I Am Running into a New Year
by Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twentysix and thirtysix
even thirtysix but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
Sermon: “Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs”
Reading: Waiting for Dakota, Kathleen Norris
“My old friends were mystified when I would tell them how much I loved being back in church. They regarded religion as irrelevant and challenged me to prove that it could mean anything.
“As for myself, on the Sunday mornings when I found it difficult to leave a warm bed, or when my doubts were much stronger than my faith, I had to remind myself of why it was I needed to go. It’s the one place I know where I am allowed to sing in public, no matter what my voice sounds like, and where I receive a blessing just for showing up.
“Even more important, it is a place set aside from the noise and relentless commerce of the world for giving thanks for all that is larger than myself…for a loving and creative spirit at work in us, and in the whole creation. Like nothing else I know, it brings me to my senses.”
We’re here to ‘come to our senses.’
We’re here to give thanks that such a place exists; a place where we can be ourselves, and where we can be challenged to grow – to get over the disappointment we may have felt with the religion of our childhood, to get ‘unstuck,’ as it were…to embrace the best that we found in our childhood faith, or in some religious system we adopted along the road to this place.
This is our church, for now, at least. Even if this is the first time you’ve ever been here, and even if you never come again, today this is your church—a place that was conceived and built by others, many of whose names are listed in our necrology; folks who dedicated a portion of their time, talent and financial resources to be sure that there is such a place; that there is a place where you can nurture your spiritual life without having to give assent to outworn doctrines and creeds, some of which insult the soul; a place where you are encouraged in the simple but profound process of living a good life, characterized by simple little acts of kindness and love; a place to be supported through the inevitable crises of life…the changes and challenges.
This is a place with lots of nouns, pronouns, verbs and adjectives and adverbs…
Look at the nouns: this sanctuary is a big, beautiful, unique noun; the hymnal with its variety of songs and readings from the religions of the world; with windows that shout at us – that remind us that God and Nature can be synonymous, remind us that we are ‘nature become aware of itself.’ In this room today there are children who depend on this place to inform them about religion without indoctrinating them; there are old timers here for whom this is indeed a sanctuary—a place set apart for the nurturing of that sacred ingredient…which is neither a noun nor a verb, except the verb to be.
The verb ‘to be’ is the most irregular, slippery verb in the English language.
We’re reminded of the Greek god, Proteus, the god of the sea. Proteus was, like the sea, capable of changing form in an instant, and could do this over and over. In order to get anything out of him you had to grab him and hold on tight while he went through his various forms — lion, wild boar, snake, tree, running stream. It wasn’t easy. The verb “To be” is said to be the most protean of the English language, constantly changing form, sometimes without much of a discernible pattern. Considering that we use it so often, it is really too bad that the verb ‘to be’ has to be the most irregular, slippery verb in the language. It’s like we are! Always changing; irregular, slippery!
The nouns of this church are like the body of a person; the self, with arms and legs and a head; with ears and eyes, blood and brains. The verbs remind us: we sing (no matter how we sound) we listen and speak; we laugh and cry together; we serve, grieve and we give. In all this we are both blessed and a ‘blessing.’ As Norris says, you get blessed ‘just for showing up.’
The verbs are to this place what the mind is to the self: the place of our thoughts, hopes and dreams; our fears; our griefs and our commitments…the promises we have to keep, hoping we have ‘miles to go before we sleep,’ but never certain.
So we bring our whole self here ‘to grow a soul,’ to experience a Sabbath — a brief moment when we ‘let go,’ and allow ourselves to ‘stop trying to alter the universe,’ to fix things…to change things, to make things right. Those Sabbath moments help to make things right ‘down there where the spirit meets the bone.’*
So we have nouns and verbs, and we are nouns and verbs. We have pronouns that are also often quite revealing: People who are brand new have a natural tendency to refer to ‘your church.’ For example, “Your church is a very warm, caring place…it’s easy to see that you folks have a nice community.” There’s often an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of that sentence, as in, “…but it’s hard for those of us who are new to feel part of it, to feel comfortable.”
Then the pronouns change – if you stick around long enough; they change from talking about ‘your church,’ and ‘you folks,’ to ‘our church,’ and ‘us.’
The pronouns change when you feel at home here; when you allow yourself to believe that you really can be your true self, here; authentic, with no need to pretend you hold beliefs that you’ve outgrown.
I’m reminded in the lines from The Velveteen Rabbit about being real, and the new velveteen rabbit asks the old skin horse what it means to be real and he says, “It doesn’t often happen to people who have sharp edges and who break easily and have to be carefully kept…”
The nouns, verbs and pronouns describe things around us, outside of us. We need to remind ourselves that there are things going on deep inside each one of us that change us from feeling like a noun to realizing that we’re a verb.
We’re here to develop and nurture a spiritual life, and that’s different from the material world; that’s why our affirmation begins with the word love – love connects us with one another; love re-connects us to ourselves when we’ve felt separated from the soul-stuff that keeps us going; ‘loves hopes all things, believes all things and endures all things,’ as Paul said. It never ends, but don’t worry — this sermon will! Let me hear an ‘amen!’
* “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.” Miller Williams, From The Ways We Touch
Close: Now say to thyself, ‘If there’s any good thing I can do, or any kindness I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’