Today Is The Day!
I feel a little tug of nostalgia this morning. All my life I’ve been writing four numbers that start with 19 — on thousands of letters over the years, on documents requiring the date of my birth, only the last two numbers changing to mark milestones: 1960, when I came to Wichita in the dual roles of university professor and Christian minister — the decade of the 70s at Plymouth Congregational Church and Wichita State — the 80s, when this church was born — and the 1990s, in which it flourished to surpass all our dreams and gave my wife and me, and many of you, the happiest church life we’ve ever known. Now I’m speaking for the first time in a new century and a new millennium, dating my letters and checks with a strange new set of numbers. It’s all totally artificial, of course, this whole business of slicing time into segments, but when a few of us were talking about it the other day and someone asked whether I had an all-time favorite theme in the pulpit I decided that topic would be my sentimental farewell to the 20th century in which I’ve spent most of a very happy life.
It will come as no surprise to those of you who have endured my efforts for a while that I return over and over to a passionate conviction that we cheat ourselves terribly if we cheat the present moment — that for as long as we can possibly manage it we should salute every morning with these words: “Behold, this is the day which the Lord has given; I shall rejoice in it, and be glad.”
It may sound simplistic, this theme song that “today is the day,” but it’s amazing how many of us waste precious time yearning for a yesterday that in selective memory we have made better than it was, imagining a tomorrow that will finally fulfill all our hopes, and losing the only time we really have, which is right now. Not making the most of the moment because it seems to ordinary in comparison with memories and dreams. Not hearing the music it makes because our ears are cocked for faroff melodies more exotic than the ones playing at the moment. Not living so much as hoping to live, until one day it is too late to retrieve what we lost. Believing this profoundly, I have kept an old Sanskrit proverb before me eyes for years: “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.”
I know how easily this day may seem quite ordinary unless someone who has never enjoyed the routine blessings we take for granted wakes us up. Someone like Helen Keller, deprived of a priceless gift, who said: “I who am blind can give one hint to those who can see — one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same for the other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of birds, the strains of an orchestra as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.”
One more time now, in God’s good grace, I get to share this favorite message in my own words and in the wise words of others. Like those of a man who lived to be an amazing 105 years old, still hale and hearty and with a light in his eyes, when he was asked how he had stayed young so long. He did not make the usual answer about good food, hard work and no bad habits. He preached my favorite message: “Every morning when I get up,” he said, “I go over to the window. Then I say to myself, whether it’s raining or snowing or sunny, This is exactly the ind of day I wanted. “ No precious moments lost complaining because it’s raining or too hot or too cold — a man who had learned to live joyously in the moment, to be alive and grateful for every day of his life.
I spoke once with a man whose only child had died in a swimming accident. He said, “You know, we were always talking, my wife and I, and my daughter, about her future: what she would look like, where we would send her to school, a million and one things. And now there is only a past.” In his eyes I saw the pain of having been so busy anticipating tomorrow that he had let God’s great gift of the present slip away unsung. And since of all living Americans who write sermons, my favorite is a New England theologian named Frederick Buechner, I invite you to hear his eloquent way of saying the same thing. Today — this day, any day — he says, “is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again.
“It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all…..If you waste it, it is your life that you are wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you have been waiting for always that you are missing. All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is.”
My children heard this song often while they were growing up, and when one of them got interested in creative writing as a teenager, I began to play a game with him. I would pick something as ordinary as a shoe, a chimney on the house across the street, the color red, the sound of a siren, and ask him to write about it. We would critique together what he had done, and I saw a spark now and then, but I could not have imagined that years later he would have learned to celebrate daily life in words like these: “Do not look past the richness of so-called ‘ordinary moments’ in search of happiness on some distant shore. Put your oars in the water of this day, look after this hour and ask yourself what it means, and to whom it’s important.
“The days given to us are few, and they race away like low clouds pushed by a storm. The moments we have are brief….The bright morning of innocence gives way to the hard work of midday, then to the pensiveness of late afternoon, then to the lengthening shadows of evening….The Kingdom of Heaven is within us, and about us, but we can see it only with the eyes of the heart. When we walk into it for one instant, one luminescent moment, we have a working definition of eternity.”
The last word reminds me what a shame it is that in the religion of so many of us, the words “eternal life” have to do only with time and not with essence, with quantity or duration of life rather than quality of life. Jesus seems to me to have known better. Instead of restricting eternal life to something that might come after death, he met people who — he said — possessed it at that very moment. Sermons I heard as a boy stressed how we might have it by and by if we were properly baptized and came faithfully to church and never missed communion, but no one ever said what I think might have thrilled me to the depths — that right now, at the very moment, we could enjoy a kind of life in touch with all that is good from the distant past to the beckoning future, a life so deeply in touch with eternal values like love, understanding and compassion that it can be described as “eternal life.” This was not part of our creed, so most of us were willing to wait patiently and often stoically for the gift after death of a quality of life called “eternal” when our faces might have been radiant with happiness to know that we could have it now.
That we could have it by the simple expedient of realizing that no day is common, that we are kneedeep in miracles if we have eyes to see, that the quiet music of an ordinary day is a symphony if we have ears to hear. There were a couple of English poets once, good friends, named William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who decided to publish a book of their poetry in 1798. They wrote a preface in which one of them, Wordsworth, said his part of their venture was to wake people up to the glory of the commonplace. He reminded his readers that familiarity really does often breed contempt, that what we see every day tends to get a film over it so that what is beautiful in it is ignored, and he said he wished to write about such things in a way that might cause people to see them again as if for the first time.
So instead of celebrating wars and kings and famous monuments, he wrote about rocks and hills and trees and lakes and farm life and walks on country roads and morning sun and evening rain. Poetry has not been the same since, and at least one man, one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, John Stuart Mill, who had lost interest in everything, said that when he read that poetry and saw the everyday world with fresh eyes, it literally saved his life. I am not so foolish as to think we can feel that degree of intensity all the time, but somewhere between that level of awareness and our usual oblivion there has to be a middle ground that turns life into a sacrament.
Many years ago, before I came to Wichita to teach in two universities and preach in three different churchs, I met a man in St. Louis who profoundly influenced my life. His name, may he rest in peace, was Paul Logue, a vice-president for Monsanto who had found a way to make daily life sacramental. Every morning, soon after he woke up, he went into a small room, no bigger than a walk-in closet, which he had set aside as a place for meditation — and there he knelt to thank God for the gift of a new day.
You must not imagine him as some sentimental wimp afraid to face the day without help. This was a tall, immensely dignified man with a strength of presence that dominated a room, but he stopped each morning in that little closet and knelt without a hint of embarrassment to ask help in using the priceless and irretrievable new day wisely. Then he had his breakfast and went downtown to work. He told me once as we sat at his dining room table that a poet, whose name he had forgotten, taught him about the miracle of an ordinary day. “I have walked them through,” the poet said, “and found the quick surprises of their hours: some lovely, unexpected thing to do….I tread them softly, they are hallowed ground, there are no common days.”
But this is always hard for us to believe. We want to set special days apart from the faded denim of ordinary days, and so even as our own Christian faith began to be institutionalized people wanted Sunday held more sacred than Monday, the 25th day of December held holier than the 26th, and Easter so special that people who skipped worship all year were careful to show up on that day. No great harm done, perhaps, so long as we remember that the essence of religion is what one does with the great majority of ordinary days. It seems a foolish thing to me to marvel at miracles that are 2000 years old and miss the ones that happen on the most normal of days: when a baby takes its first step, when a man looks over his newspaper and smiles the quiet assurance of his love, when a brave woman smiles through pain and terror in a hospital and says she feels quite well, thank you, and she’s glad you dropped by — wonders so familiar we take them for granted. We spin tales of a heaven far off, and stumble blindly through the only one we can be sure of.
So, yes, this is my favorite of all sermon topics, this idea that every day is special, hallowed by its own fragile, never-to-be-repeated magic. Many years ago I found this truth so hauntingly expressed that I framed it and hung it on a wall to remind myself of what is so easy to forget. I hope you listen to the words with special care, and remember them: “Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you, before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so. One day I shall dig my fingers into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky, and want more than all the world your return.”
There is “gospel truth” not written in the Gospels, and this is one of them — this word about how many normal, ordinary days pass unvalued simply because they are there, one after the other, always underfoot. Until one day, they are not normal. The job one enjoys so much is taken away unexpectedly. I remember an executive from Beech Aircraft who broke down and cried in my church office one day after the company forced his early retirement. I tried to say all those things about new challenges, lots of living still ahead, but it wasn’t working for him at the moment. “What am I going to do in the morning? Where do I go after I have a cup of coffee?” For him, everything he had taken for granted, all those ordinary days of blessed normalcy, were suddenly gone.
But it could have been worse, as some of you know far too well. There’s the long and happy love that seemed so safe, all but overlooked sometimes in the routine of daily business, and then something happens: the sun fall from the sky, and you sit in the dark remembering the comfort of all those normal days, wishing you hadn’t so often overlooked how good they were. Because, as a superb American writer named James Baldwin once put, “Nothing is fixed, forever…..the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea…. rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” [Nothing Personal ]
Final witness now to the importance of this truth. Another distinguished American, who could never find enough time to do all the things he had in mind, watched with amazement the way some of us throw away one day after another while they wait for a special day to excite them. He said one day, “I wish I could stand on a busy corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me all their wasted hours.” My words, and the words passed on to you from others, will have been useful if you leave this morning determined never to overlook the challenge and blessing of even the most ordinary day of your life. (Bernard Berenson, art critic. d. l959).