Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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LIVING A FULL LIFE

Sermon given by Rev. William E, Nelson 5/05/2013

at Kearsarge Uniterian Universalist Fellowship

Words for Reflection
“Make Peace with Imperfection”
by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.
from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

I’ve yet to meet an absolute perfectionist whose life was filled with inner peace.  The need for perfection and the desire for inner tranquility conflict with each other.  Whenever we are attached to having something a certain way, better than it already is, we are, almost by definition, engaged in a losing battle.  Rather than being content and grateful for what we have, we are focused on what’s wrong with something and our need to fix it.  When we are zeroed in on what’s wrong, it implies that we are dissatisfied, discontent. 

Whether it’s related to ourselves – a disorganized closet, a scratch on the car, an imperfect accomplishment, a few pounds we would like to lose – or someone else’s “imperfections” – the way someone looks behaves, or lives his or her life – the very act of focusing on imperfection pulls us away from our goal of being kind and gentle.  This strategy has nothing to do with ceasing to do your very best but with being overly attached and focused on what’s wrong with life.  It’s about realizing that while there’s always a better way to do something, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy and appreciate the way things already are. 

The solution here is to catch yourself when you fall into your habit of insisting that things should be other than they are.  Gently remind yourself that life is okay the way it is, right now.  In the absence of your judgment, everything would be fine.  As you begin to eliminate your need for perfection in all areas of your life, you’ll begin to discover the perfection in life itself. 

The Sermon

In my newsletter article this month, I reflect upon my being with Stephanie in hospital rooms for twenty-two and a half days following her surgery on April 2nd.  This was pretty much a roller coaster ride for her, for me, for her brother – who was with us for two and a half weeks of this adventure – and for the doctors themselves, as we went from one day to the next dealing with complications related to the operation.  She’s home now, getting stronger every day, and we’re all greatly relieved and looking forward to a full recovery. 

Among the things that people can learn from an adventure such as this is that, regardless of all the care and hard work that’s devoted to living our lives, the unexpected is bound to try our souls from time to time, and we might as well get used to it.  We all want to live our lives as fully and as we can.  Some people seem to be better than others at accepting the detours thrown at us as we move along, but detours there will be, and we might as well get used to them – or at least to dealing with them. 

I’ve called this sermon “Living a Full Life.”  Okay, but what do I mean by “live a full life?”  How do we know when our life is full?  Does something pop up in our brains that tells us when we’re getting close?  Do we have an intimation of a “full life?”  Or do we just get along day after day, wondering what it’s all about? 

From time to time over the past couple of years I’ve quoted Andre Aciman in my sermons.  Mr. Aciman teaches at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.  He’s best known to the public as the writer of Out of Egypt, a memoir of his family’s leaving their home city of Alexandria, Egypt as a result of the expulsion of all Jews living in Egypt, in 1956, when Andre was five years old.  His family relocated to Rome, Paris, and finally to New York, leaving the young boy with a deep desire to come to terms with where he belonged in the world, where his home was, and how he could find his way through life.  And he made a pretty good job of it. 

In one of his essays he recalls visiting Cambridge, where he’d been a graduate student a quarter century earlier.  Listen to his recollection:

Here, at twenty-five, I had conjured the life I wished to live one day.  Now, at fifty, I was revisiting (questioning?) the life I’d dreamed of living. 

Had I lived it?  Had I lived my life?  And which mattered more and which did I recall best: the one I’d dreamed up or the one I indeed led?  Or am I already forgetting both before my time, with life taking back, on by one the things I thought were mine to keep, turning the cards face down, one by one, to deal someone else another hand? 

I wonder how many people there are here whose lives have conformed with their dreams of those lives were when they were in their twenties?  I can’t say one way or the other, because I had no real idea of what my life would turn out to be.  Yes, I’d started seminary and found myself pretty wrapped up in intellectual adventures that may or may not be leading me into ministry.  I think I was enjoying myself.  I had friends, I had a life.  But I didn’t picture myself standing in a pulpit or lectern ten years hence.  I guess I was just waiting for things to happen, things that would give me a direction.  I was waiting for the Fates, we might say, those Greek goddesses who had the power of determining a person’s destiny.  And here I am, leading what appears to be a full life.  But is it really?   I think one of the most important things that goes into judging whether or not we’re leading full lives is that of accepting, or being at peace with, the lives we have. 

I know that here behind this lectern, I’ve invoked the phrase coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, “Amor Fati” defined roughly from the Latin as “Love of one’s fate”, or “Love your life.”  The idea is that, were you to go through your life day by day, month by month, year by year, you’d probably find that the decisions you’ve made you’d make all over again, given the same circumstances that surrounded you when you first made them. 

This is a good thing to keep in mind, when evaluating the life you live.  It helps put things into their proper place.  And, it helps us stop wasting time immersed in the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” syndrome that tends to bog so many people down, as well as freeing us from the guilt and shame that takes over too many people’s lives, that causes us to dislike ourselves, and thus to dislike just about everybody else. 

In one of his sermons, the late William Sloane Coffin says this:  “If we hate ourselves, we can never love others, for love is the gift of oneself.  How will you make a gift of that which you hate?”  Which brings us to something that’s terribly important to anyone’s life, and the fullness of that life: the presence of love.     

The old pop song “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” has a good deal of truth to it.  It’s a metaphor, of course, a good one.  For it’s through love that we find meaning, that we make sense of life as we know it, and find a home, a place where we’re safe, where we belong.  And I’m not talking about just romantic love here.  I’m talking about love as a way of looking at life, at looking at the world in which we live, at the friends and family of which we’re a part, of the communities of faith where we’ve worshipped, laughed, and cried.  All of this is so very important. 

Again, words from Bill Coffin:  “Love measures our stature: the more we love, the bigger we are.  There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a person all wrapped up in his- or herself.” 

So where are we in this discussion?  Can we love our selves?  Can we love our neighbors?  Can we love the people we pass on the street?  Can we love the people in Congress?  Let’s revisit the words of Richard Carlson we heard earlier in the service:     

The solution here is to catch yourself when you fall into your habit of insisting that things should be other than they are.  Gently remind yourself that life is okay the way it is, right now.  In the absence of your judgment, everything would be fine.  As you begin to eliminate your need for perfection in all areas of your life, you’ll begin to discover the perfection in life itself.

The important thing to remember is that the most important moment of our lives is the moment in which we’re living right now.  The past is the past; we can’t fix that.  The future is what it is.  It’s the future, and we never know what the future will bring, until it becomes the present, and ultimately, the past.  (Someone once said that if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans!)   

The beauty of congregational life is that what we have here is a little laboratory  of what it means to live lives that are full.  We gather her week after week seeking something we can’t find elsewhere.  We care for one another, we reach out to one another, we’re polite should we disagree; and all of this comes under the aegis of a quiet yet persuasive presence of that which is sacred, that which we cannot define, and neither can we name.  We live in awe of the mystery of being itself.  And we like it here.      

In our hymnal, there’s a reading, #471, that many UU churches employ in their worship services, and I’d like to close these words of mine with those words:

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest of truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer. 
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom.
To serve human need,
To the end that all souls shall
Grow into harmony with the Divine –

It seems to me that that comes pretty close to what we’re talking about when we talk about living full lives, filled with peace, with laughter, with compassion, with hope, and with a sense of knowing who we are and where we belong.  (Which is where we are.)

Blessings to us all.

 

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