The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “You cannot step twice into the same river.”
The river is never the same river, just as a flame is never the same flame. The waters passing by at one instant are different from the waters present at the next. We see the same river - we give it a name - it flows for a long time in the same channel - but it is ever changing.
The parallel to a congregation is striking. We are here in this place that has held a congregation since 1708. The congregation is 307 years old, but as none of us is quite that age, it has obviously changed. People flow through the same channel, but they are not the same people and - eventually even the channel itself changes.
The river is never the same river twice.
The person who steps into the river is also changing. In the very short term, our moods, our energy, our temperature, our positions can change dramatically.
And you probably know that - biologically and chemically - you are different you than you were in the past.
Here is what George Bernard Shaw wrote in the preface to the 1905 edition of his novel, “The Irrational Knot” - a book he wrote 25 years earlier:
“At present, of course, I am not the author of The Irrational Knot. Physiologists inform us that the substance of our bodies (and consequently of our souls) is shed and renewed at such a rate that no part of us lasts longer than eight years: I am therefore not now in any atom of me the person who wrote The Irrational Knot in 1880. The last of that author perished in 1888; and two of his successors have since joined the majority. Fourth of his line, I cannot be expected to take any very lively interest in the novels of my literary great-grandfather.”
That eight-year replacement idea is not exactly accurate. In fact, some parts of our bodies are replace much more quickly. Others are replaced more slowly or - as seems to be the case for neurons in the cerebral cortex - not at all.
In any case, you are almost entirely composed of different cells than you once were - and molecules can be replaced even faster.
So, we are each becoming, changing, never the same person we were before.
Who are you becoming? Do you have a choice?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “We become what we think about all day long.”
Or, to go back further, Aristotle put it this way “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Modern neuroscience recognises and confirms these wise words from the past. Our brains are changed by what we think and do. Change is inevitable, but it is also - to a great extent - in our control.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that religions throughout history have developed ways to encourage repeated practice. Meditation and prayer are two of the most common, but there are many more.
And in addition to these daily practices, at least two religions - Christianity and Islam - created extended periods during which adherents are meant to change their behaviour. Lent, in Christianity, and Ramadan, in Islam, challenge followers of those religions to practice - and potentially to change.
Ramadan begins at the end of June and we will be spending much of this month thinking about practice and the change that comes of it. By the end of the month, I hope that each of us will be prepared to make a Ramadan commitment - a personal challenge to some practice that may help us change in the direction we want to go.
But what is that direction?
When I ask that question of myself, I quickly find myself overwhelmed. There are so many ways I’d like to change and grow. There’s learning Spanish, which I’m working on. There’s learning to play guitar, which I worked at and dropped. There’s exercising more, worrying less, organising better…
It can quickly become an exercise in futility
There’s an approach that might be more useful, though. And that is to ask who we admire - who inspires us - and why.
Back in the 1990s, there was a trend of Christians wearing bracelets with the letters “WWJD” - “What would Jesus Do?”
Of course, this is limited to a particular religious tradition, and of course, all kinds of variations of WWJD emerged, including “what would Reagan do?”, “Who would Jesus bomb?”, “What would Jesus buy?”, and even “what would UUs Do?”
Despite all of this, there is something really powerful about thinking about those we admire - those we treat as exemplars - as we face the decisions of our daily lives.
And who we admire also says a great deal about us and also reflects where we ourselves are in our own journeys.
The philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected this when he said “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.”
When I was very young, I admired my father - and I wanted to have a briefcase, wear a suit, and go off to work in the morning. Later, I admired rock stars - and I pretended to play guitar on my tennis racquet. Then I began to admire successful business people - and I aimed for money and promotions. It was only later still that came to admire people who worked for justice. And now… well, I don’t want to bias you.
Those we admire reveal our own aspirations and - by reflecting on the character of such exemplars - help us to guide our own becoming.
So, here’s a simple hard question. Who do you admire and why?
This need not be a real person. You need not admire everything about a particular person. It need not even be a real person. The key is to identify, by focusing on a person, your greatest aspirations for yourself.
This is a participative time. I welcome you to come forward, one by one, and placing a stone in the bowl for the exemplar you mention, tell us in 20 words or less, who you admire and why.