(Sermon January 28, 2018, UU Fellowship at Easton by Rev. Sue Browning)
It’s the end of January. Let’s go way back to the beginning of the month. January 1st was a Monday. Maybe Christmas leftovers on their last leg, your favorite cookies were gone and a few broken, less enticing, ones still had to be eaten, and the guests had headed home.
Way back before the blizzard-ette (a new word where there is bitter cold, and wind, and a bit of snow) took charge of your life January 4…Way back then, did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Or have you given up on the concept? Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution that stuck? Really stuck?
Often the underlying question here is, have you ever changed a habit? Have you ever set a tough goal that you completed based on a vow to complete it? Once in a while when it’s a habit we really do break or start, we do. My Dad always told of quitting smoking ‘cold turkey’ in 1964. He’d just had his 3rd child, smoked 2- 3 packs a day, and the doctor scared the crap out of him.
A few resolutions work like that. We make something such a priority that with time and effort, grit and will power, once in a while the stars align and it happens.
Yet the statistics on New Year’s resolutions aren’t too encouraging. A recent NY Times article recently noted, “By Jan. 8, some 25 percent of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept.” (“The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions”; David DeSteno, Dec. 29, 2017)
Resolutions often start something like this:
I wish I were a better person. I need to fix me. I need to start (or stop) doing (FILL IN THE BLANK)
I wish I were a healthier person. I need to fix me. I need to improve (MY DIET, EXERCISE, SPENDING)
With determination we imagine “the fix” and start and then many resolutions evaporate: ‘Poof’ – gone.
For those of you still on track the morning of January 28, this sermon is to encourage, not discourage your resolution. And it is to be real.
Fixing and improving and correcting is hard. Non-fun things may need to take priority for the fix, improvement or correction to take root. Lots of self-critiquing possibly involved. Is there an easier way?
I’m fascinated by what happens if we start each day with the question: ‘What do I want this day to be about?’
We can answer with a list. What we think should get done, and then talk of prioritizing the list’s items. The list may swirl in our head or be put on paper. (It can be oddly freeing just to get it all down on paper.) And among the ‘get the car inspected, make a dentist appointment, buy food for dinner, submit a blurb for upcoming worship services, write the meeting announcement, I often add ‘call my sister’ (which I love to do). What really needs to get done? What do we want to do?
We might then ‘optimize’ how to get stuff done. Can I be efficient? – group items, even delegate – with the goal of accomplishing as much as possible – combine errands, make calls from the car. Under this option, I can prioritize calling my sister. I also have the ‘not done stuff’ rolling over day to day.
One set of answers. In essence, “List and Prioritize.”
What if we answered the core question ‘What do I want this day to be about?’ without any lists?
What if the answer is something like: I want today to be about music; I want today to be about learning; I want today to be about nature; I want a day alone; I want today to be about my creating a sermon; I want today to be about connecting with 4th graders around poetry. That one thing is the only thing for today that I’m going to be intentional about.
What do I want this day to be about? I know I’d like all days to include joy of some sort. I’d like most days to include a sense I was useful in some way.
What do I want this day to be about?
There’s also a partner spiritual question: How do I want to ask myself this question each day?
The Quakers might ask, how do I listen for the still small voice within? What is it you see yourself unfolding each day? What is unfolding in you?
We ask this not to separate from the greater world, but to start from our own knowing.
Before the inevitable list is created, who are you that is creating the list? Which hat are you wearing this day? Which hats are feeling heavy – not quite fitting? Which parts of your identity haven’t you been making room for?
Being in touch with who you are now matters as lists get created.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is an expert on presidents. Now in her 70s, she is a prolific author who wrote Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream; The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, among other books. Bottom line, she’s accomplished. It’s interesting to hear of her listing to her own voice within when she was in her 20s. An excerpt from an article Goodwin writes,
“I was twenty-four years old and actually saying no to the president of the United States. It was January 1969, and Lyndon Johnson’s term was ending and with it my year-long internship. A few weeks before leaving office, the president approached me about the possibility of my going to Texas to live on his ranch and help with his memoirs. The job, he said, would be full-time. I was reluctant. My plan was to go back to Harvard to begin my teaching career, so I turned him down. Johnson, in his typical fasihon, began offering me everything he thought would convince me to make the move.“Is it money you want?” he began, “Don’t worry. I’ll give you tons of money. You want boyfriends. I’ll import a millionaire every weekend. You want to be a writer? I’ll give you a cabin on the lake…so you can have a blue sky and a quiet place to work…Your field is the presidency?” he concluded, incredulously, “How could you possibly not take this option?” But being young, and looking forward to joining back up with my friends and Cambridge, I held my ground. Would it be possible to do the job part-time, perhaps on weekends? I asked, “No” said Johnson, it was all or nothing. “What’s the matter with you” he argued. “What twenty four year-old girl in her right mind would not want to work for a former president?” She wanted to be with friends and her community in Massachusetts. On the second to last day he was in office he called me into his office. “All right, “he said, part-time. (Source: “The Right Words at Right Time, ed. Marlo Thomas, 131-135)
Something feels spiritual about Goodwin’s choice. She wanted to have a sense of ‘wholeness’ for her life. When we set our path at this deeper level, the big parts (refer to jar from Thoughts for All Ages) are clear. The gym, and healthy eating fit in around these bigger understandings. The foundational of lists is shaped by deepest hopes.
Goodwin also shares in the article of a later time, when she was married and had two children. She realized she couldn’t teach, write and be a mother as the same time. She gave up teaching. She wrote, and write she did – writing robust biographies which she had no idea if anyone would read – came in time. As she raised children her ‘to do’ lists likely included cars which needed inspections, and dentist appointments, and food shopping and prep. She likely made some resolutions too. Her anchors were set with passion, and her energies balanced.
There is an art to zooming out far enough, and then listening.
It helps to ask ‘why’ is something on our list? What on the list brings richness, and joy, and purpose to your day?
The NY Times article confirmed, yes, changes do require self-control. More importantly research found we succeed when the self-control is guided by “gratitude, compassion and authentic sense of pride (healthy pride – not arrogance).” Grit-based self-control which was grounded only in resisting and holding back rarely produced a real change. When the path was a part of a larger picture there was less about fight, and a more natural path to perseverance.
Compassion, gratitude, a sense of self-worth are social emotions. These are at the heart of spirituality. These are relational qualities which often point us to being a part of something larger than oneself – our connections to neighbor and community, and connection to creation – its beauty, and its strength, and its fragility. It’s more than semantics. Constant struggle to resist which is not part of a larger sense of something most often leaves habits unchanged, but also can be unhealthy with heart rates increasing, and depression and anxiety at risk.
The question, “What do I want this day to be about?” leads to, ‘How will I remember to stay centered? To stay intentional?
Asking before “in-taking” the world via TV, news, email, Facebook has power. The checking in with the still small voice might guide us to observing beauty first, or expressing gratitude, or to reminders of relationships which sustain us.
Being an active part of a faith community helps one stay intentional. At least weekly, we are in effect the ‘gym’ for social emotion building. When we gather on Sundays and place gratitude, compassion, and reassurance in the forefront we re-center. We are witness for one another in this centering. Showing up regularly allows us to be for one another a community reminding one another ofour values.
Rev. A. Powell Davies was a Unitarian minister active in the DC area in the 1940s and 1950s. He is credited for starting many of the DC suburban churches, and stories are told of his messages being piped into congregations in the area. About church he said (in The Intentional Act of Going to Church):
“Let me tell you why I come to church. I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. I am afraid of becoming selfish and indulgent, and my church—my church of the free spirit—brings me back to what I want to be. I could easily despair; doubt and dismay could overwhelm me. My church renews my courage and my hope. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe to others. I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do. I am brought toward my best, in every way toward my best.”
Are is words from 60 years ago helpful today? Three themes that jump out…
First, Rev. Davies was aligned to his own drummer. His goal was not to align with external doctrine, but his moral and ethical standards. Church was to hear his inner voice, and realign. He was a Christian, and a Unitarian so his standards were created in that context. He’d found a path inspired by many sources. Staying true to his path was a challenge and going to church helped.
Second, he knew he needed inspiration to lead an intentional life. His faith community was about renewal, and courage and hope. Showing up was how possibility was kept real.
Finally, I’m drawn to his phrase, “feel again the love I owe to others.” He goes on, “I must not only hear about it but feel it.” Rev. A. Powell Davies didn’t use the term social emotion, or break down compassion, and gratitude, and self-worth. He was much clearer. Life needed to be about feeling love. And life had challenges. His intentional act was going to church to feel love.
Sixty years ago, and well before that, religious community has been a place build capacity for social emotion – to feel love. Sure, intellectual curiosity is a part of being here. New ideas on a Sunday aren’t shared in a vacuum apart of feelings. We’re not the next lecture, or talk, or PBS show. We come together with a goal to feel.
While Davies’ era didn’t have of the Internet, cell phones, or 24/7 cable news, still he notes, “It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level.” He wanted to be called to something wider – to gain perspective. To go deeper. Is coming to Sunday service here regularly important in these ways? I hope so. Together I hope we make it so.
As we begin this year, whatever our age or situation I encourage us to to ask each day, What do I want this day to be about? And then to listen for the still small voice within.
May 2018 be a year of unfolding our lives with intentionality – one day at a time: one day at a time, in love.
May It Be So