Living in the Layers

The Layers ~ by Stanley Kunitz | Galatians 1:11-24

I confess I’m getting hooked on the poems the PRISM class is reading this summer.  I promise we won’t be doing this every week, but once again we have a poem and scripture side-by-side. When I was putting together the service for this week I read the scripture and then the poem, and it was like the poetry became a lens for understanding the Apostle Paul’s life.

Paul, too, “walked through many lives.” The Book of Acts and his letters tell about his Damascus Road experience, that moment Jesus appeared to him and he was converted from being a persecutor of Christians to a missionary for the Gospel.  It was a complete reversal of identity, understanding and purpose. In the poet’s words, Paul “is not who he was.” Paul’s mission in life had been to protect the faith of his ancestors from what he saw as the apostasy of the early Christians, and he was brutal in fulfilling his mission.

But after being called by Christ, he is a different person. Paul’s “will [is] intact to go/ wherever [he] need[ed] to go,/…every stone on the road/…precious to [him].”

How does he live such a convoluted life, going so clearly in one direction, then turned on its head? How does he integrate his past with his present, his future? How does he make sense of it all?

Clearly, he sees God’s hand, because he has heard Jesus’ call.

Later in his life, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul reflects on his past. He tries to explain his own values, and what changed in him. He’s worried about the church there, how some seem to be swayed by people who seem so confident and self-assured. He tells how before his conversion, he of all people had reason to be confident. He lists his own credentials; how he was born in the ‘right kind’ of family, had done all the ‘right things’; how zealous he was, how quickly he became a rising star…  And how none of that mattered once Christ called him.

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things,” he writes, “and regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” [Phil. 3:8-9]

The poet writes,

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.”

A voice from heaven had told Paul what was worth living for. And he would not live in the rubbish of his life. Instead, he sees God’s hand in all the layers, calling him from one life to another; knowing that the second could not have existed without the first. People were saying, “The man who used to persecute [Christians] now preaches the faith that he once tried to destroy.” And, Paul knows, they glorified God because of him.

“Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

Few people have stories as dramatic as Paul’s, to be sure. But all of us have ‘litter’ we would like to leave behind. Anyone who has a past has moments of pain or sorrow or regret, things we wish we could undo, wreckage we roam through in our memories. How do we reconcile those parts of ourselves? How do we take the road forward?

When I read this poem I found myself thinking about my own life, and its twists and turns. A memory came up unbidden, something I hadn’t thought about in years. I was 24 years old, two years out of college, finishing my second year at Duke Divinity School. I was about to leave Duke. I hadn’t finished my degree but I was leaving, with no idea what to do next, just that I couldn’t stay. I was miserable, and lost. I had made a few friends and learned from some fine professors… but there was so much more that was wrong than what was right. I won’t go into it all now, but it was clear I didn’t belong there. It just felt like a terrible mistake. And I was leaving behind a tangle of broken relationships that would never be mended.

All I could see was the litter, the rubbish. My life was a mess and I had no idea where it was going from there. What could God possibly make of all that?

That spring I went on a daylong retreat. I remember that day so clearly. The retreat center out in the wooded hills of North Carolina, a haven from the storms of my life…. wooden rocking chairs arranged in a circle in a beautiful room filled with light…  the retreat leader leading us into a deep meditation….

An image came into my mind… I was walking along a country road, slat-wood fences lining the fields on either side. I was carrying a yellow tangle of yarn, wondering how on earth I would get it unraveled. How did it get so tangled? How would the knots ever come out?

A woman was working in a field near the fence, and she came up to talk with me. She looked at the yarn, then looked at me for a good long moment, her eyes filled with good sense and compassion. And she said to me, “Don’t try to untangle the knots. Just weave.” 

And I knew in my darkest night, however messed up my life had become, that God could use it as the fabric to weave something new. What I saw as a hopeless tangle was the backdrop for something more beautiful.

“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” the poet asks. The only way I know is this: to see God hand leading us through all of our lives, through all the transformations we experience, the twists and turns we have faced, and still will.

On the cover of our bulletin is a labyrinth. You can use your finger to trace the pattern, first inward, then out. If you do, you’ll notice something about it: the path of isn’t straightforward. Just when you think you’re close to the center, a turn takes you farther away. And yet it leads, in the end, to the heart.

The twists and turns aren’t often easy. But maybe we can trust God is there, too. Leading us through all the losses and milestones, joys and sorrows, failures and successes, turning, turning… inviting us to live not in the litter, but in the layers.

In a few minutes we’ll be sharing communion. We’re coming forward this time, to receive by intinction. As you come up, I invite you: think of your own life’s journey, your own twists and turns. Let your walk be a symbol of your life’s path.

And as you turn to go back, let it be a sign of your future… the transformations that lie ahead, wherever you need to go.

For every stone is precious…. And God will be with you at every turn.


Rev. Karen Chakoian

First Presbyterian Church, Granville, OH