Posts Tagged ‘sermon’

Putting Out Fresh Bread

March 30, 2020
Sunday Morning Watch

Good morning. The lovely Sunday morning sun bathes my bedroom with a glow that exceeds description and my spirit feels the warmth, though outside temperatures have dipped into the 30’s. Something wonderful has happened and I feel compelled to send it up the flagpole of my blog. The reader is not compelled to salute. Because of a resolution about a week ago to post an occasional sermon revised from my past, I considered posting one of about a dozen that are ready to go online. But today I have changed my mind, wishing instead to share thoughts that visited me this morning. Rather than posting something revised from the past, I wish to put out fresh bread. For those interested, I have new paintings in progress, but they are too sketchy and vague to put on the blog this early. I look forward to sharing them when they come together a little better.

Mornings are sacred to me, just as Thoreau rhapsodized about the “wakening hour.” And this morning, though the blog may be a meandering ramble, I want to share the visitation.

I have written in the past that I was in the Protestant ministry long ago, a congregational position that lasted eleven years. Not long after I left the ministry, I entered the field of education, and remained there another thirty years. Now in my third year of retirement, and especially in this time of Sheltering at Home, I luxuriate in a time of introspection, and am writing new chapters of my personal memoir.

What I want to share this morning is this daily practice I have held since autumn of 1972. In my Baptist Student Union days, we called it Quiet Time, a practice of beginning every morning in seclusion, poring over a worthy text, recording thoughts in a journal and expecting an oracle. In the days of the ministry, I was soaking the biblical writings; mornings since 1985 have found me grazing from a multiplicity of sources. I still remember the first time I tried this, on an October morning in 1972, seated at the edge of a forest, looking out over a lake, reading from my Bible, recording notes in a spiral notebook, and feeling a Presence that was affirming and encouraging. It colored the rest of that day, and now, 48 years later, I can still testify that a morning spent in quiet solitude and meditation potentially sets the stage for a more positive day.

For those of you who have followed my blogs, you see the quotes from what I’m reading during my morning watch. This morning (maybe because it’s Sunday, I don’t know), I opened my Greek New Testament to The Letter of James and spent about thirty minutes lingering over the words of the first chapter. A few observations I now wish to share . . .

In the opening verses of this letter, the author encouraged his congregation to be steadfast in trials because of their potential to build character–“that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The word translated “perfect” is telos.  We recognize from the root words such as telegraph, telecommunication, telescope, etc.—the idea of extending to a goal. Aristotle used this word to depict the goal, target or end of every living being. The nature of being alive is this primal drive onward toward completion. Aristotle believed the end was in the beginning. The destiny is already potential in us.

I was also intrigued by the Greek word translated “complete”. The word could be rendered as complete in all parts, entire, sound. The Latin equivalent is integer. Reading this verse reminded me of the conclusion of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible. A jaded old man, convinced that life was full of vanity (empty), concluded his treatise by exhorting his readers to fear God and keep his commandments, “for this makes one complete.” At my current age, I am more absorbed with thoughts about my own life’s purpose and what is involved in being a whole person. I suppose that all of us reach for some peg on which to hang our entire identity, and speaking for myself, I finally acknowledge that art has always been at my core, accompanied by my own pursuit of academics with a deeper understanding of the religious dimension. The life of the mind has helped shape the contours of my art.

In verse eleven of the first chapter of James, reference is made to the sun rising, also reminding me of a passage early in Ecclesiastes and Ernest Hemingway’s chosen title to his first novel. James testifies that this sun scorches, bringing to an end a rich man’s accomplishments. Reading this passage made me think of that arc we always acknowledge in the life of a person or of a nation or an era. There is a birth, an increase, a peak, then the decline, and finally the end. As I look over my own life’s trajectory, I struggle with this, wanting to be better now than ever before in what I do, yet acknowledging that many elements of my life are waning, declining. I still have trouble facing this, yet in my art and ideas, I still work in earnest, believing I can still bring to fruition something of value for me and to share in this world. At this age, I muse about what kind of footprint I am going to leave behind.

Chapter 1, verse 18 also got my attention: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. All of us wonder over our origin. The New Testament’s confession of God as our author comes as no surprise. But the phrase “word of truth” never really sunk in while I was reading this from my English Bible. My debt to the seminary for teaching me Koinē Greek is boundless, and since leaving the ministry I have enjoyed over the years the access to Classical as well as Homeric Greek. The linguistic work of Martin Heidegger also has fueled my interest. Thanks to his work, I now regard the Greek word logos not just as word, but as “the force that gathers.” In addition to this, the word for truth, is comprised of the root lēthe. The mythic River of Lethe was the river of forgetting. The extension of that word involved a covering or concealing. The Greek alpha in front of the root is a negation. Hence, alētheia denotes the unforgetting, or the uncovering, which resonates much more with me than the mere word “truth.” Now to translate: “We have been set forth by the cohesive force of the uncovering.” It takes some mental work and time for that to sink in, but the effort, I believe, is worth it.

And finally, the purpose of our being brought into this world is that we become a “first fruits”. In the ancient Greek world, both inside and outside the New Testament, first fruits is best translated “sacrifice.” Throughout my life, I have been stung by accusations of being selfish, self-centered, egocentric etc., and I understand those labels grounded in behavioral traits I’ve exhibited. But long ago, this word from the New Testament prevented me from wilting under those criticisms and accusations. As a teacher, one pours out his/her life daily, not only in study, but most of all in handing out the precious truths gleaned from a life of experience and study. And the daily outpouring is indeed a sacrifice, another day “spent” in service to something greater than ourselves. The same goes for the artist—with every painting, poem, novel, or song, another piece of the creator’s life has been carved away and sent out into the world. The work we do in life is a sacrifice; it takes away another part of our life and offers it to the world, hoping to leave this world one day better than it was when we entered it.

I know this is one of my “rambling” blogs, but I wanted to send out these thoughts gleaned from a Sunday morning watch.

Thanks always for reading, and I hope you’ll check out my website

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Sermonizing while Sheltering-in-Place

March 24, 2020
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.