The Breath of Dawn

November 6, 2005



The Breath of Dawn (11/06/05)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Back in the days when I worked for a division of ITT I often found myself on airplanes. I managed a small division in Oklahoma City, but the company didn’t seem happy unless they made me fly somewhere at least once every few weeks, usually for some meeting that could have been handled over the phone in ten minutes.

Many times my company booked me on the earliest flight of the day, so I could sit through meetings for that entire day and fly back home the same night, ready for an almost full week of real work. It was on one of those occasions—a 5 a.m. flight from Oklahoma City to Houston—that my plane departed Will Rogers World Airport in the midst of a severe thunderstorm.
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If you’ve ever flown during a storm you know how bumpy the ride is as the plane ascends through the layers of clouds into the smooth air above the storm. It was still dark, and I must admit to being slightly disappointed as we broke through the clouds. I was hoping to see countless stars lighting the heavens. Instead I saw only a handful of stars because the first rays of dawn were beginning to emerge in the east. There was no discernible light, just enough hint of the light to come to obliterate the view of all but the brightest of stars.

Oh well, I thought, at least I get to see the sunrise from an unusual perspective. I put down my copy of the morning newspaper, requested coffee form the flight attendant and happily sat in my window seat, waiting to be amazed at the glory of it all. If you have flown very often, you know how remarkable the clouds look from above as the sun shines down on them. The disappointment of being unable to spot landmarks – you know, the lakes, rivers and cities one tries to identify, usually unsuccessfully from the air – is more than offset by the indescribable sight of the sunlight atop the clouds.

And so I waited. The flight took about an hour, and I seldom took my eyes off the east. More and more light slowly crept into the eastern sky, and the tops of the clouds set off against the horizon, began to take shape. Ever so slowly, the tops of the clouds were revealed, the sun itself still hidden from view. As the light appeared, the shapes of the clouds threw shadows on each other. Now, I cannot possibly describe what I saw. I can’t possibly describe what I felt. No Salvador Dali painting could capture the surreal impossibility of the sight. No imagery of cotton candy, changing faces, mystical ships or heavenly majestic warriors on a cosmic chessboard can come near describing this sight.

I kept thinking that if a person painted this view, perfectly, nobody would believe it hadn’t come from the imagination of a brilliant artist. And then, of course, I realized that it had done just that. It was an imaginative, artistic creation of such splendor, such unspeakable beauty, that it could only have been created by the supreme artist of all creation. But it wasn’t a dream. God was making it real. It was happening.

I was transfixed. The sight was so magnificent, so splendorous, that I assumed everybody on the plane was staring in awe at the eastern sky. This was one of those moments I will carry in my memory throughout my life. I turned to the person sitting next to me – almost afraid to look away, knowing I was witnessing something special, something unspeakable, something sacred – and the person next to me was reading the newspaper.

I thought this was the equivalent of someone winning a trip to the moon on the next generation of space shuttles and then ingesting enough sleeping tablets to stay unconscious through the entire journey. But then I noticed the people across the aisle from me. One was asleep, one was reading a book and another was busily working the keys on his laptop computer. I started to look about the plane. Guess what. I was the only one watching the sunrise.

I wanted to jump up out of my seat and shout, “Are you all crazy? Don’t you see what’s happening here? God has done it again!” But I didn’t. I just looked back to the east. And it occurred to me: This was all for me. This glorious sight was made so I, Gary Cox, could gaze in wondrous awe at the glory of God. Don’t get me wrong – the sight was available to anybody who wanted to take the time to look. But nobody else wanted to take the time. And so, it was for me. Just me. One of the most incredible events in the history of the universe was unfolding right there before my eyes, and my eyes were the only eyes to see it.

That made me starting thinking. How often does God perform some creative act of inconceivable beauty and nobody notices? I’m not talking about some miracle of creation being performed in some far corner of the universe in a galaxy so far away our minds simply cannot comprehend the distance. I’m talking about right here, in front of our eyes, every day. How often does God perform unnoticed miracles of incomprehensible beauty?

I believe it happens constantly. The problem is this: We are afraid of being awe-struck. We are afraid to be alone with God for even a moment, because as we notice the remarkable beauty all around us, we might have to deal with the fact of our being. We might have to think about being alive. We might have to question whether the way we are living our lives, given the limited amount of time we have to share on this planet, is the way we should be living our lives.

We have taught ourselves to keep our senses occupied at all times. If we have an extra ten seconds, grab something to read – a paper, a magazine, a label on a can of soup – it doesn’t matter. If we walk into the house and there is nobody else home, quick – turn on the television, turn on the radio, do something! In this twentieth century western world, we have developed an unwritten rule: Bombard your senses with data at all times.

This keeps us from having to think about our lives, and the meaning of our lives. It keeps us from having to grapple with the big issues – the scary issues – death, pain, hunger. Unfortunately, this constant input of sensory data also keeps us from enjoying the other big issues – life, love, beauty, joy. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I suggest that we listen to Socrates, because the unexamined life – the life of running from the truth with constant sensory input – is a life that misses the miracles that happen around us constantly.

As an example, I suggest God performs one of these miracles every day at dawn. Now, I admit that one is seldom in the position of viewing dawn from the magical perspective I had that morning from my window seat in the 737. The thunderstorm, the rotation of the Earth, and the brilliance of the engineering departments at Boeing and McDonnell Douglass all teamed together to afford me a rare view of nature’s splendor.

Nevertheless, dawn is magnificent from any angle. I think of the beautiful song “On Eagle’s Wings,” and that remarkable phrase, “The breath of dawn,” which is in its chorus. “The breath of dawn.” Isn’t it amazing how simple poetry can come closer to describing God’s glory than any amount of philosophical inquiry and rational, deductive reasoning. You can take the five arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas in which he purported to “prove” the existence of God, and toss them all in the trash. I say God is more evident in the phrase “The breath of dawn” than in any theological argument. And if you want to see God – to actually take a look at God in all his glory — I suggest you find a nice spot, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and watch the sun rise.

If you’re like me, and like most people raised and educated in the twentieth century western world, let me describe the thought pattern that is likely to occur as you watch the sun peak over the horizon.

Because it happens so slowly – it can be well over an hour from the time the eastern sky begins to lighten until the sun appears – your first thought will likely be how slowly the Earth is rotating. This will take you back to younger days in grammar school when Mrs. Smith used an orange and an apple to show how the Earth spins, and how the Sun remains stationary as the Earth revolves in a circle around it. She probably said something about Galileo. You might remember how you discovered a few years later that Mrs. Smith wasn’t telling you the whole story.

In junior high, Mr. Williams explained that the Earth wasn’t actually traveling around the sun in a circle. It is actually an ellipse. When Kepler figured this out, it solved all sorts of problems in astronomy. Before Kepler, nobody could figure out why the stars seem to move predictably through the sky while the planets seem to wind about in no logical way. It turns out all the planets are moving in ellipses – ovals – around the sun – which is sitting still. Well, not really.

Mr. Jones told you in high school physics class that the sun is actually hurtling though space at an inconceivable rate of speed – it just appears to be sitting still because the Earth is moving in relation to it. He said something about Einstein and proceeded to return to the subject of levers and fulcrums – it made a lot more sense and was much easier to envision.

The bottom line of all this, however, is this: When you see how slowly the sun is rising, you will believe you understand what is happening. It’s all like some big machine. Wind it up, and away it goes. Day after day, year after year, millennium after millennium. The gears of the universe keep on turning, and we’ve figured out how the machinery works. Even if you yourself don’t understand it, we are told, don’t worry. There is no mystery here. Humankind has figured it all out.

There’s good change that as you go through this thought process, brought on by the slowness of the sun’s ascent toward the horizon, that you will start thinking about the sun itself. Okay, what do we have here? Let’s see. The sun is this big ball of burning gas. That’s the main thing we need to remember. You found out in your early teens that the sun is actually a star – it seems big because we are so close to it. You later learned that it is only 93 million miles away, and it is actually a nuclear fusion reaction. No mystery to it. Humankind could probably make a sun if we had enough time, enough space and enough gas.

By this time, the sun just may be peeking over the horizon. Finally! Dawn! You may see the light coming through a few layers of clouds and giving that “heavenly” look – you know, when the light is refracted through the clouds and forms visible beams. You almost expect to see a vision of Christ there in the sky, or at least, having seen so many biblical movies from the glamour days of Hollywood, you are expecting the voice of God – who sounds very much like Charlton Heston – to come sounding from the sky.

Okay, let’s see. Clouds. No problem there. Water vapor condensing in the atmosphere. Big deal. And light. There’s certainly no mystery there. Visible light. What was it Mr. Jones said in that physics class? Light is electromagnetic radiation traveling at a speed of 186,300 miles per second – all because of the fusion reaction going on in the sun.

Well, so much for dawn. By this time, we will need to get to work, or whatever it is we do in the early hours of the day.

Guess what? We just missed something wonderful. We just missed something awe-inspiring. It wasn’t our fault. We are products of the society we live in, and the programming we have received throughout our lives. We are to analyze, scrutinize, dissect and disassemble everything we find until we have full knowledge of how it works. And this certainly is not all bad. This is how we learn. This is how we cure diseases. This is how we building bridges. This is how we explore our world, and this is how we use our minds for the benefit of humankind. But the problem is this: in becoming such analytical creatures, we’ve tended to lose our sense of the sacred, of the divine, of the mysterious.

Let’s go back to that sunrise we talked about and look at it one more time. Why is it so beautiful? If we don’t see the beauty, the problem is inside us, not in the dawn itself. Why is it so beautiful? It didn’t have to be beautiful. If this reality was nothing more than a cold, barren, spiritless existence, could life somehow still exist? Maybe. Maybe. Would there still be billions of galaxies with billions of stars? Maybe. Would rational beings be able to study the workings of the universe? Maybe. But it wouldn’t be beautiful. It wouldn’t strike awe into the very core of our being. Because that beauty – that awe, that wonder, that mystifying sense of the sacred — that is all the proof we need to know God is here among us.

Yes, God is here among us, and God is using our eyes to see the beauty of creation. Don’t lose sight of that image. There is a school of philosophy, which is supported by quantum physics, that holds the universe uses consciousness to bring itself into being. Or to answer the old question, If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it fall, did it make a sound? Not only does it not make a sound, it appears to be a fact that if nobody heard or saw it fall, it never happened. This world doesn’t happen until somebody perceives it to happen. And that is why I say God uses our eyes to see the beauty of God’s own creation. We aren’t just onlookers in this world. We are integral parts of God’s glory. We are necessary elements in God’s design. We are holy, sacred parts of creation. Yes, God is here among us. And for the remainder of this sermon, I want to talk about that – the fact that God is here among us.

We can experience God both in moments of great joy, such as an unexpected view of dawn, or in moments of great pain, when the miraculous intervention of God’s love and mercy gives us the strength to go forward with our lives.

But either way, God is calling us all into a relationship – a relationship with God, and a relationship with each other. When Jesus Christ says, “What you have done for the least of my brothers, you have done for me,” I believe he means it. Oh, God is there in the dawn. God is there in the night. God is there in the stars. But the surest place to find God is in the eyes of our brothers and sisters. And the surest way to serve God is to love our brothers and sisters.

Think about this. There is no place we can go where we can hide from God’s love. We are free to ignore God for a time, but God loves us even then. And at any moment in our lives we can fall to our knees, talk to and be heard by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

Wow! Einstein said the most important question in the world is this: “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” I’m certainly no Einstein, but I can answer his question. Yes, Einstein, yes. The universe is a friendly place. If it weren’t a friendly place, there would be no such thing as love. It if weren’t a friendly place, there would be no place like this church. And if it weren’t a friendly place, dawn would just be the radiated light waves from a nuclear fusion reaction 93 million miles away.

Thank God for beauty.

Thank God for love.

Thank God for the breath of Dawn.