Tuesday, March 9, 2010

sermon - Making the List

Making the List

Today I have two stories for you. One is a real story, a feel good story. The other story is a sort of choose your own adventure, a metaphor.

Our first story is about a family named the Salwens, from Atlanta Georgia. One day when the father and his teenaged daughter were driving in their car, they pulled up to a stoplight. The teenager notice on one side of their car was an expensive luxury car. And on the other side of them was a homeless person on the sidewalk. This bright teenager said to her dad. “Dad if he didn’t drive that car, then that person could have something to eat tonight.”
The dad said, well you’re probably right. The conversation continued until he asked what would you be willing to give up so that other people could have a better life? Your room? Our house? And the conversation continued at home with their teenaged son. Eventually, these two children came together and decided yes, they would rather give up their house for something smaller so that other people could have a better life. They lobbied their parents for the family to live out their priorities.
And they got what they wanted. The Salwens sold their two million dollar house, and moved four blocks away to a smaller house. That move allowed them to donate $800,000 to the organization Project Hunger. They sold their story-book dream house, so that girls in Ghana could go to school. They sold their American dream, to live out a their version of the American dream.
And they are encouraging other people to do the same thing. We’re actually reading the book they wrote in the book group next month. It’s called “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to stop taking and Start Giving Back.” They want people to give up half of something, not necessarily a house but give up half of something that is important to you, and give it away. It’s an amazing and inspiring story. Mostly because it is true. I haven’t read the book yet, but I look forward to hearing how this all unfolded. They sold their American dream house to live their version of the American dream. How refreshing.

The second story that I have for you is a little more complicated. This story comes from a pretty well-known ethicist named Peter Singer.
So imagine that you are out on a walk one day. You come upon a shallow pond. And you notice out in the middle of this pond a small child appears to be on the verge of drowning. You look around and realize that no know is there. For some reason his or her parent isn’t there to supervise and you realize, if I don’t wade out into this pond, that child is going to die.
But you are wearing a rather nice outfit, and most importantly, you are wearing the new pair of shoes that cost you well over $100. What do you do? … To any reasonable person, the answer is obvious, you go in and save the child. Forget about the shoes. They are not that important. There is no question.
Well, Peter Singer points out, the real challenge in this story. Isn’t it true that you bought that expensive pair of shoes instead of using the money in another way. Isn’t it also true that in the hands of the right organization $100 could easily save a child’s life, possibly several children’s lives. I told you it was a more complicated story.

Peter Singer insists that ethical choices are not just about what we choose to do. We also have to look at what we choose not to do. Every time we spend our limited resources on one thing, we are choosing not to spend them on something else. Whether it is our time or money of attention, when we spend our resources one place, we are not spending them somewhere else, and that is why we have to have a list.

This morning we are talking about making the list, the list of our priorities that is. And why do we have to make such a list, a literal or figurative one? We have to make a list because we are limited beings with limited resources. We can’t do it all, so we have to choose.

Now I’m not going to tell you what belongs on your list of priorities and what doesn’t. We heard how well that worked in the intergenerational story this morning. The truth is, no one can tell you what is important. That’s up to you to decide. Rather than talk about what belongs on the list, I want to talk more about how we understand that list of priorities. This is an invitation to take an honest look at the way we spend our resources and decide if that is a reflection of our real priorities.

It seems that the biggest step in addressing our priorities is understanding what they are. We know what we say our priorities are, “love, and justice, peace and harmony, the planet, caring for our family, and goodness for all.” Right?…. But sometimes our lives don’t look exactly like that. Sometimes the way we spend our resources reflects other priorities.
There are a few very real ways of looking at our priorities. First of all you can take a look at your budget. What do you spend your money on? It’s a simple but very real question. With a limited amount of money in your possession, where you spend it? You don’t have to track dollar for dollar, but look at your bank statement and credit card statement sometime. Where did it all go? Is your heart there? Did those dollars do what you had hoped they would?
Sometimes I like to think of every dollar that I spend as a vote for something. That is after all the foundation of our capitalist economy. We will spend our money on the things that we find valuable, and therefore the businesses, organizations and causes that we support will thrive, while the businesses and ideas that we do not support will parish. Like it or not, you vote with your dollars when you spend your money. It’s worth looking back at a balance sheet to see exactly what it was that you voted for.
Or, like your budget, your calendar tells a story about what you value. This one is a little more difficult to decipher because the fact is we have to work to earn money. And some of us work in jobs that demand tremendous amounts of time, while others have plenty of time left over. But still, I don’t think it’s too difficult to see through some of that ambiguity to see a reflection of our values, our priorities. Perhaps even more so than money, time is a limited commodity, and where we spend it is a pretty good indication of where our heart is.
There’s one other way to look at our priorities. This one is a little more slippery, and it doesn’t come with a paper trail the way our finances and calendars do. But it can be just as telling. We can also look inside and look at what you crave and why. What are the material objects that you seek out to add to your life? What would they bring you? Which are the advertisements that grab your eye? What is it about them that excites you or makes you feel incomplete without that thing or experience?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it is wrong to want things. Quite the contrary. I think it is essential to want things. I think it is unavoidable. But by being aware of what we want in our lives and why we want them, can be a helpful insight into where our priorities actually lie. And more importantly, how we might want to change them.

Like I said, I’m not going to tell you what your priorities should be. We’re in a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; there are plenty of implicit messages about what we value, and perhaps what you should value.
And besides, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the worth and dignity of every person. We believe that at the end of the people are good. Although it may not appear so sometimes, especially from people that we disagree with. But we all want good things for the world. We all want safety for our families, and a country where people are healthy and happy. We all want a world that is safe and peaceful. Of course the suggestions of how we achieve those priorities are very different. But I believe that we all want good things for our world. People genuinely want goodness. You and I genuinely want good things to come about in the world.

But strangely we can get distracted from that desire. It is remarkable how often I hear people say with surprise how much they enjoyed doing something they believe in. Whether it is cooking a meal for the homeless or volunteering to tutor children, marching for justice, or just offering an extra hug to someone in need. When we go out of our way to embody our values, we are occasionally SHOCKED at how good it feels. As if we forget what it is we care about. Something about this phenomenon makes me angry, the fact that we can forget what we care about and the fact that it feels good.
The psychological power of consumer society is so powerful that we forget that living out our values feels good, it feels better and lasts longer than heated leather seats or cashmere. Maybe it is capitalism, maybe it is our animal instinct to amass resources and do whatever we can to look attractive, but it angers me that we forget how good it feels to do what we know is good. We forget to do what in our hearts we want to do. But hopefully our friends and our family, and our community here can help remind us of what it is we do care about. That is after all one of the best pieces of really good friendship or really good communities. They remind us of our best selves, they remind us of who we want to be in the world, even when we forget it.

In some ways, families have to remind one another about their priorities, because their limited resources are shared resources. I actually find this idea pretty daunting. As someone who lives on my own finances, the idea of setting a budget with another person, and clarifying how we spend “our” money sounds like really serious business. Families have to figure out this business of priorities together. That is certainly the most remarkable part of the story of the Salwens, the family we heard of earlier who sold their house. They had a series of family conversations. The lifestyle change was especially encouraged by their children, but they decided all together that they would live their lives with a different goal. They decided together to sell their American dream house to live out a different dream. I have actually spoken with a couple of our families with small children, who have had to recently have serious conversations about their priorities. Either with shrinking budgets, shrinking time, or the incredible demands we put on children today, families have to decide where and how they spend their resources.
Those limits on resources seem most clear for parents with small children, but really all households have to make these decisions. It’s a difficult, but important conversation to have. I would even call it your homework this week. Three simple questions:

What do we care most about supporting?
How are we using out time and money right now?
Should we shift any of that to better reflect what we care about?

So you have a list. I imagine many of you through the course of this sermon have been thinking about what those things are that you care about and support. But did you leave anything off? … What about fun; where is fun and caring for yourself in your list? There is an inherent value in joy. I’m not talking about the super serious joy of being fulfilled by doing the right thing. There is inherent value in the silly kind of joy. The joy of laughing uncontrollably, the joy of laughter with friends, the joy of physical pleasure. I hope that you include fun on your list somewhere because it is important, and for some of us, fun can be way too easy to forget about.

Talking so much about priorities is pretty heavy stuff. It’s a little more demanding than usual. Before closing, I want to be clear that this isn’t about making anyone feel guilty or inadequate. Because guilt is useless, guilt is paralyzing. And it’s certainly not the emotion that I want to impart.

What I do want to say about setting priorities and living them out is not about guilt, but about joy. There is little power in guilt, but there is tremendous power in living with integrity. And we can do that by seriously listening to our hearts. By listening to our hearts, I mean really listening to what our deepest concerns are for the world we can live out our priorities in a meaningful way.

Making the list and Living it out is as simple as listening to our heart, and letting the rest of it go. Making the list and Living it out is as simple as listening to our heart, and letting the rest of it go.


1 comment:

  1. This sermon took my breath away. And then I smiled...

    and I'm still smiling...