Thursday, March 24, 2011

We're On A Mission (March 20, 2011)

Do any of you remember a movie from 1991 called “City Slickers?” It’s kind of a screw-ball comedy with Billy Crystal in which a trio of suburban middle aged men busy with family and work go on vacation for 2 weeks driving cattle from Colorado to New Mexico with real live cowboys. Towards the end of the movie one of them, Curly, played by Jack Palance (Curly) turns to Billy Crystal and says
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].

You must know what one thing is at the center of your life and devote yourself wholeheartedly to it. Every though this was as screwball a comedy as they come, I found myself overcome by tears throughout the end of the movie. Why? Because I was 21, and I was profoundly afraid of living my whole life without ever understanding that secret. I was terrified that I might die without ever having lived.

This begs the question- what does it mean to live, really live? Let’s pause now so each of us has a change to think of some moments in your own life when you felt like you were really alive…any moment that when you look back on it you said “I sure am glad I did that”...if more than one memory surfaces, begin to make a little collection of them, like beads on a string. There is an index card in your order of service, if you want to write them down, you can feel free to do that. Now look for any patterns you notice among those memories. What elements are there that you recognize, what do they have in common, like the string that holds the beads together? That, I submit, is your de facto mission. A mission is your reason for being, and here, collected on this string or on this index card are the moments when you have truly lived.

Now notice, does the pattern change over the course of your life? Is what is important to you now different than when you were a child or a teenager? I bet it has. See, mission is a fluid thing, it changes over time. And if we become conscious of it, we can guide it, we can make choices. Think about what might be missing from that string of memories. My father, who has been a musician nearly all his life said to me the other day “my one regret is that I never was part of a political protest” What things are there like that for you, the gap between what you have done, and what you feel would be a full and rich life. Notice what those missing things have in common. Adventure? Connection to other people? Quiet time for reflection? Because a mission is not about those individual acts, those acts are goals that support your mission. Mission is the thread that strings those all together. Now check out how that mission feel in your heart and body when you project it into your future. Does it make you excited or inspired, or maybe even a little afraid? Or do they make you feel heavy and tired: “I really AUGHT to…” Because as Rev. Howard Thurman wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Now notice any qualities that come to mind as you review your string of memories and dreams. Compassion? Courage? Beauty? I’ll give you an example of what I mean from the most well know mission statement in the western world today
“To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before”
Boldness is the quality with which the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise want to seek new worlds. It would have been quite a different show if they had “prudently” gone, wouldn’t it?

The next step could be to turn that thread into a statement, but it is not required. Whenever I try to write a mission statement for my own life, I feel it looses something. So right now I’ve got a image of my son in my mind- because he reminds me more than anything about the important relationships in my life, and how I want to live deeply into them. I’ve also got a memory of Muir woods in my mind, because that old growth forest reminds me of all that is beautiful and at risk in this global eco-system we share. Then I’ve got a image of this church, reminding me of both my calling to serve you and my tradition, and also my own spiritual journey. Now the problem with Curly’s secret to live- one thing- is that most of us are doomed right from the start. Anyone who has a partner or children or friends and also has a job, or any kind of work they feel passionate about has more than one thing, and sometimes those things compete for our time and attention. So for me the principle at the center of these 3 things is balance. Balance is a very important word to me, an important principle in how I live my life. It is easy for me to get so passionate about my work that I forget to spend an afternoon goofing off with my son, or my partner. It is easy for us as a planet to get so carried away with producing new better products that we forget the impact on the earth. And I know when I feel balanced, I am more present in my own life. So I guess for myself rather than a mission statement I could arrange three images in a triangle, with the word balance linking them.

Every religion tries to answer the question burning in our souls “what is the meaning of life?” I believe that the answer, in this Unitarian Universalist tradition, is highly individual, but there are some common themes. The great UU religions educator Sofia Lyon Fahs said “the religious way is the deep way” So living life deeply is one secret your faith offers. Our tradition also teaches us that serving the common good is essential to a well lived life, As Rev. Rebecca Parker wrote:
“You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
So our tradition invites us to live our life deeply, and to serve the common good with our gifts. But neither of those things really gives us a “to do” list for when we wake up in the morning. That depends on our one thing. One can live deeply and serve the common good if you are an elementary school teacher, or a machinist, or a chiropractor. So it’s up to us to ask “what is the meaning of MY life” and our faith tradition calls us to make sure our own mission, our own reason for being, is guided by certain principles, like respect for the inherent dignity of every person, and the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. It encourages us to live out a mission different from that of the culture at large which I believe is “the one who dies with the most toys wins” or “you can never be too rich or too thin”

When I was getting ready to go on maternity leave, I had just started my first full time settled ministry. I knew that managing my time would be a challenge. So I signed up for a seminar called “First Things First” from the folks at Franklin Covey. Now here’s the funny thing about this seminar – it’s designed for business people, but it has religious values at it’s center. It believes that even if your boss is paying for the seminar, you are allowed to put family on your list of “first things” It encourages us to keep our mission in front of us whenever we have our calendar out, to look at the schedule for April and say “where is my family in this? Where is that old growth forest? Where is my spiritual life- My faith tradition?” The primary message was that when we get up in the morning, we do the most important things first- one executive said he didn’t answer the phone or open his e-mail in the morning until he had made $40,000- so that when that unexpected call comes in the afternoon, or when your child comes home from school early with a fever, you have already done the most important thing, and you can end the day saying “well, I didn’t get it all done, but I got the most important thing (singular!) done.” So whether you’ve got a mission statement for yourself written on that card, or a group of images, I encourage you to put some expression of your mission wherever you are when you start your day. Maybe it is an index card taped to your computer screen, or your bathroom mirror. Or I noticed just as I was writing this sermon, that I’ve already got a photo of Nick and a terrarium right next to my computer screen, all I would have to do is add some symbol for my spiritual life in community and I would have a physical representation of my own mission right there on my desk, like a little altar. By keeping your own mission constantly before you, it increases the odds that you can live your life by that mission, by the thread of meaning that makes you come alive, instead of being buffeted by the events of your days, instead of getting sucked into a life of getting the most toys.

Now I want to change our focus from personal mission, to the mission of this community we all share. Take a moment of reflection now to think about those moments in the life of this community when you have said to yourself “I’m really glad I made it to church that day” and I don’t just mean to this building, because sometimes we do church in other places, like at Mt. Pisgah, or the Phoenix Kid’s café. If you like to write things down, take a second card and list or draw some of those memories. Are you starting to get a picture of the mission of this church? What string links together those precious gems of our life as a community, a string that reaches all the way back into our first days in 1809, and will lead us into our future. Take a moment to write down any words, phrases, images, pictures, symbols that reminds you of what is our reason for being, our reason for coming together. Now let’s read together our mission statement as a church:

Our mission is to provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living.

One question we are asking ourselves as a church right now is “does our mission, our actual lived mission, fit inside this statement?” Have we changed at all in what we put at our center, in the direction we are traveling since we wrote that statement? Is there anything we would add or remove to make that statement more accurate, more complete?

But that’s not the most important question. That question- is how do we best use the resources of our community, the gifts each person brings, and the legacy handed down from our founders over 200 years, to serve our mission? We want to be unified by a shared sense of mission, and to express that shared mission in the living out of our life together. When the board, or Committee on Ministry or the worship team or the Committee for environmental justice and sustainability or when I or Josh roll up our sleeves for the good of our church, what things do we put first? At the end of the day, how will we know that we have lived that day to the fullest, both in the life of this beloved community and in our own personal lives?

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiles] That's what *you* have to find out.

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