Stuck in a Moment

May 25, 2008
Stuart Twite


Many of you know that I am a lover of history, a passion that I trace back to my youth when each summer my family would pack up the car, hitch up the camper and set out along a carefully mapped route of KOA campgrounds to various points historical and natural.

These two weeks of the year meant a new world of exploration, camping, much driving (lots of driving) and museums.  My brothers and I loved museums and memorials and would beg to stop at every local small-town museum, statue, or roadside historical marker that we came across.  And then in the evening, we would become historical re-enactors, acting out what we had learned during the day.  In those moments we were Crazy Horse and General Custer, soldiers at Fort Sisseton, or pioneers crossing unknown territory.

I carried this love of history throughout my life, studying it in college and graduate school and teaching it to Junior High and High School students.

I first loved the Unitarian tradition (which I had no experience of) through my study of history, and before I ever laid eyes on this beautiful church or met any of its wonderful people, I read about, and loved, its history.

Like all great things, however, history and memory are subject to dangers and that is my subject this Memorial weekend.    For many, memory and history mean the "good old days" and are remembered fondly much to the detriment of a present that just doesn't seem to  measure up.  Others may not be able to comprehend a time before computers and rapid technological advances and wonder how people could have survived without such things.   Many, of us, seem to live as if history never happened.  So much of our lives are focused on the next thing, the next innovation, the next meeting, the next chore, that we find ourselves rarely living in the right now, much less with a guiding sense of the past.

And, finally, there is another danger, described in one of my favorite songs by the band U2, who sing, "You got stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it". 

I believe that all of us to one degree or another know what it is like to get stuck in a moment, to feel the weight of memory, and to feel so burdened by this weight that we are kept from living full and complete lives.

In Boston, we could call them Bill Buckner moments.  Buckner, of course, was the all-star first baseman for the Boston Red Sox who famously let an easy ground ball roll between his legs during the 10th inning of the sixth game of the World Series in 1986 allowing the winning run to score.  The Red Sox went on to lose game 7 and the series.  Buckner became almost a symbol of "the curse".

Buckner's "moment" was, of course, much more instant, public and dramatic than most of ours are.  But so was his "redemption"-Buckner threw out the first ball of this year's home opener and received a 4 minute standing ovation from the Boston crowd (I guess it's easy to be forgiving two World Series later.)   Incidentally, the poet John Hodgen wrote a poem called "Forgiving Buckner" the first line of which reads, "The world is always rolling between our legs."  True enough!

For most of us, our moments are more private and, though they can be dramatic, are often almost unnoticeable even to ourselves.  We may get stuck by fear, or by expectations never met, by a vision of something we could see and never quite reach, or by an addiction which has exactly this effect on life, or, of course, by tragedy. 

And it is not only in past moments that we can get stuck.  Our "memories of the future" can have much the same impact.  They tell us that when things change, then I will be content.  When this project is done, I can relax, when I find the right person or the right job, all will be well…

All of these things may manifest as a vague sense of discontent or as something so burdensome, life itself is often intolerable and we ask, "How can we get out of the moments that have us stuck?"  I would venture two related ideas both suggested by our reading this morning. 

First is the Buddhist concept of time and impermanence.  The great 13th Century Zen teacher and Abbot, Eihei Dogen believed that all those in search of enlightenment had to first understand that every day consists of 6,400,099,180 moments. 

What a great number! And what a great spiritual idea!  In Buddhist thought, each of those moments is completely separate and complete in themselves and each moment contains all other moments, past and present.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said much the same thing in his famous essay, History.  "There is one mind common to all individual people," Emerson wrote, "Every person is an inlet to the same and to all of the same.  What Plato has thought, we may think; what a saint has felt, we may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any person, we can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent."

What all this means to me is that we can create and re-create our lives by living in each moment and as we do that, we live these moments with all who have gone before and all that are to come.  I often sit alone in this sanctuary for a few minutes during each day in prayer and meditation and during those times I feel the thousands of people who have come through these doors in our long history and the thousands who are yet to make it here. 

Those moments are, for me, new and yet eternal.  In this sanctuary, it's not hard to imagine that we all share one universal mind.  Finally, if you want an even more practical application, just remember that if you don't like the moment you are in, you still have 6,400,099,179 chances to change in the next 24 hours alone!

The second way to un-stick ourselves from a moment is closely related to the first and was first suggested to me by my favorite 19th century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke who wrote a wonderful sermon called, "How to Turn Time into Life".  Turning time into life has become my central idea of what it means to live a religious life.  Have you ever felt that you were just marking time?  Or have you ever looked back on a day or week or longer and wondered where it went? 

Time passes inexorably but a life fully lived in each moment is eternal.  How can such a life be lived?  Clarke described it this way: 

"What we need in order to turn time into life is to have faith in the value of things; to believe that there are strange and marvelous mysteries all around us, waiting to be known;

that our life is surrounded by wonder and awe, ready to be revealed; that people are capable of immense progress, and have in them depths below depths of capacity… And most of all, have love…that is, go out of yourself;  go forth in sympathy with others; go forth to do them good."

Memorial Day began in the years just after the Civil War and was first observed in several states to honor the Soldiers of that horrible war.  This year I have found my thoughts centered on Henry Turner, a Norwell boy who served in the army during the Civil War, came home, worked his farm and became the Superintendent of the Sunday School of First Parish Church.  Sixty years later as the dark clouds of World War One were moving across Europe, he was still in that position, having dedicated his life to his family, town, and church.  I often half-joke that my goal is to beat his record-I only have 56 years to go!  (I figure I will be about 99 years old and on the day I break the record I plan to have a small reception to celebrate.  Everyone here is invited!)

It seems to me that Henry Turner turned his time into life and it struck me that the most fitting memorial any of us can give to those who have gone before and sacrificed so much, is to do likewise, to live fully and eternally in every moment, to live in love.   May it be so for all of us.  Amen