Hey folks... I preached at our church today, and thought you might be interested in the topic. I also used Sandra's Thinking Sticks to make the sermon a bit interactive. It was fun, and people really liked it. Also, in the service, Julian played guitar and sang the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

Love, Kathryn

The Lighting of a Fire:
Lifelong Learning as a Spiritual Practice

by Kathryn Baptista


David Wolpe in Teaching Your Children about God writes:
Children do not study shoeboxes to manufacture better boxes. They study them because they are. That is a rare but wonderful devotion. It is important and necessary to study things for some purpose. It is holy to study them for no purpose. Each moment is precious not because of what it can be used for, but simply because it is. Creation is only one use of time. Another is appreciation.

Once upon a time I worked with a very serious minister who would often ask me very serious questions. One day she asked me if I had an Everyday Spiritual Practice, and I said I didn’t think so; what did she mean. And she gave me examples like prayer and meditation, yoga, fasting…that kind of thing. And I had to say, no, I didn’t. I had a young child, none of those things seemed to really resonate with me… the kinds of things you say when you feel you might have disappointed someone and want a way out. Afterwards, I thought briefly that I should find some sort of spiritual practice, but it never really happened.

As it turns out, I believe I had one all along, but I never named it that. In many ways, I grew up with it, but it took an eight year old to make me conscious of it.

Some of you may have heard this story, and I have Julian’s permission to share it now. When Julian was still in school, in the third grade, he loved reading. He was unhappy in school, though, and we were struggling about whether to begin homeschooling.

Every night Beth read to him at bedtime, and one night they finished, and she told him he could finish reading the chapter of the book he was reading then turn out the light. Two hours later, sleepy, he came out to us and said, “I’m lonely.” We tucked him back into bed to go to sleep (he had school the next morning), and he said, “The problem with school is there’s never enough time to read.” We had our answer. And the first day he was an official homeschooler he read for eight hours straight.

Early on, we realized that like most things in parenting, we had to model our message. We couldn’t just tell Julian that he should be excited about learning; we had to be too. Beth began learning to play the violin. I read more, and explored more. I was always an information junkie (figuring that anything worth doing was worth reading about!), but now I had a really good excuse. As it turns out, Julian was already way ahead of us.

In How Children Learn, John Holt wrote, "What I am trying to say about education rests on a belief that, though there is much evidence to support it, I cannot prove, and that may never be proved. Call it faith. This faith is that man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly; fish swim; man thinks and learns."

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, "A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected."

The sticks you received when you came in are versions of Thinking Sticks created by a writer and sage named Sandra Dodd. She refers to these sticks as “Thought Manipulatives,” and we’re going to play a little game together. I’m going to point to pairs of you during the sermon, and invite you to read what your sticks say. Then we’ll all spend a minute or two making connections of the concepts on the two sticks. Are you willing to play with me? Okay, let’s try one now.

Thinking StickGame *

Novelist Doris Lessing said, “That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way.”

It’s the way you put all the puzzle pieces of all the things you see and discover and know. First you find the corners and the edges. You see a bit of an ear there, or a tree here, and maybe what you thought was a part of the sky turns out to be the pocket on the girl’s dress. And sometimes pieces of another puzzle get stuck in the box. That can be frustrating if you’re trying to put a real puzzle together, but very exciting if it’s part of life.

When you start working on those puzzles, one of the things you do first is move around the pieces. You might organize things a little, or you might just let the pieces inspire you. Goethe said, "Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking." I believe that it doesn’t matter what you’re learning or where you’re learning it from, as long as you learn in joy!

For me, one of the many glorious things I find in being a Unitarian Universalist is how much the religion supports my spiritual practice. Right there in the fourth Principle it says that we covenant to affirm and promote, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In the Sources it even gives us a list of places to look for stuff to learn: Direct experience, words and deeds of prophetic women and men, wisdom from the world's religions, then teachings from Jewish and Christian traditions, Humanists, and earth-centered religions. The covenant used in many churches, including this one, lets us know that we value the search for knowledge in freedom.

At the Women’s Retreat this year, I got to share one of the things I like doing, making earrings with glass beads. Now, I am adequate at this. I can turn a wire sufficiently, and I am comfortable with a pair of jewelry pliers in my hands. I am clear that I am never going to be a master craftswoman. But it was so much fun to sit with a bunch of women and share what I loved, and help them to create things that would make them happy. I could show them what wires to use and how to make a loop. They showed me ways of combining colors and shapes of beads I’d never thought about. In the process of sharing knowledge and creating, we made earrings … and relationships.

Let’s make some more relationships. Are there two more people who’d like to share the words on their sticks?

Thinking Stick Game

Albert Einstein said, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” It’s all about wisdom, isn’t it? That’s what brings us to develop spiritual practices in the first place. It’s a way to go deeper, to examine things more closely. It’s a way to grow.

Julian is a musician. I am not, but I love music, and I have learned a lot from him. A couple of years ago we went through a slightly difficult adjustment as his musical tastes changed significantly from exactly what mine were to, what I called then, unpleasant noise.

So, at Christmas I asked Julian to make me a mix CD of songs he thought I’d like. Most of it is music that I would probably never have listened to on my own, but there’s quite a bit of it that I now find really amazing. One of the most romantic or maybe deeply spiritual songs I’ve ever heard turns out to be by a band called Anthrax! I’ve learned that Kurt Cobain was an ardent feminist. And just last week Julian was playing some Metallica and I suddenly said, “Hey, listen to all the blues influence in there!”

William Butler Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” and I knew that the title of my sermon had to be “The Lighting of a Fire.” Ultimately, this search is not about gathering a bunch of facts. It’s about relationship, the world, wisdom, and passion.

As you talk to one another in Coffee Hour, I invite you to share with another person the contents of your stick. I dare you to find interesting connections and to learn from one another! Think of it as a spiritual exercise!


E.M. Forster writes, "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." Amen.

Kathryn Baptista is Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Wakefield, Massachusetts.
This sermon was presented on April 3, 2005.

(the church's website as it was linked then, which exists now here, as of 2021)

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