Beginning this talk by saying thank you is not just an exercise in protocol. It speaks directly to the theme of this gathering, which is, Spiritual Fitness. Becoming an appreciative person is a top strategy for spiritual fitness.
1. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. There is a reason that the phrase “count your blessings” is a watchword. We are so blessed in so many ways, yet it is human nature to love to complain and to notice what is lacking rather than what is present. I have this quote in the signature block on my email, from a book called Thank You by Zelig Pliskin- “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” There is always something- make sure the balance in your life is more focused on saying “Thank you” than on saying “Please.” . I am going to share with you this morning ten strategies for gaining and maintaining spiritual fitness. Now you know the first one- be grateful. Number two-
2. Be happy unless there is a very serious reason not to be. It is human nature to be dissatisfied and to strive for more and better, and in many areas of our lives this serves us well. If we are dissatisfied with our work, we will try to improve. If we are dissatisfied with disease, we will search for cures. It is critical, however, that we learn to distinguish between what can and what cannot be changed. We only create misery for ourselves when we allow dissatisfaction over what cannot be changed to become an obstacle to our happiness, and miserable people are not spiritually fit people.
3. See yourself and others as the image of God. Jewish Biblical commentators suggest that only one person was created in the Genesis story so that no one can think that he or she is better than others. Each of us has within ourselves a soul that is given to us as a pure spark of the Divine. It is spiritually draining to live with the challenge and disappointment that necessarily comes from living with other people. Chris Cleave put it this way in the book, Little Bee– “There’s eight million people here pretending the others aren’t getting on their nerves. I believe it’s called civilization.” If we can remind ourselves of the essential holiness of each person that we meet, we will become more compassionate and more spiritually fit. This leads us to #4-
4. Let it go. Not everything can or should be an issue. Anger is antithetical to spiritual well-being. Righteous indignation is so tempting and so invigorating. The battle cry of, “But I am right!” is irresistible. There are things worth fighting for, as individuals, and, as we as Soldiers know, as a nation. But we will destroy ourselves if we allow ourselves to be consumed by passion. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach had to flee Vienna, Austria as a young man. He grew to be an internationally known singer/songwriter, and was invited to return to his home country. People were shocked when he said yes. “Don’t you hate those people?,” they asked. He replied, “If I had two hearts, I would devote one to hating. But, since I only have one heart, I don’t want to poison my own essential being with hatred.” Let it go, #4. And its corollary-
5. Accept imperfection, your own and that of others. Forgiveness is, for many of us, the greatest spiritual challenge of our lives. In The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd writes that “People in general would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.” If we can’t or won’t forgive, we will die spiritually- it’s that simple. None of us is perfect, we all require grace and mercy throughout our lives. A little kindness and understanding is the foundation of our spiritual well-being. And- we need to forgive ourselves just as much as we forgive others. Rabbi Harold Kushner says that the four holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.” Practice saying them.
6. Pray. Communication is fundamental in any relationship, and our relationship with God is no different. We should never be shy about asking for what we want and expressing our needs, whether in the words of a traditional liturgy or in the words of our heart. Elizabeth Gilbert expresses this so beautifully in her book, Eat, Pray, Love, where she addresses her main character- “Where do you get the idea you aren’t allowed to petition the universe with prayers? You are part of this universe, Liz. You’re a constituent- you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me- it will at least be taken into consideration.” It will at least be taken into consideration, and, as the Jewish sage Moses Maimonides notes, “When you pour out your heart, it feels lighter.” When you’re done praying, think of these words- “Pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on you.” Prayer is important, but it does not replace our responsibility to act.
7. Develop an understanding of good and evil. The world is full of suffering. None of us escapes pain and many of us experience deep tragedy. Whether we are religious or not, we need to find some way of reconciling why bad things happen to good people, some framework that provides a foundation of peace in times of challenge. The Chinese have an expression, “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.” Each of us must seek an answer for ourselves that we find cohesive and meaningful. One way to do this is through #8-
8. Study spiritual teachings. We are not the first ones to ask these questions, and we won’t be the last. Explore the writings of some of the great thinkers who have explored spiritual themes throughout the ages. Subscribe to a website that provides a daily or weekly devotional. We don’t have to forge a path on our own. Wise thinkers have provided guideposts along the way, and we should cultivate the practice of reflection and meditation on their teachings. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein said, ‘When I pray, I speak to God, when I study, God speaks to me.” Open yourself to hearing the voice of God.
9. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Okay, so I borrowed this one from that other famous list of 10 commandments. But it’s a good one! God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Even God needed a day of rest! In our incredibly fast-paced, 24/7, hyper-connected world- even more so! If you’re wondering how you are going to find the time to develop spiritual resilience, remember that time for spiritual reflection and growth is built into the framework of creation itself, if only we would take the notion of Sabbath seriously. Give yourself this gift- you deserve it! Finally-
10. Know that you are God’s Public Affairs Officer. Because you are! If you claim to be a religious person, people are watching your behavior to see what kind of person your religiosity leads you to be. If you are a jerk, it really doesn’t reflect well on your commanding officer. So- be good, do good, let your goodness shine. As the prophet Micah expressed it, “Love goodness.” In every moment of your life you have a choice- will the consequences of your next decision, of your next action, bring holiness into the world, or will it desecrate God’s name? I leave you with this- the choice is in your hands- be a blessing!