Gathering Strength

One of the things you should know about me is that I love to have a project. I am someone who tends to get very involved and excited in some activity or skill which I take up with tremendous passion, and then, often, move on. Hopefully, I gain something from each of these interests, although I don’t become a true expert in any of them. 

My bookshelves tell the tale: Japanese home cooking, web design using PHP, learn Turkish at home, how to play guitar for the beginner, Microsoft Access 2000 for Dummies, organic shade gardening… the list goes on and on. There was the time I spent all my spare time in wood-working, or when we ate almost nothing but home-made sushi. 

One current interest is something that I have picked up again after dropping it for a few years – exercise. I’ve been going to the gym regularly and I feel much better and healthier for it. 

I feel stronger. 

And my renewed interest in fitness has me thinking about strength in a broader way. 

Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet wrote this: 

“…When your truth forsakes its shyness, 
When your fears surrender to your strengths, 
You will begin to experience that all existence
Is a teeming sea of infinite life…” 

When your fears surrender to your strengths… We may often feel a battle within us, the fears of our vulnerability, our tenderness, our worry that we are not enough as we are… these fears struggle against the strengths that would makes us resilient, compassionate, giving, grateful, and open-hearted. 

What is it that makes us so strong at times and weak at others? What makes some of us so able to weather some of the outrageous trials that life throws at us, while others crumble at more innocuous challenges? 

Remember Samson from the bible? His hair was essential to his strength and when it was cut off at the hand of his deceitful love, Delilah, he was easily defeated. 

I can assure you it’s not just the hair. I have become stronger throughout my life even as the hairs on my head become less and less numerous! 

Today, I’d like to offer three lessons from a great guru – OK – three lessons that I stole from the trainers at the gym… 

1 - Easy does it, 
2 - No pain, no gain, and
3 - Stick with it 

Easy Does it: One of the first things you learn in the gym is don’t jerk the weights around! You’ll hurt yourself or someone else and, believe it or not, even though it might look impressive to throw around the large dumbbells, slow, calm, controlled movements give the best results. 

Strength of heart too comes from peacefulness. The calm mind and the peaceful spirit offer us a strength and resilience that no amount of violent agitation can match. Imagine the power of a Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela. These were people whose calm strength not only made them strong in the face of hardship, but gave them the power to change whole nations. 

When we cultivate peace, we may well find we harvest strength. 

No Pain, No Gain: Ok, people will argue about this one in the gym and some will tell you pain is always bad. In matters of the spirit, the pains we experience can strengthen us beyond measure. 

An interesting study was released last year looking at what makes people happy. It turns out that engaging in activities that build your skills and competence – activities that help you to grow – actually make you less happy in the moment, but make you much happier in the longer term. We are more stressed while learning something new, and happier for having learned it. 

Frustration and discomfort is not necessarily the sign that you should stop what you’re doing. It may in fact be a sign that you’re getting stronger. 

Rilke writes: 

“what batters you becomes your strength. 
Move back and forth into the change. 
What is it like, such intensity of pain? 
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.” 

And Jane Hirschfield talks about proud flesh – the way we grow back stronger after injury. 

I do not welcome pain and I don’t seek it out, but looking back, I recognize that my strength today comes not so much from the times I’ve been filled with joy, but more from the times I suffered – hurt, angry, depressed, rejected, disgraced, lonely – these hurts strengthened my resolve and determination, they and gave me the depth to be more open, more loving, and more enduring in the face of challenge. 

Finally, stick with it. 

Another way to put this – perhaps a bit more traditionally - is ‘have faith.’ 

If you don’t show up at the gym, you will not get stronger. And inner strength – the strength of your heart and your spirit – also takes consistent practice. That first work out – whether physical or spiritual – may leave you feeling nothing but sore or frustrated. 

Have faith in the deep knowing of your heart that urges you toward connection, that draws you toward compassion, that whispers to open your heart to love. 

We do not gain strength from watching x-factor or from long nights in the pub. We grow and strengthen from practice. We become calm and centred and begin to own our own being with reflective practice like meditation, prayer, and quiet walks in the countryside. And we strengthen the heart by using it – by reaching out in compassion to others, by letting them reach into our tender hearts as well. 

Every time we can meet conflict with equanimity – with compassion – we add a bit more muscle to the biceps of our spirits. 
Each act of true generosity builds another millimeter on the triceps of your goodness. 
And every moment of pure gratitude, does wonders for the quadriceps of your soul. 

And for one last lesson, I’m going to need some volunteers. 

[At this point, Rev. Andy lay down on the floor and had eight people lift him, using only two fingers each]

Could any of you have done this by yourself? 
We are far stronger together than we could ever be on our own. 
We cannot imagine the strength that we can have among us when our hearts and spirits and hands join together as one. 
Truly, we have the strength and power to change lives and communities. 

Let’s close with a few more words from Rainer Maria Rilke: 

“All will come again into its strength: 
the fields undivided, the waters undammed, 
the trees towering and the walls built low. 
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land….” 

May it be so!