OPENING WORDS: Opening Words, from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“Sometimes (Jim and me) we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark — which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two — on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was (shoved) hove out of the nest.”
It’s lovely to live part of our spiritual lives here, on this raft of ours. close to the natural world.invited to float for awhile on the waters of the inner world of memory and hope.
It’s lovely to find a companion here and there, now and then; someone with whom we can look up at the stars, over our heads and to touch the sky, the mystery.
It’s good to share this raft with you today.
SERMON: Spiritual Calisthenics
You and I are here today as part of our intentional program for good health, including our spiritual health, which needs to be exercised, stimulated, pushed and prodded.
A healthy life requires appropriate diet and exercise – we have to take care of the body.
A healthy brain requires exercise. After a certain age we begin to be concerned about remembering things – where we put the keys, why we just walked into the other room – there was some reason, now what was I looking for? We worry about forgetting names, and so forth.
There was a piece in the Times a couple of weeks ago with the headline: “As Minds Age, What’s Next? Brain Calisthenics.”
The story begins: “Is there hope for your hippocampus, a new lease for your temporal lobe? Science is not sure yet, but across the country, brain health programs are springing up, offering the possibility of a cognitive fountain of youth.”
It goes on to report the emergence of ‘brain gym’ on the internet and ‘brain-healthy’ foods; ways to stave off memory loss.
The anti-aging industry is predicted to be one of the hottest topics in the next five years. The question is ‘how much science is there behind all this activity?’
The computer world is a big part of the brain calisthenics industry. For example, there’s a Nintendo game called Brain Age, a video game for the elderly that features simple math, syllable-counting, word memory activities, all of which are designed to give your brain a work out.
The article has a story about Roy Gustafson, 85, who tried the Nintendo game and was told that his ‘brain age’ was in the low 20’s. He said he plays the Sudoku games every day to ‘keep alert.’
There are several stories like his, including an assisted living resident named Alice who has tried brain fitness computer games and she reported that it helped her to pay more attention in church.
Well, that caught my eye – anything that helps you pay more attention in church is fine with me.
That’s when I realized that in addition to brain calisthenics we ought to have ‘spiritual calisthenics,’ exercises to strengthen your spiritual life.
The word ‘calisthenics’ is from the Greek word for beauty, kallos, combined with the word for strength, sthenos; so calisthenics are exercises designed to develop muscular tone and promote physical well-being.
Emerson said, “Truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul.”
To provoke is to challenge. Isn’t that what all the great religious teachers did? Isn’t that what the parables of Jesus were about? The story of the Good Samaritan, for example – in the story a member of a despised group is used as the example of the one who acted like the good neighbor. The parable of the Prodigal Son who is embraced by the forgiving father while the obedient son complains that it’s not fair. Parables were intended to provoke, to challenge old ways of thinking, old ideas, old beliefs.
The spiritual life is not nourished by a set of old, stale answers; it’s challenged by new ways of looking at old assumptions, old beliefs. Challenges to old prejudices provide spiritual calisthenics.
A story comes to mind about a philosopher who sat on a hill by the road leading into a city. A traveler came along and asked the man what kind of people were in this city. The old philosopher stroked his long beard, thought for a moment and asked, “Well, what kind of people were in the city you left?” Without hesitation the traveler said, “Well, you see, that’s why I’m on the road – the people in my city were disgusting; they were always complaining about each other, lying and cheating, and I just had to get out.”
The old philosopher paused, nodded and said, “Well, I have to tell you, that’s exactly what you’re going to find among these people.”
A little while later another traveler approached and asked the same question: ‘what kind of people are in this place?’
“What kind of people were in the city you left?”
“Oh,” said the traveler, “that was my childhood home—the people were my family…they were nurturing, wonderful people. Sure, there were the usual problems, but we always settled them; but mostly there were lots of kind, caring, compassionate people.”
“Well,” said the old philosopher, “that’s exactly what you’re going to find here. No doubt about it.”
The life of the spirit needs exercise.
When I talk about the spiritual life, I’m not talking about belief systems as much as I’m talking about attitudes.
I’m not talking about the particular religion you might have been brought up in, but about the basic message that was conveyed to you – that life is good, or not so good; that you are basically good, or not good; that you are loved, or not so lovable; that you are capable, or no so capable.
Life is not easy for anyone. I found a little poem by Norman Glass. He calls it Reverse Living:
Life is tough.
It takes up a lot of your time, all your weekends,
and what do you get at the end of it?
…Death, a great reward.
I think the life cycle is all backwards.
You should die first, get it out of the way.
Then you should live twenty years in an old-age home.
You get kicked out when you’re too young,
you get a gold watch, you go to work.
You work for forty years until you’re
young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You go to college, you party until you’re ready for high school,
you become a little kid, you play, you have no responsibilities,
you become a little boy or girl, you go back into the womb,
you spend your last nine months floating.
And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.
Spiritual calisthenics are the exercises that help us to turn old ideas around and get some new insight.
The spiritual life is, after all, the inner life. It’s influenced by the people and place we were born, grew up; it’s influenced by the religious ideas we were taught; the mashed potatoes and gravy of Sunday school, or Hebrew school…the sweet dessert of First Communion, bar or bat Mitvah.
But the life of the spirit needs to be nurtured in the fresh air of each new chapter in life; it can go into hibernation for a while, but eventually it must wake up. Or, like the potted plant that has outgrown its container it must re-potted and set out in the sun—but not too much direct sun; and it must be watered, but not too much water.
My mother was convinced that her little conversations with her plants helped them to grow or to survive a difficult time. Who would argue with that – it was clear to me that those plants nurtured her spirit. It’s always a two-way street; we are nurtured by what we take care of – what we love comes back to us.
Religious holidays provide spiritual calisthenics. If you pay attention you’ll find a new little twist every year; a new twist for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; a new twist at Christmas and Easter and Passover.
When I spoke to the Neighboring Faiths class someone asked if there are any exclusively Unitarian Universalist holidays. I said that April 1st is our holiday.
I was only half kidding, since April Fool’s Day suggests the need to have a good laugh once in a while; a sense of humor is an essential exercise in the spiritual calisthenics routine.
We who lead worship have assumed a serious responsibility, to be sure; but the quality of our time together – including this hour in the sanctuary, is a two-way street.
You must come prepared to get what you need. You know the old saying, “When the student is ready the teacher arrives.” The student who is ready has a number 2 pencil; the student who is ready is on the look out, ready to get out the notebook.
That is to say, you have certain responsibilities here, and I’m not talking about taking notes – I’m talking about making a mental note; or hearing the notes in the music; or hearing the sounds of silence in the meditation time; or seeing a heart that is opened by sharing a joy or a sorrow in candle lighting, or being ready to hear a heart during a coffee-hour conversation.
I’m talking about Huck Finn lying on his back on that raft with his friend and companion, Jim, looking up at the stars; or about you sitting quietly looking out the window feeling re-connected to Mother Earth, here on this little corner of the earth sharing the planet with all its inhabitants, perhaps feeling re-connected to those who have gone before…those who loved some love into you and you realize that it’s still alive in you.
Come prepared to be blessed by seeing the sky, the trees and the hill as sublime so you feel at home in the here and now.
Come prepared to discover the deep power of life that is flowing through you and me, nourished by the sentiment we call virtue.
Emerson says, “This sentiment is divine and deifying…Through it, the soul first knows itself…showing the fountain of all good to be in himself…then he can worship and be enlarged by his worship.”
For the past 37 years I’ve occupied a pulpit, having assumed a specific responsibility for the care of the soul. But I remember my pew experience; I remember looking forward to a good, thought-provoking sermon. I would remove my eyeglasses at the start of the sermon, feeling like I was about to begin a brief-but-important journey, or about to dive into uncharted water.
“The good hearer is sure he has been touched sometimes…I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the commonplaces of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard.”
How many times have a stood in this batter’s box and had three swings without a hit only to have someone suggest there was a home run in one of those swings. “Ah, yes,” I tell myself, there is, indeed, a good ear that can draw supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment; an ear that can draw supplies to good health or the restoration of hope.
So, come prepared for Spiritual Calisthenics, ready to be healed, forgiven, cleansed, ready to forgive, ready for some necessary change of heart, or clarification of your thinking; ready for tears and laughter; ready to listen…ready to be touched, challenged and surprised.
I’ll close with an inspirational story attributed to Paul Villard:
When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones. in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished, old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother would talk to it.
Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. “Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give me sympathy.
I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the foot stool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. “Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear “Information” “I hurt my finger…” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. “Isn’t your mother home?” came the question. “Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered. “Are you bleeding?” the voice asked. “No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.” “Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk, that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts. Then, there was the time Peaty, our pet canary died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown ups say to soothe a child. But I was un- consoled. I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?” She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in “. Somehow I felt better.
Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.” “Information,” said the now familiar voice. “How do you spell fix?” I asked.
All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. “Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity, I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind he was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle I had about half-an-hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information, please.” Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. “Information.”
I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell fix?” There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.” I laughed, “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.” “I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.” I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. “Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, “Information.” I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, a very old friend,” I answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.” Before I could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Is your name Paul?” “Yes.” “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.” I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.”
Never underestimate the influence you may make on others.
Keep doing those spiritual calisthenics.