On the Corner

Old walls

by Robert Docter – 

Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into
a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old

The poetry of Carl Sandburg generates within me a wide range of thoughts and emotions.

This prayer triggers for me the image of “old walls” erected by someone in some time for some purpose no longer discernable. The image is not one of stone or brick or wood. When I think of old walls, my thoughts turn to old, worn out, loveless, graceless rules that seal us off from each other. They separate us—me from you, him from her, rich from poor, young from old, your culture from my culture, your beliefs from my beliefs. Walls keep us apart. We even build them high enough to separate ourselves from God.

Fear seems often to be a common rationale in their construction—these walls that fence us apart—that isolate us one from another—that disallow contact and inhibit communication. They’re constructed to protect us from outside threat. We fail to recognize, however, that the same wall that protects us from some unwanted incursion also limits the scope of our own freedom. We deny ourselves growth opportunities as we immerse ourselves in a mythical bath of safety—limiting our contact only to those who are like us—only to those who agree with us. Slowly, boredom takes charge of our lives in the smothering grasp of safety’s embrace. Even then, fenced into a growthless compound of sameness, we turn away the stranger at the door. He’s different.

We fear difference and react to it harshly. We describe the difference with words that seek to diminish our targets—our fear objects. As we stereotype those outside our little enclave we endeavor to elevate ourselves by making them smaller. We take pride in our superior position and express it with “proud words.” They hurt and damage. They cut and slash in our effort to lift ourselves in some imaginary competition. Wounds from proud words leave permanent scars.

Sandburg speaks of this in a little poem called “Primer Lesson.”

Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is not easy to
call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud;
they can’t hear you calling –
Look out how you use proud words.

David, now an old man, felt the wall growing tighter—the enclosure shrinking—enemies from without and within diminishing him. Holed-up in a cold, dark cave, sustained only by a loyal few, he found himself and his God on the eve of battle—the battle of his life. The prophet Nathan had told him a story of a rich man with great flocks of sheep who took a poor man’s only lamb and prepared it for a friend instead of using one of his own. In a rage, David roared out that the rich man should die. Nathan said: “You are that man.”

And then Nathan explained how he had built a wall that separated him from God.

When we are unaware of racist behavior in our actions toward other humans; when we are immobilized by fear as individuals from other cultures confront us; when we disparage them with “proud words,” we diminish ourselves, despise God’s word, and erect tall walls between ourselves and others and between ourselves and God.

David had run full speed into his wall. He knew it, and he confessed his sin against the Lord. At the end of his story, he sang a beautiful song of thanksgiving and praise to God that includes these lines: You are my lamp, O Lord; the Lord turns my darkness to light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall. (2nd Sam. 22: 29, 30)

Lay me on an anvil, O God.

That’s not a comfortable place to be—on an anvil, with a hammer in God’s hands. It’s painful to recognize our wall-building, but the product of the pain is a new person—fashioned into something useful—maybe with strength to “leap over a wall”—or maybe even a crowbar ready to loosen old walls.

(Carl Sandburg. Harvest Poems 1910-1960. Harcourt Brace &World. New York. 1960)

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