“Time, you old gipsy man”
Let’s see, in addition to the normal duties which I enjoy, the last full week of this year involved the following: a double worship service of music on Sunday, followed that afternoon by a wedding; our midnight Christmas Eve servoce on Tuesday; a quick trip to Oklahoma City over Wednesday and Thursday; a baptism and a wedding rehearsal on Friday; my final wedding ceremony of the year last night; and earlier this morning, as you have already heard, I baptized my last four babies of 1996. Now it’s time for the final sermon of the year, which I always feel should be related, in one way or another, to the whole business of time itself.
As I thought about that last week, I suddenly remembered a poem I liked in college but had not read in years. The old anthology was on a shelf high above my desk, so I reached for it and got aquainted with an old favorite. “Time, you old gipsy man,/ Will you not stay,/ Put up your caravan / Just for one day?” The speaker promises all sorts of things if time will rest a while: the sound of bells, the gift of a great golden ring, little boys singing, sweet girls bedecking him with flowers — why hasten away? the speaker asks. But time is a river without a dam, and pays no attention to the speaker, who resigns himself in these words: “Only a moment,/ And off once again;/ Off to some city / Now blind in the womb, / Off to another / Ere that’s in the tomb.” And then the plaintive unavailing chorus: “Time, you old gipsy man,/ Will you not stay,/ Put up your caravan/ Just for one day?”
The answer, forever and ever, is No. You may have seen that painting in which time has hair in front but is bald in back, signifying that we have to grab time as it comes because once gone by there’s no way to pull it back. It would be morbid to dwell on that thought all year, but if you are at all like me you think about it with special poignancy right now when the dying year reminds us how silently and swiftly time races on with bits and pieces of our life in its hands. We need to remember once in a while how precarious life is, because it’s the knowledge that things cannot last that makes them so achingly sweet. I wanted to ask each one of you what wonderful day in ‘96 you would like to live over again — I wish I could have collected your responses and read them, but the old gypsy man said, “You don’t have enough time for that!” so — since I was handy — I asked myself. I will share my response in the hope that as I do it, you will think about the answer you would have given.
For me, August the 7th was such a day. I was on a beautiful wild river deep in a magnficent canyon, rafting and kayaking all day long with an irreplaceable partner, a beloved daughter and son-in-law, and two very special grandchildren. When we camped on a beach at day’s end, the others heard a rumor that a hidden ranch a mile or so away had that most cherished of modern conveniences, a working bathroom, so they all rushed off talking happily about what it would be like to have real privacy, and pull a little handle, and hear the sound of rushing, helpful water.
I considered it a greater joy to make a seat on the soft sand, lean back against a boulder, listen to the five young guides talk and laugh down by the river as they prepared supper, and watch three or four frisky ocky mountain sheep high on a cliff face that was still lighted by the setting sun. It was a very minor detail that it was my birthday. I have had several of those! But it wasn’t bad, a little later, when everybody came back, and the guides came trooping up from the river in single file to where I was, each one carrying a cheesecake (blueberry, strawberry, pineapple) and singing Happy Birthday to a man they had met for the first time only three days before. I remember thinking, when the campfire burned out that night and I crawled into my sleeping tent, that so perfect a day could never be repeated: other good days would come, but not that one — not that same sequence of events in that place with the same good people who began the trip as total strangers and bonded to become caring friends. It was that knowledge, that I could not call the old gypsy man back to play that day over, that made its loveliness almost unbearably poignant.
Now, almost five months later, deeply immersed again in my chosen life of ministry, I have been thinking in the past few days about paying my respects to Time this morning as one more pulpit year comes to an end. I will rejoice with you in the New Year and its promise for this place, but right now you have a minister in a mellow mood reminding a beloved audience how terribly important it is to make the most of each day’s pause by the old gypsy man and his restless caravan. I want each one of you to say, with Tennyson, “Come, Time, and teach me…..”
About the brevity of life, for one thing, and quite naturally, I think of what our sacred book has to say. The matchless 90th Psalm, for example: “We spend our years as a tale that is told…..they are like a dream at daybreak.” Or the reminder from James in the New Testament to those who say too glibly what they mean to do tomorrow: “You have no idea what tomorrow will bring. What, after all, is your life? It is like a puff of smoke visible for a little while and then dissolving into thin air.” And the philosophers have said it, too. “Write it on your heart,” Emerson says, “that every day is the best day in the year.”
Have you ever heard of the days talking to one another? There is a line of verse in Hebrew song that says they do. The 19th Psalm has this moment of poetry: “One day speaks to another….and this without speech or language or sound of any voice.” I like to imagine that this is one time in the year when yesterday, today and tomorrow all get together to share the truth about themselves for those of us who have ears to hear their voiceless message. How Yesterday is impossible to restore, although his tracks are everywhere. How Tomorrow is queen of hope, with its promise of another chance. And how Today is Lord of the Present, the only time we actually possess. We should listen to their conversation.
Some years ago I published an essay about the endless flow of time; please forgive my presumption in sharing it with you. These words came near the end of it: “I remember now, in the cold of winter, how I stood a few months ago on a Kansas knoll and looked over a gently rolling carpet of green wheat standing tall in the June sunlight. The moment was rare, because the wind was still. Nothing moved within my whole range of vision; I was part of a photograph in which motion had been conquered. But it did not last. There came suddenly from the south a warm puff of wind. It rolled invisibly across the field in undulating troughs and stirred the branches of the hedgerow trees into life. Then, as quickly as it had come, it passed on. The throb it had communicated to wheat and leaf grew fainter and fainter, until soon the odd stillness came again.
“So it is with us. Out of the dark backward and abysm of time, out of the nostrils of God, if you will, there comes this faint breath called Time that moves our hearts. It may be just as well that we live out most of our days without reflecting upon it as I do here. But once in a while, at the end of something, we put our fingers on our pulses and remember that we are creatures of an hour. A new year dawns, and we mix regret with what has gone forever with hope for what may lie ahead. I have no solemn preachments except for this reminder: The wind of time that blows through us at this very moment is invisible and we forget it easily, but everyone we love is bending under its passage. So while we and they tremble in that precious stirring we call life, let us be glad. Nothing in all the world walks so softly as the foot of Time toward the day when things will cease to matter, but until that happens, let us write it on our hearts that each day has promise to be the best day in the year.”
These few days before January comes are always a time for unwinding. The rush of the holidays is most over, children and parents get back into their familiar routines, things are quieter but already we miss each other….there is a bittersweet gladness about the Christmas visits. The tree goes out to the trash, the ribbons come down, we amuse ourselves by pondering the resolutions we probably ought to make.
We poke a lot of fun at those New Year’s resolutions because so many are forgotten by mid-January — sometimes even sooner than that. I looked at a quaint old British Almanac once and noticed that it had as Item #1 under the first day of January these words: “Good Resolution-breaking begins. Nice touch of humor, I thought at the time; now I think it may have been more realistic than I gave it credit for. Maybe, instead of resolutions, we should think about priorities, which are not the same thing. Resolutions tend to be holiday games; we use the turning of the calendar to shoot for a new set of habits, but most of them are cosmetic and not at the center.
We might be better off to think of perspectives. Have we discovered at the end of this year that some of the things we thought were really important a year ago weren’t so important after all? What is to be our angle on things in ‘97? From what vantage point will we look at the world next year? Have you ever had the feeling that there is something frantic about the way many of us live, about all the activities that have mastered us? “Quiet desperation,” Thoreau called it. We work on, following the clock, the appointment book. Five o’clock finally comes and work is done. Another day is gone, and we begin to arm ourselves against the empty hours….by planning our appointments for….tomorrow! We need to break into that routine at times and savor the grace of the present moment. I love the story of the famous Harvard University philosophy professor, George Santayana, who lectured away one morning to his class for about ten miutes before he suddenly stopped, looked through the open window, and said to his class: ‘Gentlemen [it was still an all-male preserve, I’m afraid], Gentlemen, it is springtime. The Earth is alive. The forsythia is in bloom and that is far, far more important than philosophy. Let’s go for a walk.”
Well, philosophy can wait sometimes, but I know something that can’t. An old friend of mine writes, “In the past few years I have been touched by the death of my father. One thought kept coming back into my mind, one question: why do we wait, the majority of us, until the last week of someone’s life to tell them what they have meant to us?…..Why did I wait,” he goes on, “until the last week to lean down over my 90-pound father who was racked with cancer to whisper to him, ‘Dad, you have been a great father, thank you so much, I love you.’ Tears filled my father’s eyes eyes as he struggled to respond to me with words I could not remember having heard: ‘I love you too, son.’ Why do we wait?” my friend asked once more.
I think in these dying hours of another year how time gets away from us. Time when we might have written a letter, just one, to rekindle the lamp of love or friendship — time when a letter would have explained everything, when a word would have made things right. I’ll write it next week, we kept saying….and suddenly it was too late. If there is a quarrel, square it before the death of this year. Some of you must think often, as Billie and I do, of parents we loved dearly but in the heedlessness of youth and the busy years of enjoying our own children often took for granted. They worked hard on our behalf, and never had as rich lives as we have enjoyed; sometimes when the two of us walk up from the golf course toward the back yard of our house, which looks friendly and welcoming, we find ourselves fantasizing together about how wonderful it would be if they could return for just a single day, to know that because of their wise love we have had good and happy lives.
Is there a friend whose importance in your life you have never yet spoken in so many words? Was there a teacher who made an indelible impression? A group of young men and women were together somewhere in Wichita the other day, talking about their favorite teacher. They named two or three they had enjoyed, but they were unanimous about one. “Mrs. Meyers,” they sang out in unison, “she was our favorite!” And they went on to share recollections — the boys who loved her always optimistic face and her laughter and how gently but firmly she kept them in line; the girls who waited eagerly each day to see what she would wear and then went home and tried to look the same — and all of them so grateful years later for her insistence that they learn something. She would not have known what she meant to them except that one of them took the time to tell her….and it took no genius to see how happy it made her to know she had made a difference. You have a word of praise for a teacher, a friend, your parents? Speak it soon.
Gracious God, please accept my sincerest prayer of hope that in the
New Year which begins this week, all who have listened this day, and
all who love this place but could not be with us, may fill another year with
useful work and great happiness. Amen.