Friday, January 18, 2013

First Things First (January 6, 2013)

Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like you are working hard all day, but then when it comes time for bed you wonder, “ where has the day gone? I worked so hard all day, why does it seem like nothing got done?”  Other days, especially in the dark of winter, it is common to become so overwhelmed by life that we can hardly do anything at all.  Sometimes our lives push and pull at us, flowing in their own inertial way and we wonder – is this the life I meant to live? In the words of the great New Wave songwriter David Byrne of the Talking Heads:
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Life is the eternal balancing of our intentions and plans with the surprises and powerful forces beyond our control, as large as a tidal wave, as small as a newborn that won’t nap. And whether you find yourself in a shotgun shack or behind the wheel of a large automobile, the choices we make matter.

When I was just starting my first full time ministry and also becoming a new mom, I realized that time management was going to be really important. I took a seminar called “First things First” based on work by time management guru Steven Covey. Steven Covey died this summer, and I wanted to recognize him because he was one of the first teachers of time management that included values and principles in his teaching about how to get things done. Covey noticed that we often fall into doing whatever  is most urgent,  greasing the squeakiest wheel. Instead, we can live the life we intend to live, we can choose to do what is really important to us and to our world.  The first question, then, is what comes first in your life?

We will start by asking, when you imagine your life, who do you want to be? Maybe you imagine “I always wanted to live an ethical life” or “I want to have a lot of good friends” or “I want to always be learning new things.” Our vision of our life shows us what is important to us, what our values are. Values are not just the  noble things, they are everything that comes into play when we make decisions --when we have to choose one thing over another.  Good food is a value. Beauty, art, fun, logic, silence, freedom of thought, responsibility, fame, wealth.   From the noble, to the selfish to the silly, what we value shapes our life. Take a moment or two now to silently make a list for yourself of the things you value, from the sublime to the ordinary.  [silent pause]
Now the problem with that list, is that not everything we love, if pursued with great consistency and strength of will, helps us become a better, more spiritually satisfied people. If “good food” is at the top of your list, and pursued with a singleness of purpose, we all know that is not going to turn out well. But if we approach a passion for good food with principle, it can absolutely be part of a well- rounded, ethical, enjoyable life.  Fortunately, we already have a very nice list of  principles right at the beginning of our hymnal- our UU principles. We believe in each person’s capacity to know what is right- to use their conscience to create not only a life of meaning for themselves but also to live with justice equity and compassion towards a goal of peace liberty and justice for all. 

To help us round out our sense of what is important Covey explains that one of the most important things for us to do every year, every week, is what he calls “Sharpening the saw” He reminds us that we are more effective in our work, in being the people we want to be if we consistently take time to take care of our main tool- our self. He divides the self into 4 areas: Mental, (our capacity to learn new things and grow throughout our lives) spiritual (here Covey emphasizes our sense of direction and purpose, but as a minister I can add our sense of inner peace, our capacity to make meaning from our lives and sense of being part of something larger than ourselves), physical (which includes not only care of our body, but all our physical needs, like our home and our finances) and social (the depth and health of all our relationships, that web of which we are a part).  He also lifts up what  calls “the fire within” which is our sense of passion and aliveness. So let’s take a moment now to think about each of those 5 areas of our life, and to ask: what parts of our saw are keen, and which parts have grown dull?[pause]

We also  want to make sure our relationships are an important part of what we know is important in the coming year. So now I’d like you to think about  up to 6 roles we have in our life, say “sister” or “mom” or “counselor” or “science student” or “church member” and for each role thing about what would be the most important thing you could do. It might be concrete, like “help my daughter with her math homework” or more abstract like “be more fully present when I am hanging out with my friends.” And remember the importance of the “fire within” if the thing you come up with first makes you want to take a nap, try again, what would not only feed your relationships but would kindle that inner fire [pause]

Covey suggests that whereas most time management plans are based on the clock, what we really is a compass. All those things you’ve got written on your paper or imagined in your mind right now, those are your compass. But as much as I love lists, I know that what you need in the middle of a confusing day is not a list, but something much simpler.  I would like for us to hone these into a compass for this coming year. So we must ask ourselves, of all those important things, which is the most important thing. I submit to you that while we can do many things over the course of our lives, on any given day we can only have 1 or at most 2 most important things. Look over all those things, and decide, what is the most important thing or 2 for this coming year. It is hopefully something that is in line with your principles, is a value you cherish, and deepen relationships with yourself or others. And most importantly it should make you feel excited, it should give you energy. [pause]

Once you are really ready to commit to this, and maybe you aren’t ready yet.  Maybe it will take a few days of thinking and pondering, but when you are ready to commit to a single intention, it becomes like a touch stone that you carry around with you throughout the year. You don’t have to have a plan for exactly how to manifest this intention, but if this is truly your intention, you can meditate on it, visualize it like Marcia described in her reflection. Look for it as you go through your days. You might even pick an object that reminds you of this intention and put it in your pocket, or on your nightstand to serve as a reminder. When I came to the realization that I wanted to make environmental justice a touch stone in my life,  I had no idea what that could look like, so I was amazed once I started looking for it, being open to it, that opportunities were all around me. But if I had never clarified my intention, I would have missed out on all those opportunities.

Once you have clarified your intentions, your priorities, now, finally you can put first things first. I mean, literally, first.  That way, no matter how the days flow by, whatever you hold to be most important will get your first, best energy. One of the most important things in my life is preaching for you. So on my sermon writing days, when I am freshly showered I take a cup of steaming hot coffee up to my study to write. I try not to open my e-mail or Facebook or even to look at that pile of assorted nonsense on my desk until I have done a real chunk of writing. Some days this is hard because there are so many other things, also important, clamoring for attention. 

One day last month I had 3 things to do before I came down to be with you all in the evening.  One was a sermon, the other was to prepare for my meeting that night, and the third was to run some packages to the post office. I REALLY wanted to dash out and mail those packages, because I was humming with that sense of Holiday Urgency, but I remembered the importance of putting first things first, and so I got my first things done before heading out to do my errands. And Just as I was finishing up I got a call from the school nurse “You might want to come get your son” she said “he doesn’t feel too well.” Now… my son was first. So up I lept, with  time enough to get my son at the school, fix him some hot tea, get him tucked in. His dad came home from work and I came here to be with you.  

As we enter 2013, some would say a whole new era, I encourage you to take some time to figure out what things are most important to you: what things will bring your life into balance, will manifest your values and principles, will kindle your inner light, will bring you into right relationship with yourself and with the world. And then, put your mind, spirit, physical resources and relationships behind it. Put the first things first, and then no matter what else may come, your life will be grounded in that which is really important. Plant your intentions like seeds, tend them like a farmer, and may your garden grow.

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