Monday, January 11, 2016

Intention & Grace (January 10, 2016)

It’s New Year’s resolution time again. Over the past several decades I’ve made many resolutions- some of which have resulted in a real change in my life, most of which were forgotten by the second week of January. Clearly not all New Year’s Resolutions are equal.

When we make a New Year resolution, we are clarifying our intention. This can be a powerful act. We spend much of our responding to things that are outside our control. Our boss asks us to do something and we do it. Our family expects certain things from us and we try to fulfill those expectations. The driveway needs to be shoveled, the rent needs to be paid, dinner needs to be made and eaten. We can go through days or even years without asking ourselves “what do I really want?” Not that there’s anything wrong with shoveling the snow or making dinner- this is the stuff of life. But when you step back from all those hours spent sitting at the computer or doing the dishes we see that viewed all together they form a picture of the life we’ve lived and shape of the roads we’ve traveled. And some small choices we make along the way provide a certain shape and direction to the larger picture.

A few months back son and I were on a car trip together. We were just heading into Harrisburg and navigated our way through a complicated interchange. I thought we were almost to his grandmother’s house, but instead of getting more urban, the road got more and more rural. We were having a great conversation so I was not too worried that the next turn, which was supposed to happen in a few miles, kept not appearing. In fact there were no signs or turns at all. Finally we saw a sign with the name of a place on it, and I pulled over to look at a map. I realized to my horror that we had spent the last half hour headed in exactly the wrong direction. We had missed one turn and had added a full hour to our trip. It was already late at night, and our host had been waiting dinner for us. I was very discouraged.

This was not the first time something like this had happened, and I asked myself once again, why I waited so long to pull over and look at the map. I always think I don’t have time to double check the turn I’ve taken, but if you are headed in the wrong direction, each mile you drive before you look at the map adds 2 miles to your journey. In the same way, it can be worth metaphorically pulling over from time to time and asking “Where is my life headed- and is that where I want to go?”

There are many different strategies and resources for clarifying your intentions, but despite my love of lists and post-it notes I’m going to resist the temptation to get too technical in our time this morning. ( A favorite resource of mine is First Things First by Steven Covey.) The basics are the same whether you are talking about your plan for the day, or your vision for the rest of your life. The first thing is to take some time to reflect. If you are just trying to remember what you intended to do when you came into the kitchen, the reflecting process can just take a moment. But if you are really trying to determine what you want for the coming years, you might set aside anywhere from several hours to several days to discern what is truly important. Because if you believe that creating an intention has the power to guide your life, you want to use that power thoughtfully. The meditation form we used today can be helpful for this kind of reflection. It is a way of looking at your metaphorical map, and determining whether you are headed where you really want to go. Was there anything in your meditation today that suggested what you wanted to move toward, or away from?

Once you have clarified your intention, there are many ways to stay true to that intention. The visioning group Marcia has been leading writes down their visions of the future and then repeats them every day. Alternately, a friend of mine writes his intention in a book and then leaves it alone like a souffle in the oven so it can cook without the disturbance of the conscious mind always checking in on it. I have kind of a spotty memory and am easily distracted, so I like to have something concrete to remind me. My new year’s resolution this year is to meet with someone about my 401K to make sure that is headed in the right direction. So I’ve got a bright green folder full of all the notices they keep sending explaining how to schedule that.

But more important to me is the intention I created before my sabbatical to have a deeper spiritual life, and to become a spiritual director. Sure I have some new books on my shelf that remind me of that intention, and the journal for Spiritual Directors that arrives in my mail, but more important are the things I have in my calendar. I affirm that intention with a daily spiritual practice, and by seeing my own spiritual director each month. I clarify my intention with my actions, and by setting aside time in my calendar. I’m guessing most of you have shiny new calendars that still have some empty space in them. How might that calendar serve as a reminder of what you intend for the coming year?

Even with shiny new calendars filled with shiny new resolutions, there is still no guarantee that things will turn out as we plan. I’m sure some of you can remember a time when you sat down with some committee or other and filled easel pads with goals that were never met. Why does that happen? It happens sometimes because there are too many goals, or because the goals were not clear, but mostly it happens because our heart is not really in them. The reason that my 401K is my only new year’s resolution this year is because, truth be told, it’s been on a post it note for several years, and that green folder has been collecting those letters for longer than I care to mention. If it gets done it will be an act of will, not an act of passion and purpose. My real intention, though-- to deepen my spiritual life-- this one has plenty of passion behind it, and that is probably why it grows in momentum instead of petering out. Sometimes the intentions that are never fulfilled show us something about where our passion and desire really lie.

Sometimes it’s good that our intentions are never manifested. Some intentions are in line with our highest self, and others are going to take us off our true path. This is the “be careful what you wish for” warning we get so often from folk tales. Our libraries are full of stories about people wishing for wealth or power or beauty or immortality and when they finally have their wish, realizing they are no happier.

But the most difficult reason we are not always to achieve our intentions is because we are not as in control as we think we are. We tend to think that everything will go according to our plan, and any deviation from that plan is a personal failure. And we are in fact in control of many things in our lives; by then time I finish my morning chores and have fed myself and my son and gotten him off to school and myself to work I feel pretty in control. I wield such power to accomplish things in my home. But some mornings the construction crew down the block is working on the water line suddenly all the water is running red. I can’t wash dishes or shower or even make coffee! That’s when I realize all that control I have is temporary and local. One has only to imagine the morning of Syrian Refugees trying to find sanctuary in Europe to understand that even our limited power to start the day with a warm pot of coffee is not something we can take for granted, it is a privilege and a gift.

Some of the best moments in our lives together as a congregation come not as part of a carefully crafted 5 year plan, but from a shared intention that emerges as life is unfolding.

 A few years back after the Valley was flooded and most of our neighbors had standing water in their homes. Mud was everywhere, and members of our congregation had a clear vision of this building being a clean, dry, mud free place where our neighbors could come to rest and share some lunch. This intention was so clear and compelling that within 24 hours we were making lunch for hundreds of neighbors and did so for weeks until things started to return to normal.

The word “Grace” as theological term means “God’s unmerited favor, love or help.”[i] “Grace” is a theological construct that we UUs don’t talk too much about. Perhaps because our humanist roots emphasize the importance of our human agency to make the world a better place. The word “Grace” can be used very narrowly to refer to salvation- when used this way it means that we can be saved even though we are not perfect. That’s certainly something that Universalists have always believed. Back when this congregation organized (150 or 200) years ago, this was the most important idea bringing us together- that every single person is loved by God, even if they make mistakes. “Grace” can also be used in a larger way, to refer any “favor, love or help” that comes to us as a gift. It is the acknowledgement that I am not more deserving of a fresh pot of coffee in my warm dry kitchen than a Syrian shop-keeper bombed out of his home. A the Buddhist teacher and Activist Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us “Every morning we have 24 brand new hours to live. What a precious gift!” The most mundane and ordinary parts of our lives we usually take for granted but Grace reminds us that some parts of our life our un-earned gifts. As the hymn says:
“For all life is a gift, that we are called to use to build the common good and make our own days glad”
The Steven Covey book First Things First helps us break down our intentions into goals and action items so that we can create a step by step map of how to get where we want to go. When we set an intention we must be careful not to become attached to it. So much frustration and suffering comes to people when we get expect a certain outcome. Perhaps we push and push in a way that makes us tired, or ruptures relationships around us. Perhaps we judge ourselves harshly when we are unable to achieve this intention we have set. When my friend writes his intention in a book and then leaves it alone, he acknowledges that this world is a complex place, an interconnected web of life where our wishes and desires are not always achieved with even the most detailed plan.

This is good news and bad news. The bad news is that no matter how carefully we eat, and exercise and take care of ourselves, there is no guarantee we will live a long and healthy life. The good news is that we are not alone. In this complex interconnected web of which we are a part, there are things that may come into our lives that we never imagined were possible. That’s why Marcia advise her visioning group not even to consider how one might reach one’s vision, because sometimes a way opens, or things change in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Because we never really do anything by ourselves, we are not alone in anything we do. When we set an intention we are not simply dedicating ourselves to an act of personal will, but inviting a collaboration with the whole web of life.

I believe that all of us, right now, have what we need to do whatever it is God or our truest self is calling us to do. Consider the biology of creatures. How the teeth of carnivores are different form the teeth of herbivores. Consider how the breathing mechanism of fish are different from those of us land dwellers -- how a tree can turn sunlight into food for its body, and for us, in a way you and I never will.

Consider this little congregation. We already have everything we need to do what we are called to do. Just as we would not expect a cow to go hunting or a fish to run a marathon, there is a purpose for which we are uniquely suited. We need not wait until we are bigger or the new sounds system comes or the roof is repaired. What if we set an intention together to share the universal love of God in this community? What if we set an intention together to serve the Spirit of Life right now, and in the months to come? While I’ve heard people tell stories of frustration at not being able to meet a goal, no one has ever told me that they set an intention to serve the Spirit of Life, and no opportunity arose. I believe that part of being a Universalist is having faith that every single being serves the web of life. I have known people that bring comfort and wisdom to those around them even while lying in a hospital bed

Whether it comes at the start of the new year, around the coffee pot at social hour, or spontaneously some summer afternoon as you stare up into the branches of a tree, creating an intention is a way of listening to the wisdom of our deepest self and committing to following that wisdom. Then we must find a way to balance keeping that intention before us and letting go of the outcome. Because we recognize that we are not fully in control of even the simplest of intentions- as simple as making a pot of coffee. So we set our intentions and then we are open to and grateful for grace.


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