middle-age I wanted;/ The presence of mind without limitations. My life was over./ But I never got what I wanted.”
I’ve been full of literary examples this morning while I tried to exalt the im-portance of living in the moment, so I may as well use one more. In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop a young seminary student tries to encourage an older priest who has become ill with a feverish chill and a bad cough after being drenched while returning in an open carriage from an errand of mercy. The young man says, “You should not be discouraged, father; one does not die of a cold.” “I shall not die of a cold, my son,” the old priest replies with a smile. “I shall die of having lived.”
May we all die so!
Forgive us the blasphemy, Eternal God, of letting any
day pass without our giving thanks for the wonder of it. Amen.