The following is the script for my first-ever sermon, preceded by two readings.
~by Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~by Charles Bukowski
sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think,
I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside
remembering all the times you’ve felt that way, and
you walk to the bathroom, do your toilet, see that face
in the mirror, oh my oh my oh my, but you comb your hair anyway,
get into your street clothes, feed the cats, fetch the
newspaper of horror, place it on the coffee table, kiss your
wife goodbye, and then you are backing the car out into life itself,
like millions of others you enter the arena once more.
you are on the freeway threading through traffic now,
moving both towards something and towards nothing at all as you punch
the radio on and get Mozart, which is something, and you will somehow
get through the slow days and the busy days and the dull
days and the hateful days and the rare days, all both so delightful
and so disappointing because
we are all so alike and so different.
you find the turn-off, drive through the most dangerous
part of town, feel momentarily wonderful as Mozart works
his way into your brain and slides down along your bones and
out through your shoes.
it’s been a tough fight worth fighting
as we all drive along
betting on another day.
SERMON – “Betting On Another Day”
I was at a school function, one of those back to school nights where teachers meet their students before the year actually begins. One father came up to me and introduced himself. He worked at Wilmer Eye Institute, and I found this fortuitous. I told him that I suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, which is a rare disease that kept my retinas from fully developing. Essentially, if the average person sees a high-definition image, I see the equivalent of those old 8mm home movies that have been in your grandma’s damp basement for decades. This father nodded eagerly. He knew RP. “Yes,” he said to me, “your eyesight will deteriorate at a rate of about fifty percent every seven years.”
Wow, dude. Nice to meet you, too. I hadn’t heard that before. And I began to do math in my head. In 21 years, I’ll only see about 12.5% of that bad 8mm film. Great. Activities I love—reading, movies—are slowly being forced out of my life. Life is getting darker, literally and metaphorically. It’s hard to think about the future without succumbing to depression. But an odd thing happened. As I was wallowing in anger and grief over the coming dimness, I stumbled upon hope in the unlikely form of a twenty year old rap song.
In November of 1992, Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator. Cube is notorious for being a founding member of NWA, the innovative gangsta rap crew that wrote “F— tha Police,” and The Predatordropped only six months after the Los Angeles riots that greeted the acquittal of all four officers charged with beating motorist Rodney King. Unsurprisingly, the album is bleak and violent, an angry expression of escalating racial tensions in a world already rife with gang violence, poverty, and other social ills. 15 of the 16 tracks on the official release were unmistakably brutal and full of despair, a mood that reflected life in South Central LA in those days just after the riots, with enough anger and bitterness to appeal not only to Angelinos enraged by the King verdict, but also to a man slowly going blind thousands of miles and two decades removed.
And then seven tracks in there’s “It Was a Good Day.” In the midst of the violence and despair, Ice Cube found a reason to be thankful.
Just wakin’ up in the morning
gotta thank God.
I don’t know but
this day seems kind of odd.
No barkin’ from the dog
and Mama cooked a breakfast with no hog.
On this particular day, Cube doesn’t get carjacked. He plays basketball and dominoes. The police don’t harass him. There’s a late-night romantic rendezvous with a girl he knew in high school. There are no murders in the neighborhood. Even Ice Cube, who on the previous track threatens violent retribution for King’s beating, can now get through a full 24 hour period without using his AK-47.
It’s the little things.
Now, I’m fairly certain that these are not the standards we apply to our own days. A good day is, after all, relative. I tend to judge my own daily success by whether I have time to write a few pages or read a chapter or, you know, whether my kids stayed pretty calm and didn’t spend the afternoon screaming and scattering the floor with Legos that will eventually end up digging into the soles of my feet. But listening to The Predator does offer me some perspective on my own life. I have it pretty good. When I leave the house in the morning, I’m not worried about living all the way until tomorrow.
But I’m lucky.
For large swaths of our country—for the 42 million Americans living below the poverty line, for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, for those people in the most dangerous part of town where drugs and gangs are a day-to-day reality—it can feel like a triumph to get through the day without fear and pain encroaching. For those of us paying attention, the newspaper is a collection of horrors. The world is full of cruelty and it is overwhelming.
The French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus once noted,
The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as ‘fate’ only what crushes it. But happiness, likewise, in its way is without reason, since it is inevitable.
Happiness is inevitable. What a marvelous notion! We labor through the dark times in life, certain that we’ve played out our string, that the darkness is permanent. But happiness will come.
“Sure,” you say, “Camus is right. Happiness does come around every now and then. But my problems are monumental. Huge. And those moments of joy are so fleeting.”
Of course they are. Look at Ice Cube. Los Angeles was teetering on the brink of racially-tinged violence. Riots had just swept the city. But there’s no smog today. And the dog didn’t wake him up. Those small victories are not equal to the tremendous horrors surrounding him. But they’re a start, a brief moment when he can actually see the positive. And it builds. One good thing leads to another and before the third verse is out, he’s actually made it into the early morning of the next day, and things are still going well. Small, inconsequential moments of joy add up, Becoming a ladder that helps us climb out of misery and into peace.
Charles Bukowski found himself driving through the wrong side of town, but he heard Mozart on the radio and felt wonderful ever so briefly. Ice Cube, writing from the perspective of someone actually living in that part of town, had his spirits lifted by a good game of basketball. They were able to receive joy in spite of the circumstances. We back our cars out into life itself and we drive along, betting on another day because of that. The odds are in our favor. Happiness is inevitable if we’re open to it.
Cube’s “good day” was such a rarity that recently a blogger used clues from the song—the Lakers beating the Supersonics, the clear, smog-free skies—to determine the exact date of Ice Cube’s good day. He determined it to be January 20, 1992 and proclaimed the 20th of January to be national Good Day Day.
You might wonder why I’m spending so much time talking about this particular song. It was, after all, a one-off on an album of violence and rage, ideas which dominated Cube’s early career. But “It Was a Good Day” has persisted as the other songs of that era have diminished. It has become the signature song of his solo career. There’s a resonance here that goes beyond the fury of his other music. No bloggers are digging through the lyrics of The Predator‘s other tracks looking for clues as to when the events described therein literally occurred. We all need hope, and happiness has more staying power than pain. That’s why we talk about “the good old days,” even though, objectively, they were just as miserable as the bad present times. The horrors fade in the rearview mirror while the joy is still visible.
This is not to say that sadness is not also inevitable. As Jane Kenyon noted, it might have been otherwise. And some day it will be otherwise. Everything is impermanent. But we can overcome any sadness by living in the moment, accepting the world around us for what it is. Through that acceptance, we can find peace.
The chalice to my right was donated to the church in early May. I was sitting in the third row, right about there, and I found myself staring at it. With my eyes, I need contrast in order to be able to really see things. So I’m staring at the chalice and I squinted just a little bit. My eyelashes began to mesh and it made everything just a shade darker, but in that moment, in that darkness, I suddenly noticed the light of the flame clearly for the first time. Sure, people were lighting the chalice. Every week I had assumed that there was a flame there, but I’d never seen it until things got just a little darker. That flame made my day brighter and reminded me that even if I can’t see the beauty around me, it’s still there. Funny thing about those little instants of transcendence—once you become open to them, they tend to happen more often. Soon enough the inevitable has arrived and you realize that you really, truly are happy.