Sermonizing while Sheltering-in-Place

Enjoying a Fire while Staying at Home

I have stayed away from the blog as I was feeling poorly the past week. I am happy that my symptoms are nearly gone, but still choose to stay in, considering the strange world we have suddenly inherited. The past week has been given mostly to reading and sleeping–mostly the latter because my eyes couldn’t take as much reading as I’ve been accustomed to do. But now that I’m feeling better, it’s been good to return to thinking and writing. I’ve also begun work on a new painting, and will gladly share it when there is more progress to show.

Now retired, I look back and acknowledge that my years in public education have given much more back to me than I was ever able to give to my students. A wonderful student of mine from the 1990’s reached out to me recently, sharing that she had been enriched from a sermon I posted several years back. In time I will probably repost that sermon, but have responded to her generous words by re-writing a half-dozen of the sermons I delivered about a decade ago from a Unitarian pulpit.

Having said this, I feel the need to offer the following disclaimer: I felt a welcoming presence in the Unitarian congregation because I was free to share my deepest, innermost thoughts about the religious dimension. There was no creed to chain me and I have felt a wholeness and blessedness since the days I met that congregation long ago. Prior to the Unitarian connection, I was ordained and served for nearly fifteen years congregations of the evangelical persuasion, and persuasion is a good word to describe them. I no longer crumple under their expectations, nor do I ever wish to inflict that upon my hearers or readers. So I say to you directly: if my expressed thoughts bring good will to you, then I am deeply grateful. But if they offend, I have no desire for debate, and take no joy in wounding someone’s sentiments. I ask nothing from my readers whether it be praise or rebuke. I am choosing to put these occasional meditations on the blog knowing now that there is at least one that has been touched. When she wrote me last week, she expressed that she never appreciated feeling manipulated. That is my sentiment exactly–I never respond well to a blog that I feel is being manipulative of its readers, and never wish to fall into that trap myself.

Thank you always for reading, and I hope I bring you peace and goodwill.

The Courage to Create

          On a pre-dawn morning I stepped out into the velvet, lavender darkness and drank in the delicious October cool.  The skies were brimming with crystal-bright, silent affirming stars, and that vaulting firmament overhead was so deep, so vast.  And meanwhile down here below—a quiet stillness of sleep still enveloped my entire residential block.  Only a few scattered yellow lights burned in the neighborhood windows.  It seemed that I was the only thing moving across that front lawn and out into the vacant street.   The world seemed so vast, so dark.  I felt small, lost in an expansive, enveloping cosmos.

            But of course, it was a school morning, so naturally, I was conflicted.  In one ear, I could Robert Frost muttering: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  BUT I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  Can’t stop now!  Gotta get to school!  Gotta run off a test! 

            Fortunately, I have two ears.  So while Robert Frost was snarling in one, Henry David Thoreau was rhapsodizing in the other: “The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.  . . . Morning is when I am awake, and there is a dawn in me.”[1]  So, I paused in the predawn velvet and felt a genuine, deep-seated gratitude.  I worshiped. 

            I am much different, now as an older man, than I was as a curious child, or as an exploring adolescent, or as a developing university mind.  Having been brought up in the church, I was acquainted with the biblical writings, but they did not reach out to me then as they are capable of reaching me now.  An example I choose today, since I am following a creation theme, is the opening creation story in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible.  These writings are believed to have originated from a Priestly tradition, so they are quite rhetorical and liturgical in their original language.  (The English isn’t half-bad either.)  Let me read a few verses from it now.  I am taking this reading from the Jewish Study Bible:

            When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.   God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.  

On my blessed pre-dawn morning, as those words rolled across my consciousness, I felt a deep gratitude, a genuine benediction.  I was on my way to school, and it was morning, the first movement at the top of the day—another day to create.  Another day to make life significant.  And I do not know the source of this prayer, but the words came to me long ago, and I can never forget them:

“Who art thou O Lord, and tell me, what am I?”  Those words again sounded out their refrain in the darkness of that particular morning, and for them I had a reply.  I am a man, created in the image of a God whose very idea overwhelms me, overpowers me and inspires me to explore life and respond creatively.  I believe God created people to be creative and thus reflect the image of God in this world.

A moment ago, I read the first day of the Priestly creation account.  Let me skip down now to that crowning sixth and final day of the creation cycle recorded in Genesis:

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

God created the human being in his own image.  Catholic theologians like to quote that term from the Latin Vulgate, the Imago Dei—the image of God.  Just what exactly is this Imago Dei?  What does it mean to be created in the image of God?  What is it, to be like God?  The answers to that have been manifold over the centuries, but let us take a fresh look now—as we read the initial words of this creation account, how do they identify God—what is he doing?   “In the beginning God created.”  This is a God to whom the first thing mentioned is that he creates.  He creates a wonderfully complex world, and then he crowns it with his creation of humans.  And the words testify that God makes people in his image—people made in God’s image reflect God’s image as often as they create.

Watch a child in the nursery with a pile of blocks before him, and what will that curious child do with those blocks (once he finds out they won’t fit in his mouth)?  He’ll stack them, or arrange them, or fiddle with them.  He will explore their possibilities.  From the days of our curious infancy, we begin to create.

So, to sum up—we’ve reflected this morning about a glorious world, and the confession of a God who has created this world, and has created people in his image with the curiosity and the drive to be creators.  Now let’s move on to the center of this meditation: “The Courage to Create.”  I wish now to address courage—the courage to create. 

Why is it a fearful thing to create?  What do we mean, when we say that it takes courage to create?  Well, fundamentally, the act of creation is futuristic.  When we create, we are stepping into the future, which is the unknown.  The ominous note sounded in the Genesis story we just read a moment ago relays a world enveloped in darkness, a void, described as the deep, or as the abyss.  And God moved into that void and began to arrange.

The abyss for us is the unknown, the future that is dark.  As we live, and create, we are always moving into that unknown.  I am going to quote now from the eminent American psychologist Rollo May, and some of you will recognize echoes from the ideas of Martin Heidegger:

“We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us.  That is what the existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness.  To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize.”[2]

Now, do you notice, when people get involved in any kind of discussion involving “creativity,” that the words that arise from such conversations are words such as “talent, skill, gifts, genius,” etc., but not “courage”?  Talent, skill, gifts, genius—call these what you wish, but I am going to gather them up and put them under the category of “virtues.”  And before I began reading Paul Tillich and Rollo May, I looked at courage as just one of many virtues, alongside of love, faithfulness, skillfulness, etc.  Courage was just one more virtue among a catalogue of virtues.

Listen now to the argument of Rollo May: “Courage is not a virtue or value among other personal values like love or fidelity.  It is the foundation that underlies and gives reality to all other virtues and personal values.  Without courage our love pales into mere dependency.  Without courage our fidelity becomes conformism.

“The word courage comes from the same stem as the French word coeur, meaning ‘heart.’  Thus just as one’s heart, by pumping blood to one’s arms, legs, and brain enables all the other physical organs to function, so courage makes possible all the psychological virtues.  Without courage other values wither away into mere facsimiles of virtue.  . . . In human beings courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible.”[3] 

And courage does not mean the absence of despair.  Rollo May has written eloquently that courage is “the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.”[4]  Our celebrated inventor Thomas Edison once testified: “Oh, I admit I had such times of discouragement and despair that I ached to give it all up.  But something kept me going.  I guess it was faith—the kind you have when you are young and don’t know any better.”  It takes courage to create.

Right now, when I talk of human creativity, I am not talking about creating paintings, or designing buildings or publishing novels or musical composition.  I am talking about the fundamentals of creation in which all of us take part as members of this human race: when we make daily decisions we are creating, in that we are shaping our lives.  And as we create our daily lives, we are shaping our environment; we are taking part in building our communities.  When we educate ourselves, we are creating our intellects.  When we make moral decisions, we are creating our character, and making a contribution, not only to this immediate community, but to history as well.  As written by the American poet bard, Walt Whitman: “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.  The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”  Just imagine now: What could your verse be?

I could talk forever about the dynamics involved in the daily creative process, but I will choose just one from our biblical text.  We read at the beginning of how God divided the light from the darkness.  That is the first dynamic mentioned in this creation story—when creating the world, God first divided the light from the darkness.  There is so much that could be said in interpreting that line.  But here is what I am doing with it.  I’m not going to talk about the light and darkness in terms of good and evil, or truth and ignorance.  I understand and respect that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and countless others have done just that, and they had their personal reasons, as well as the particular environments they addressed in their day.  Perhaps many of you also here this morning have interpreted the cosmic light and darkness in that fashion, as good and evil, or truth and ignorance. 

What I am seeing, in this choice of words, is one of the methods described in the creative action.  God creates by separating light from darkness.  He creates by dividing, discerning, and arranging things, putting them in their respectful places.  And so do we practice that in our everyday lives—we sort things; we arrange things.  We divide.  We parcel.  And so I see in this text the light and darkness as two halves making up the reality, with both having their place.  Both have their time, and it is not simultaneous.  The light separates from the darkness.  Day separates from the night.  There is a time to “make hay while the sun shines,” and there is a time to say “now I lay me down to sleep.”  There is a purpose in the day cycle and the night cycle.  They both have their value.  So I choose light and darkness in this meditation as representing two conflicting elements laying claim to our attention at the same time.  We can only deal with them alternatively, not simultaneously.  One of those will simply have to wait—it will be handled. 

Years ago, when preaching occasionally at a Unitarian Church, I enjoyed the portion of the morning worship when a retired psychology professor led us in meditation. In his guided remarks, he reminded us that right now we relax.  There could be other things right now striving for our attention, and they are important, but for now it is okay to set them aside and come back to them later.  The power we have as creators is learning to deal with matters as we see fit, this one now, that one later.

Jesus told a frustrated Martha in one of our New Testament stories that she was “distracted over many things.”  He reminded her that only one thing was necessary right now, and she had the power to choose that one thing.  The other things would follow in their time.

With our closing thoughts, I direct attention now to these words in the biblical text: And there was evening and morning—a first day.  There it is—the first day.  Every day is a first day.  Every day is a first movement.  Every day invites another chance to create.  Rollo May reminds us that “we are living at a time when one age is dying and the new age is not yet born.  . . . To live with sensitivity in this age of limbo indeed requires courage.”[5]

There is a passage in one of the early New Testament church letters testifying that we are God’s workmanship, created for the purpose of good works that improve life.  And such a work requires courage—it takes courage to create.  I encourage us all this morning to live deliberately, and cultivate our fundamental virtue of courage.  Let us go forth into our rich and varied lives and cultivate that courage to create.

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience: Authoritative Texts Background Reviews and Essays in Criticism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p. 60.

[2] Rollo May, The Courage to Create (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975), p. 12.

[3] May, Courage to Create, p. 13.

[4] May, Courage to Create, p. 12.

[5] May, Courage to Create, p. 11

Thanks always for reading. I shall continue posting art as I create it. And occasionally I would like to post a sermon. Again, my only hope in these endeavors is to inspire not to manipulate.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

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