Posts Tagged intention

The Art of Purpose

This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.

Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.

Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.

 It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.

My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.

Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.

We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.

Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”

         Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?

        “And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.
         …Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.

I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”



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Turning Toward

This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 11/16/14. It looks at the role of curiosity, intention and attention in building positive, lasting relationships. A special emphasis is placed on the role of autocorrect in our lives.

When I was a kid, I learned to type on a typewriter. We were still taught with the old machines that required white out for errors, or if you were really lucky, you had a typewriter with correction tape. It would allow you to backup over errors and cover them up as you went. My spelling was much better then. You had to know what you were typing, so it took effort and intention. When I finally shifting to writing on a computer, small spelling errors were fine. The programs would highlight the mistakes to fix. And then a decade or so later, you might not even have to make the changes yourself; the program knew what you were trying to type, and made them for you.

I have a very mild form of dyslexia. When I pay attention, I don’t have any real issues. When I’m going through something fast, I misread much more frequently. I’ve always been an avid reader, but when I was younger I was lucky if I could read 30 pages an hour. It wasn’t until college that I realized something was going on, hearing many of my peers reading twice that rate. After a little bit of research, I realized that folks with mild forms of dyslexia often have this trouble with slower reading. I looked into some techniques to try to correct it. For me, it was the ruler. If you lay the ruler out along a line, you can train your eye where you read; and for some reason it seemed to help with the small errors of flipping letters that would cause me to have to reread whole paragraphs from time to time. With intention, my reading speed doubled for most things.

But when I’m texting or trying to send a post on Facebook, you would think I have no clue where letters ought to be in words in the English language. I get sloppy. I’m not paying attention. And the worst of my letter flipping comes to the forefront. Because most of the time, our modern technology corrects most of the mistakes appropriately, I don’t have much reason to focus and I make more errors. My most recent, and possibly my favorite autocorrect error occurred this week. I was sending a note to my fiancé that I was finally starting on my sermon. (We try to keep each other abreast when I’m home working vs when I’m home and free.) Autocorrect let Brian know that I was, in fact, finally starting on my “demon.” We got a small laugh out of it – the way any of us do when we commiserate on work that needs to be done in our jobs. But it wasn’t actually true – or I should say I don’t see the writing process as a chore or a burden or, well, a demon. I typically enjoy it, even if it’s sometimes frustratingly elusive. Autocorrect reminds me that when I let my intention slip, not only what I see may be incorrect, but what I say may be wrong too.

Intention or attention, are the two ways that most of us get in trouble in life or in our relationships. We let our focus slip and then we fill in the gaps with assumptions, opinions or stories that aren’t real. Or we communicate poorly and others fill in the gaps for themselves in the same short-hand fashion. When I was a lay member of the All Souls Church in NYC, one of the ministers (now the church’s Senior Minister), Rev. Galen Guengrich preached on the topic of iPod people. For those of you too young to remember the iPod (yes, technology is moving that fast) it was a device like your smart phone that only play music. (I know, how boring.) He talked about how one morning he realized, as he was walking down the street, that the world of human interaction in NYC had dramatically declined. All of a sudden everyone was deaf to one another and mindlessly going too and fro listening to their devices. iPod people. (And again, for those too young to have seen it the first time around or on later dvd, “Pod people” is a movie reference to an alien invasion that caused zombie like reactions from humans.) I would amend his story to say with the advent of smart phones, pedestrians in NYC are now deaf and blind as they aren’t even looking up to see where they’re going, and I have a few bruises to prove it.

With or without our devices, there’s a certain level of the “Pod people” phenomena that goes on in our daily living when we let our focus and our attention fall short. When we’re filling in the gaps that aren’t really there because of our lack of mindfulness, we’re creating a fantasy world to live in. Sometimes that’s fun, and sometimes that’s very frustrating. But a lot of arguments in our relationships, our home life, and our work life, come of it.

Last week there was a fascinating article in Business Insider that was looking at the scientific research around successful marriages. It compiled a series of studies over a long period of time that were ultimately able to predict the success of a marriage – at least in terms of duration. The more successful couples had a tendency to turn toward one another in moments of attempted connection. If one parter shared a story of success, the other would shift their attention and celebrate with them. If the story was about a frustration, they’d shift attention and share the burden or commiserate. Or even more innocuously, as the example went, if one partner were an avid bird lover and pointed out an unusual bird out the living room window, the other partner would stop what they were doing and look at it. The researche indicated that the act of showing curiosity, concern or interest, when one’s partner is trying to make a connection in any of these ways, is a huge indicator of an enduring relationship.

Openness, Mindfulness, Reverence. Our relationships thrive when we’re open, or curious, to what someone else is saying or trying to connect with. They endure when we mindfully turn toward the point of interest or connection and respond with attention. I often talk about reverence in terms of the holy, or the natural world around us. It can also pertain though to our human interactions. Relationships and people are a remarkable thing. When we take them for granted, the relationships wither, but so too do we. Having a healthy reverence for the people around us keeps us more human; keeps us more compassionate; keeps us more pleasant to be around. Think about it, do you want to be around people that act like you’re boring, or people that think you’re special, important or at least recognize your value and worth? The same probably goes for the people around you – they’re looking for the same from you. Reverence for those around us goes a long way toward building the world we dream about.

Let’s go back to my little autocorrect demon. Sometimes healthy curiosity applies to the things in our lives that cause us the small frustrations. Remember Issaac Newton from elementary school science? The parable goes that he was sitting under a tree and an apple fell on his head and he “discovered” gravity? What if Newton had that apple fall on his head and he simply responded to it with, “ugh, what an annoying apple!” The end. Where would we be? How much delayed would our scientific understanding be? How many other advances haven’t been made because someone turned to their proverbial falling apple and said, “ugh, how annoying!” When we approach the small frustrations of life as if they were a chore, we limit ourselves, we diminish our relationships and we probably don’t feel good either for it.

For just this week, try turning toward the small frustrations as if they weren’t little demons to begin working on. Pay attentions to the small moments where our partners, or kids, or parents are trying to make connections. Approach them all with a sense of curiosity – and see what happens. There are certainly places where this won’t help. And challenges in relationships that have existed for years will not likely go away overnight. And sometimes the small frustrations of work or school are part of a bigger picture of disfunction. But those exceptions don’t pervade everything in our lives. Most of us don’t walk around with rose-colored glasses, so it’s probably safe to put them on from time to time, rather than pretend we need to perpetually take them off.

Today though, we just welcomed 10 of our newest members to our Fellowship. They are committing to our community, and in part, to our community’s mission: In religious community we nurture our spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Curiosity can be central to a healthy expression of our spirit. If relationships strengthen from turning toward moments of connection with curiosity and interest, and if our mission is correct in asserting that our spirits our nurtured through care for one another, then that sense of openness to one another is both community building and soul-saving. We are more human for it. And it may be the very best way to help heal our world.

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