Kalidasa, 4th century Hindu poet: Salutation to the dawn
Look to this day, For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth, The glory of action, The splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream, And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today well-lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
Sermon: Beginning Again…and Again
On this first day of a new year it’s natural for us to be thinking of beginnings.
We often begin a story to children by saying, “Once upon a time…” We don’t need to say exactly when that time was – just that it happened in the flow of time.
The creation story in the Hebrew Bible refers to the very beginning of all time. The first chapter of the book of Genesis says:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he 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—the first day.” (Note, a new day begins with evening, which is why our Jewish neighbors have their Sabbath service on Friday night – for them it’s the beginning of Saturday.)
The Christian creation story in the Gospel of John says:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (The ‘word’ refers to the Logos – God speaking through Jesus Christ. I like the idea that ‘in the beginning was the word’ as a reference to the way we communicate, with words…the way we make a ‘connection’ with one another, out of which flows the possibility of love, in all its forms.)
A Native American creation story from the Inuit culture of the Eskimo people, as told by Virginia Hamilton, says:
“Time was, there were no people on earth. The first man still lay inside the pea pod.
Four days passed, and on the fifth day, he pushed with his feet. He broke through the bottom of the pod and fell to the ground. When he got up, he had become a grown man. He looked at everything and himself, his arms and legs, his hands; felt his neck. The pod that had held him still hung on the vine with a hole in its bottom.
The grown man walked a little away from the pod where he had started. The ground under him felt as if it were moving, too. It was not firm, but soft.
The way it moved under him made him feel sick. He stood still, and slowly a pool of (fresh) water formed at his feet. He bent down and drank from the pool. It felt good the way the water went from his mouth down inside of him. It made him feel better.
He stood up again, refreshed. Next, he saw something. It was a dark thing flapping along, and it was coming. Then it was there before him. It stood looking at him.
It was Raven. Raven lifted one of his wings and pushed his beak up to his forehead. He raised it like a mask. And when he moved his beak up, Raven changed into a man. He walked all around the first man to get a good look at him.
“Who are you?” Raven asked, at last. “Where did you come from?”
“I came from the pea pod,” said the man, pointing to the vine and the broken pod.
“I made that vine!” said Raven. “I never thought something like you would come from it. Here, this ground we’re standing on is soft. I made it later than the rest. Let’s go to the high ground. It’s hard and thick.”
Man and Raven went to the high ground, and it was quite hard under them.
“Did you have anything to eat?” Raven asked.
Man told him about the wet stuff that had pooled at his feet.
“Ah, you must have drunk water,” Raven said. “Wait here for me.”
He drew the beak-mask down and changed once more into a bird. Raven flew up into the sky and disappeared.
Four days later, he returned. The whole time, Man had been waiting.
Raven pushed up his beak and was again a man. He had four berries– two raspberries and two heath berries.
“I made these for you,” he said. “I want them to grow all over the earth. Here, eat them.”
Man put the berries in his mouth and ate them.
“I feel better,” he said.
Next, Raven took Man to a small creek. There, the man-bird found two pieces of clay and molded them into tiny mountain sheep. He held them on his palm. When they dried, he let Man take a close look at them.
“They look nice,” Man said.
Now shut your eyes,” Raven told him. Man closed his eyes.
Raven pulled down his beak and made his wings wave back and forth, back and forth over the clay figures. The clay figures came to life and bounded away as grown mountain sheep. Raven lifted his mask.
“Now, look!” he said.
Man saw the sheep moving very fast. They were full of life, and that pleased him. He thought people would like them. For there were more men growing on the vine.
But when Raven saw the way Man was looking at the mountain sheep with such delight, he put them up high so that people would not kill too many of them.
Raven made more animals, moved his wings, and brought them to life. Every animal and bird and fish that Raven made, Man viewed with pleasure. That worried Raven. He thought he’d better create something Man would fear, or else Man might eat or kill everything that moved.
So Raven went to another creek. He took some clay and created a bear, making it come alive. Quickly, Raven got out of the way of Bear because the animal was so fierce it would tear him apart and maybe eat him.
“You will get lonely if you stay by yourself,” Raven said to Man. “So I will make somebody for you.”
Raven went off a ways, where he could view Man but where Man couldn’t be sure what he was doing. There, off a ways, he made a figure out of clay much like Man’s, although different. He fastened watercress on the back of its head for hair. When the figure had dried in the palm of his hand, he waved his wings several times. It came to life. It was a lovely woman. She got up, grew up, and stood beside Man.
“That is your helper and your mate,” said Raven.
The world prospered.”
Every culture has its creation narratives – the story of how things got started.
Here we are at the start of another year 2012. We mark our days and years by the calendar, celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
Special emphasis is often put on certain birthdays – 1, 12 or 13, 16, 18, 21, 30, 50, 65 and so forth. Together they remind us that we live on a time line – we think of it as a horizontal line running from left to right, since that’s the way we read, beginning with a date of birth to mark our own beginning, which we know, and ending with the unknown but certain date at the other end.
We divide the time line into sections, or chapters – and the chapters are grouped into three parts: beginning years, mid-life, and older years. Every story has a beginning, middle and end, including the story of our own life.
Life expectancy in the U.S. is now said to be 78.6 years.
As I thought about this New Year’s Day sermon, I remembered that the marathon is exactly 26.2 miles.
A legend says that when the Greeks defeated the Persians in 490 B.C. a runner was sent from the site of the battle, Marathon, to Athens, to announce the good news. He ran without stopping, arrived and gave the good news, collapsed and died.
The Marathon is 26.2 miles
The average lifespan is three times as long: 78.6 years
The rules of both are clear: you have to begin at the beginning
take a number and attach it for the duration
Then it’s one step at a time…
In time, on time, through time
Because time doesn’t stand still — every runner knows that
You don’t have to ask
Preparation for the big race is a private race all by itself
(There’s no difference between preparing for the race and running the race itself)
It starts at the beginning – the starting point – date of birth, where the timeline starts
It ends at the finish line, the end of the marathon,
Which, if you’re lucky, you cross on your own two feet
And deliver the good-news message that the race has been won.
There’s a story behind every runner’s number – we all have our story, including a personal myth – the story we tell ourselves about ourselves…the good, the bad and the ugly…the victories and the defeats…the achievements and the disappointments.
Even Frank Sinatra, who did it his way, had a few regrets – but ‘too few to mention,’ he said.
Stanley Kunitz summarized it in his wonderful poem, The Layers, which begins: “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, though some principle of being abides from which I struggle not to stray…”
I’m working on another poem about beginnings, the first draft says:
Sometimes I’m sorry not to be able to remember
my own beginning
I do remember a few fleeting moments
at age three or four – maybe even at age two
But not even enough for a short poem
Not even enough to sweeten the morning coffee
Not even enough to light my uncle Al’s cigar
If only I could remember all the way back to the first day
that would be more than enough
‘It’s not necessary to dial the one – please hang up and try your call again’
‘To leave a call back number press 5’
‘Press two for more options’
Too many interruptions
Too many eruptions
Too many explosions in the coffee shops in Iraq
or on the bus in Jerusalem
or at the mall in Tucson
No wonder I can’t remember the beginning
There’s too much happening in the middle
too much happening in the New York Times
too many books reviewed
too many obituaries
too many with fewer years than mine
Now there are times I wish I could forget more –
forget about all the explosions
forget that the universe is expanding
forget that the polar ice cap is melting
forget that time is fleeting
No wonder I can’t remember the beginning
I should be glad about that
I should be glad to be here in this hour
I should be glad to have been here at all.
We find ourselves beginning again, and again.
In one of his journals Emerson wrote, (I paraphrase, lacking the journal where I found it) “I like to go into a new town where nobody knows me and nothing is expected of me — I become a boy again…”
I understood what he meant – to be a ‘boy again’ is to be in that child-like state of innocence and excitement about exploring your world.
I remember some powerful new beginnings: first grade, junior high and high school, college…my first marriage and my first teaching job…beginning seminary at age 29, and my first ministry. The birth of my two children and grandchildren are beginnings in a special class by themselves.
I clearly remember my first sermon in this pulpit. It was titled Being Real Together – about authenticity…how we hope to make deep, meaningful and lasting connections with one another.
Each of those beginnings has a date attached to it. When you graduate from high school and college they have a ceremony they call ‘commencement.’ I remember thinking it was strange to call the end of those years in school ‘commencement.’ I thought they should have called them ‘completion.’ The end. Done.
But now I know commencement is the right thing to call graduation…a new beginning…time to start, again. You finish one thing and start another.
So much of life is about beginning…again and again.
Do you remember Simon and Garfunkel’s song Old Friends, from their album Book Ends?
Sat on their park bench
A newspaper blown though the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends.
The old men
Lost in their overcoats,
Waiting for the sunset.
The sounds of the city,
Sifting through trees,
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends.
Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Memory brushes the same years
Silently sharing the same fears
I like the Inuit creation story of the first man kicking his way out of the pea pod. There’s evidence that the Inuit people have lived in the Arctic region for 18,000 years. That’s a lot of beginnings!
I like the idea of the Creator God as a Raven who can turn into a man – the Western myth makes God anthropomorphic – a man-god. (We created God in our own image.) The Inuit myth makes God, the Creator, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic – the Inuit God is both an animal and a man.
Raven picks up his beak, and becomes a man – like the Western anthropomorphic God. And, like the God in Genesis, Raven takes some clay and forms a woman to partner with the first man, reminding us that we are of the earth, from the earth, and we return to the earth, at last…the last dot on the right side of our personal time line.
Like the God in Genesis, Raven makes all the animals – putting the goat a bit out of reach so he can’t kill all of them, easily. “And you shall have dominion over all the animals,” but I’ll make it a difficult to reach them!
Raven makes the bear so man will have something to fear, as in the Western religious idea of ‘putting the fear of god in him,’ as the saying goes. Raven knew that man must have a degree of humility so he created something Man would fear, something stronger than he is.
The phrase ‘fear of God’ means to have a sense of awe – or to have respect for the Creation…the vast, unfathomable universe or multi-verse in which we live and move and have our being.
John Ciardi’s poem, White Heron, captures it perfectly:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
White Herons and Ravens remind us of the thing in us that is basic to our spiritual lives – the essential ingredients are respect, appreciation, a sense of awe-inspiring beauty and an acceptance of the dot at the far right end of the personal time line.
Footnote: from Walt Whitman
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now…
To elaborate is no avail, learned and unlearned feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entreatied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul…