Six Impossible Things to Believe Before Brunch

An orthopedic surgeon named Jeremy Statton has the following written on his coffee cup.

He says it does more to get him going in the morning than the coffee he drinks out of it.

“There’s no use trying,” said Alice: “one can’t believe impossible things.”  “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.  “When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day.  Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

In deference to late rising members of this congregation, doing so before brunch is a more reasonable expectation.

The telephone, wireless phone, antibiotics, light bulb, flying and the computer were once considered impossible.

All of these incredible inventions started with believing something that was impossible.

If you go into GOOGLE and type “belief in the impossible,” more often then not you’ll be referred to some kind of motivational message or, as above, a list of scientific breakthroughs.  Very little is said about breakthroughs in spirituality, which I define as stuff relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.  My idea is that believing in impossible things is key to spiritual health, as opposed to believing in the invention of a new video gadget that further increases our alienation from one another.

Can you imagine what your world would be like if you didn’t believe impossible things?  I think it would be drab.  You wouldn’t be able to enjoy a movie, Elton John live, a campaign speech, or keep up with this sermon.

Picture yourself in a movie theater.  The moment you settle back in your luxury recliner, dip into your four dollar popcorn, sip the six dollar soft drink,  and take in the opening scene you accept that the two dimensional surface upon which the medium is projected is in reality a three dimensional world without the 3D glasses.  This is impossible, of course, but you’re happy with it and have no trouble believing that the beautiful little girl or hunky super hero are living, breathing beings, not just a collection of pixels miraculously flung from a digital disk at the speed of light from in nondescript alcove at the back of the theater  Furthermore, you not only believe in that beautiful little girl or hunky super hero, but before you know it, you become invested in what happens to them.

Picture yourself at a concert at the Casper Events Center.  The moment you settle into your uncomfortable seventy-five dollar nose bleed seat, with armrest and cup holder designed by the Marquis de Sade, you believe that Elton John is performing for you exclusively, not for the couple with big hair and cowboy hat partially blocking your view. This is of course impossible, because how could Elton John at the same time NOT be performing to the people around you.

When listening to a campaign speech for the politician you love, you think she or he reads your mind because you agree with everything they say, and therefore they know you, intimately and vice versa, even though you’ve never met.  This is of course impossible because the candidate addressed you at the end of a grueling 24 hour, five state speaking binge before crowds ranging from Hasidic Jews, steam fitters, college students, an AARP convention, and you.

As for this sermon, the sound of my voice travels about 1100 ft. per second while the earth rotates at a speed of 1467 ft. per second from west to east, meaning that if you’re in the back row   I’ve moved 59 ft. toward Glenrock by the time you hear my voice.  Therefore it’s impossible for you to keep up with this sermon, but sitting in the front row will give you a better chance!

But take heart, you’re doing the possible.  In the words of Pablo Picasso, “ I am always doing things I cannot do.  That is how I get to do them.”

Believing in impossible things fires the imagination, and indeed, in many cases believing in impossible things IS imagination.  And imagination opens up all kinds of possibilities and sometimes makes us, our lives, and even people around us more interesting.  Inevitably, however, there’s always someone happy to bring us back down to earth.  Here’s an example:

Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson are camping. After enjoying a day of relaxation, they pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson. “Watson, look up at the stars and tell me what you deduce.”

Hoping to please his boss with his own brilliant reflections, Watson says, “I see millions of stars, and if even a few of those stars have planets, it is quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are planets like Earth out there, it is reasonable to assume that there might be life on other planets.”

Holmes stares hard at Watson for a minute, then says, “Watson, you idiot, somebody stole our tent!”

On a Sunday morning in 1980, somewhere near Minneapolis, a man named Art Fry was in church singing in the choir when he tried to open his hymnal.  He had bookmarked a few favorites by means of paper and scotch tape, which unfortunately tore the thin paper when he  tried to remove his taped-in bookmarks.  Fry worked for the 3M Company.  He found out that another researcher  had come up with a less aggressive adhesive.  One or two “Eureka’s” later, Art Fry invented post-it notes.  Biographical materials indicate that Fry had his epiphany during a particularly boring sermon.

Maybe I’ll hear a few “Eureka’s” from you before this presentation is over.  A “eureka moment” is when we realize that the impossible has just become possible, in other words, he finally finished.

Perhaps some of you remember the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the story of a musician who really just wants to be a composer. Rather grudgingly, he takes a job teaching music at the local high school, supposing it will give him time to write music while providing an income for he and his wife.

One of his students is a very serious young lady who plays the clarinet terribly, even though she practices constantly. One day she comes into the music classroom and tells Mr. Holland that she’s going to give it up and if he knows anyone who wants her clarinet, he can give it to them. As she walks away, Holland asks her, “Is it any fun?” With a shrug, she answers, “I wanted it to be.”

“You know what we’ve been doing wrong?” asked Mr. Holland. “We’ve been playing the notes on the page.”

Confused, the girl asks, “Well, what else is there is to play?”

“There’s a lot more to music than notes on a page. Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about heart. It’s about feelings and moving people and something beautiful and being alive and it’s not about notes on a page. I could teach you notes on a page. I can’t teach you that other stuff.”

He takes away her music and tells her to try it. She tries a time or two, each time coming to a point where she her clarinet squawks and squeaks and she starts to kick herself for her failure.

“What do you like best about yourself?” he asks. With a shy smile she says, “My red hair – my dad says it reminds him of a sunset.”

“Play the sunset.”

And she closes her eyes, and she begins to play – really play, not just the notes, but the music. She is so amazed when she does the hard part perfectly that her eyes pop open and she stops. Mr. Holland shares her amazement and says, “Don’t stop!”

And so, on she plays: eyes closed, head beginning to sway with the rhythm of it. And we know that this time, it’s fun.

This reflection  on “Mr. Holland’s Opus” was part of a sermon entitled “Imagine That” delivered in 2001 by Pastor Mary Lewis of the Parkesburg Baptist Church, Parkesburg, Pennsylvania.

When I was a kid, my imagination knew no limits.  War ships staged battles in my bathtub.  When not at sea I rode alongside the Lone Ranger, took a bullet in my shoulder, and fantasized about showing up at school with my arm in a sling and explaining to my astonished classmates that the Lone Ranger and I had a bit of a dust up with the bad guys, but don’t worry, he’s all right.   Sometimes my friends and I hid in indestructible castles built of blankets and sheets. As we get older, however, our daydreams are confined to the limits of reality, and we’re told that it is not okay to torpedo battle ships in our bathtub.  That’s sad.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” ― a quote from Carl Sagan

I like the way Tim Burton handles the character of Alice in “Alice in Wonderland” in his movie of that title.  At the onset of the film, Alice clearly does not fit in with the straight-laced Victorian society which threatens to pressure her into what is clearly an arranged marriage with Hamish, who is clearly a product of his rigid society.  We suspect that Alice is already a free spirit by the time she falls into the rabbit hole, where, through a series of adventures, impossible things seem real.  Emboldened by her experiences, she emerges from the rabbit hole as a stronger woman not to be beat down by orthodoxy.  Explaining to Hamish that she cannot accept his proposal, she speaks her mind to a number of different relatives and acquaintances.  Her forthright attitude catches the eye of Hamish’s father, and soon, the two discuss plans to expand the shipping routes to China, a land that has not yet been opened to the west.  Alice is then made an apprentice to the company, and sets off with a crew to open the shipping route to China, aboard a ship titled “Wonder”. (italized from IMDB.COM). Floating before her is a blue butterfly, the equally symbolic character of Alan Rickman, consigned to play the role of a talking caterpillar for most of the movie

The story of “Alice in Wonderland”  was never intended to have a moral.  Lewis Carroll told it solely for the amusement of his child friends.  Although the story was expanded for publication, it became actually the first children’s book without a moral.

Clearly, Burton and the screenplay writer, Linda Woolverton, put a twenty-first century spin to his treatment of Alice.  What I liked about it, however, was the fact that her experiences with the fantastic, and participation in the fantasy, rather than landing her in an asylum, literally broadened her horizons, as symbolized by sailing off to China.

In the early 1970’s when living in California and still decked out in my metallic blue polyester leisure suit, bell bottom pants, and floral shirt, I got into the habit of reading works such as “The Teaching of Don Juan” by Carlos Castaneda, who described his training in shamanism with a group purportedly descended from the Toltecs. Chief among them was a Yaqui, or “Man of Knowledge” named don Juan Matus, who may or may not have been real.  Castaneda’s works  eventually resulted in 12 books that sold more than 28 million copies in 17 languages. He was the subject of a cover article in the March 5, 1973 issue of Time which described him as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a tortilla”. At any rate, a large part of Castaneda’s compelling prose dealt with the desert landscape and his meditations within.  Reviewers nowadays mostly consider his writings as works of art rather than scholarship.  Nonetheless his peyote-induced visions inspired many to trek into the Mexican desert to meditate.

I trekked in a 1973 Toyota Corolla wagon along the then barren gulf coast of Baja, California, in caravan with several families as part of the Easter week migration from southern California, ending up about 150 miles south of the border.  My wife and I pitched our tent on the beach below a small promontory where the rest of the group circled their Winnebago’s and VW vans.  SUV’s hadn’t been invented back then.  Our days began with communal breakfast followed by shell collecting,  volleyball, lunch, siestas, swimming if the tide was up, a cocktail party, potluck and star-gazing.  The nearest distraction was a dusty town about five miles up the coast, it’s only recreation being my attempt to talk with the locals while an ice machine, fueled by a sputtering generator, reluctantly kicked out enough ice to last the drive back to our campsite.

Thanks to Carlos Castaneda, this vacation was a memorable interlude, without peyote I might add, though there might have been a margarita involved.  The silence of the desert, solitude with hours to enjoy it, shimmering daytime heat, though not oppressive, vast seer landscape, together with a canopy of stars, conjured up the possibility that just maybe there were impossible things nearby that I should acknowledge, mythical or otherwise.  It’s the belief in impossible things, howbeit fleeting, that feeds the spiritual being and opens rich avenues of contemplation.

If I can’t fleetingly believe that gods, goddesses and prophets once and still do walk the earth, that a divinely inspired person willingly gave up her or his life for our own good, deserved or otherwise, that miracles happen with or without divine intervention…  then how can I possibly marvel at the glory of a temple, mosque or cathedral, or the treasure of the goodness and well spent life of a friend or neighbor that enriches my existence.  A pragmatic person or cynic might say that these are impossible things.  But I can’t visualize  what it would be like not to straddle the impossible and possible.

In her book Walking on Water, Madeline  L’Engle talks about how as a little girl she used to float down her grandmother’s stairs; she remembers doing this, and it was only when someone told her that wasn’t possible that she began to doubt it. We are so good at taking away people’s childlike faith. I guess we think it’s better to live in the “real world,” but oh boy, the real world today is no bargain.

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:

Thus slowly, one by one,

Its quaint events were hammered out—

And now the tale is done,

And home we steer, a merry crew,

Beneath the setting sun.

(Excerpt from the Poem: “All in the golden afternoon,” Alice in Wonderland)