These Are the Good Old Days (12/30/01)
University Congregational Church, Wichita, Kansas
Carly Simon sang a song back in the seventies called These Are the Good Old Days. It’s funny—I don’t remember a thing about that song—not the lyrics nor any of the melody—other than the chorus, which said over and over again, “These are the good old days.”
I suppose that chorus found a permanent place in my memory because it strikes me as being true. Whatever days we are living in really are the “good old days.” It’s just that we don’t realize it at the time. For some reason, a certain amount of time must pass before we are able to put all the good things about life—all the good things that are happening right now—in perspective, and really appreciate them.
Now, I have never enjoyed hearing some preacher stand in the pulpit and talk all about himself. That happens a lot. It’s just a part of human nature that even people with fairly modest egos usually find themselves to be their very favorite subject. And preachers are not known for having modest egos, so what you might call “inappropriate self-disclosure” tends to be a problem in the pulpit.
But to begin this discussion about the way we look at life, and the way we think about time, I have no choice but to be a little more self-disclosing than usual. I’m going on the assumption that my experiences will resonate with you; that you will say, “Yes, I’ve done that exact same thing.” If not, well, then you can tell your friends about the morning your minister mistook the pulpit for a psychiatrist’s couch—me being the patient and you being the psychiatrist.
When Leigh and I were first married, we added our two fortunes together and realized that we didn’t have enough money to buy a pack of bubble gum. We moved into a tiny apartment in Oklahoma City. I remember the first thing we purchased together: a dinette set with four chairs. Total cost: $49.99. Yes, it was a real beauty. But it beat sitting on the living room floor to eat our meals.
As we began raising our children, the apartment was terribly cramped, but at least there was a large lawn for them to play in, and lots and lots of children in their age group. We constantly looked ahead to the day when we would have a place of our own. And that day finally arrived. We purchased a small home on a corner lot in a suburb of Oklahoma City, which to this day we refer to as the “house on 4th Street.” It had a very large back yard, just like the one we had when I was growing up, and I could envision the kids joyfully running and jumping and playing all manner of games in that glorious back yard, which was all our own.
It only took about a year to realize that the only time anybody was going to be spending much time in that huge back yard was when I was pushing a lawn mower across it. But we liked the house, and the neighborhood. Still, every time we drove past that old apartment building where we had spent so much time, I couldn’t help but think of the good old days. I could still envision that snowman with the buttons for eyes and the carrot for a nose, the first snowman our daughters Cara and Lisa built together. And remember what a time we had getting home with that little dinette set, strapped to the roof of our old Buick, with the chairs hanging out of the trunk. Ah, those were the good old days.
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And throughout those years on 4th Street we dreamed of buying a bigger house, where we wouldn’t be stumbling over each other in the kitchen, and where there would be enough bathrooms to prevent a fair number of unnecessary arguments over the appropriate amount of time one should spend in such a facility, as the needs of others grew more and more immediate.
And then, when Cara and Lisa were in high school, we moved to the house on Kimberling Avenue. This was our dream house. I had learned my lesson from the house on 4th Street. This time, instead of buying a little house on a big lot, we bought a big house on a little lot. And every now and then we would drive by that little house on 4th street, and talk sentimentally about the day we brought Corinne home from the hospital.
And remember what a big deal Halloween was on 4th Street! Every house on the street was decorated, haunted music poured out the doors and windows, and the street was literally filled with youngsters seeking a good scare and a bag full of treats. Yes, those were the good old days.
And then the day came when we threw caution to the wind, and through an amazing series of events we wound up in Wichita, Kansas, moving into the house on Carr Street. And when we look back on those days we spent in that house on Kimberling—days which seemed so ordinary at the time—we realize that during those years two daughters graduated from high school. The third daughter, Corinne, went from pre-school to junior high. That was one of the most special times in our lives, but it seems like we almost missed it while it was happening. And even today, when we visit Oklahoma City and drive by that house on Kimberling, I have a feeling of nostalgia that almost drives me to tears.
Now, we live in West Wichita, about as far from the church as one can get while still living in the same town. And we look forward to moving to this side of town after Corinne graduates from high school. We laugh about our house, sometimes. It serves us well, but it’s not where we want to spend the rest of our lives. Some people who have truly glorious estates give their houses names—like “Tara,” in Gone With the Wind. I have affectionately given our house the name “Boxcar Willie.” Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good house. And it will be for sale in a year or two, if any of you are looking for something on the west side!
But every now and then it hits me, as I travel daily along the now familiar streets. I see the stores I pass every day, the familiar landmarks, the houses that line our street. And, realizing that once we move to the east side of town we will have no reason to venture to the far western edge of Wichita, I can almost capture the feelings I will have when I see these places in the future, with the benefit of memory, with the gift of hindsight.
We rush through our days, fondly remembering the past and anticipating a future that will be even better. But we can never quite grasp that it is the present time, the present moment, that is the future we once envisioned and the past that we will reflect upon with such affection. Like I say, I get a glimpse of it every now and then, as I experience the present slowly turning into the past; but it’s a fleeting glimpse.
As I look back on my adult life, I view it in segments. There were the apartment years, the 4th Street years, the Kimberling years, and the West Wichita years. This current period—the West Wichita years—have been the best years of all. Corinne, our youngest daughter, entered this period as a child and will leave it as a young woman. It was in these years that our older daughters grew into their own, and that we forged new relationships—adult-to-adult relationships. It was during this time that I grew from a new minister, hoping for acceptance, seeking my own voice, and wondering where my ministry would ultimately lead, into a minister who feels like he has found his voice, and more importantly, found his spiritual home, and the people with whom he wants to spend his ministry, and his life. These are the good old days.
Well, enough self-disclosure. I hope some of my reflections hit home with you. It just seems like there’s something in human nature that keeps us from ever fully realizing the potential of the present time. We make plans for the future, we think back on the past, and the present moment seems to slip by almost unnoticed.
Looking back on Christian history, and for that matter all religious history, the great mystics seem to have been able to live fully in the present. When I read my favorite mystics—Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla—they all seem to have been able to escape the tension between past and future that holds most of us in its grip. In meditation, which I admit I have never mastered as an art, they say the trick is to enter into the spaces between your thoughts. That’s why with some meditation techniques you concentrate on a particular object, or repeat a simple phrase. The idea is to move beyond thought, because thinking is something we do. The great mystics find ways to simply be.
When I read the mystics, especially the great mystics from the Middle Ages, they all seem to point to the same truth. When you manage to shut everything else out, and there’s nothing left but you, you encounter a brief and remarkably frightening moment when you feel tragically empty; when the universe suddenly appears to be a vast and meaningless accident. And it is then, as you hold open that empty space, that God comes rushing in to fill the void. Henry Nouwen, a Twentieth Century mystic, said the whole point of prayer is to hold open empty space inside of yourself so God has a place to fill. It is something God does when you find a way just to be.
Well, since this topic tends to get a little heavy for this early on a Sunday morning, I’ll pass on an old joke on this subject of “being” verses “doing.” I believe I may have already told you this joke several years ago, but it’s worth another look. I first read this little gem in a Kurt Vonnegut book, and he claims he found it written on the wall of a bathroom, which is, after all, where some of our greatest philosophy is found. These are the words Vonnegut discovered scratched across the bathroom wall:
To do is to be—Jean Paul Sartre;
To be is to do—Socrates;
Do be do be do—Sinatra.
After I wrote that little joke down on paper for this sermon, I was really stumped about where to go next. It sort of slammed the brakes on my train of thought regarding the mystical encounters with God of the renowned medieval mystics. But then something really funny happened. I sat staring at my computer, thinking, where the heck am I going to go with this thing now, and I just stared at those lines, over and over:
To do is to be—Sartre; to be is to do—Socrates; do be do be do—Sinatra. And I had this strange little epiphany. Maybe Sinatra had it right. If we force some philosophy into that little phrase—do be do be do—we could say that a life balanced between doing and being would be a well-lived life. We should all take some time just to be—go quietly to the mountaintop and rest in the presence of God. And then we need to come down from the mountain and do something. We weren’t meant to spend our whole lives in solitude. Working together is what its all about.
Okay, that’s a stretch. But the more common, and less philosophical, interpretation of do be do be do is just as meaningful. Which one of those guys—Sartre, Socrates or Sinatra—was really living in the present moment? Which one of those guys was living life fully? I have to wonder if Socrates and Sartre weren’t taking themselves a little bit too seriously. Don’t get me wrong—I love philosophy, and I think we owe it to ourselves to reflect on the meaning of life. But I also know that if a person isn’t careful with his approach to philosophy he can tie his mind up in some sort of Chinese hoodoo knot. And he still isn’t one step closer to the truth.
Well, the best answers to life’s riddles are the easy ones, so I’m going to pass on a very simple idea about living in the present. I’m on pretty solid ground here, theologically speaking. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
This idea about living in the present comes from one of the seminars I attended when I worked for ITT. I think everybody here knows what its like to be busy—very busy. And I’m sure many of you have had jobs, or still have jobs, in which you can never get caught up. If you take one item out of your “in’ basket, it is replaced with three more.
The stress that results from that type of atmosphere, day in and day out, is not only hard on your health, it hampers your productivity. I learned a technique that I found very beneficial, and there are still times when I use it, even today. It is called the day-tight compartment.
Using the day-tight compartment technique works only if you are willing to do a little planning ahead. When you have a million things to do, you decide what things you are going to attack today, and you list them out. Then, very importantly, you make a list of what you want to accomplish tomorrow. That “tomorrow” list is very important, because you put it on your alarm clock so it is the first thing you will see when you wake up the next day.
And here’s the trick: you forget about tomorrow. You cannot do tomorrow’s work today, so you put it completely out of your mind. Giving it any thought whatsoever is in no way beneficial, and will in fact keep you from accomplishing what you need to today. And no, you won’t forget about what you need to do tomorrow, because it’s in writing, right there on your alarm clock.
You promise yourself that for this day, you are going to live in a day-tight compartment. This day is all you have. Thinking about yesterday or tomorrow will only get in the way of today. It’s almost as if your whole life begins when you arise and ends when you go to sleep. And the moment you start to worry about tomorrow, you remember you have a list on your alarm clock and you refuse to give it another thought.
The day-tight compartment may sound a little strange, and it takes a little practice, but believe it or not, it can be an amazing stress reliever. And if you find yourself wanting to run home and take a peek at that note containing tomorrow’s list of obligations, just remember the words of Jesus: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
The reason large corporations teach this method to their employees is so they will get more done. I mean, you can plan and worry all day long about that ditch that needs to get dug, but unless somebody grabs a shovel and start slinging some dirt, you aren’t going to wind up with a ditch.
But I’m not running a large corporation, and the purpose of my sermon this morning is not to make you all more effective employees. My hope for all of you is the same hope I have for myself—that day-to-day we grow into more fulfilled and more loving human beings. And I don’t think that’s going to happen if we spend too much time worrying about the past and fretting over the future.
The great commandment of Jesus is the whole key to life: Love God with your heart, soul and mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Whether or not we fulfilled that commandment yesterday, or last week, or last year, is of no concern. The past is gone. We can’t get it back and we can’t change it, so we have to let it go. And like that ditch that never gets dug unless the moment finally arrives when somebody actually grabs a shovel, the time to commit ourselves to love of God and neighbor is not tomorrow. It’s today, always today.
In fact, perhaps we should put three things on the top of our list every single day:
Number One: love God;
Number Two: love our neighbors;
And Number Three…Can you guess what number three is? Well, since Jesus said that he came that we may have life and have it abundantly, and since there is no such thing, really, as a joyless Christian, and since we really are meant to go through life with a smile on our face and a song in our heart, and since these really are the good old days, maybe our list should read like this:
Number One: love God;
Number Two: love our neighbors;
Number Three: do be do be do.