Monday, March 4, 2013
"When to Hold'em and When to Fold'em" - Sermon
“When to Hold’em and When to Fold’em”
Life is not perfect. I know it’s disappointing to hear but it’s true. Life is not perfected. In fact we are forced to make one compromise after another. Faced with limited time and limited resources, we have to choose what we will set as a priorities and what we will let go of. We have to choose, “When to hold’em and when to fold’em.”
All this month we are focusing on the theme of letting go, which is a huge spiritual endeavor. So to start out that conversation I thought we should spend some time talking about how to decide what to let go of, and what to hold on to. It seems that in our lives there are a good many things that call us into being our best selves. They give us a foundation for deeper and wider exploration, they resonate with our truest sense of self. Then there are a good many other things in our life that limit us, that distract us, that prevent our truest self from being expressed and fully living.
In a way this is what we talk about every Sunday in our worship services. We come together here and remind each other of our priorities in worship. That is what the word worship means after all. We don’t come here to may homage to some divine being. Our worship is much more nuanced than that. What we do for worship can be seen from the word itself. The word “worship” comes from the Old English worthscipe, meaning worthiness or worth-ship — at its simplest, to give worth to something. The historical details are not all that important, but I bring up the concept of worthship because it describes what worship means to us as Unitarian Universalists. In worship, we celebrate and name those things that are most important to us. For some of us that means worshiping God; for others that means celebrating our highest ideals and ethical principles.
Sometimes the reminder is more grounded, it is about personal relationships. Sometimes it is about justice, sometimes it is about more abstract ideals or spiritual matters. But at the end of it all, we come here to name and remind each other what our priorities in life are, what we want to hold on to. And hopefully in doing so, we offer a foundation to build on.
One of the ways of discerning when to hold’em and when to fold’em, or what our priorities are, is the way they ground our life. I’m talking about religious belief now, but the same is true for any other belief or relationship. Some serve as a foundation that we can grow and expand from, and others are an anchor that only weigh us down. In terms of religion, this looks like offering a living tradition. That’s the title of our hymnals, and it is woven through a good portion of writing about Unitarian Universalism. We aim to be a living tradition, a faith that is both grounded in the past, but also growing and living into a dynamic future.
As progressive religious folks, we are able to pretty clearly point to that difference. We know that some religious beliefs are limiting while other beliefs are expansive. But the same is true for other beliefs and priorities. Some of the things that we hold dear serve us well as an foundation for growth, and others really limit our potential. But it isn’t always easy to tell the difference.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in this decision of when to hold’em and when to fold’em is that no one else can tell you the answer. Deciding what to hold tight to depends most of all on what is in your own heart and who you are as a person. Even if your commitments don’t line up with what the rest of the world might think is best, it’s up to you to listen to your heart and to figure out how are should play the game. Sometimes doing your best and being true to yourself doesn’t bring the most obvious success. But in the end, I promise you, it’s the only way to win.
The writer John Fulghum has an interesting story about just this phenomenon. Well it’s not so much a story as a version of someone else’s biography. It’s the story of the 19th century Unitarian, John Pierpont.
John Pierpont died a failure in 1866, at age eighty-one, he came to the end of his days a government clerk in Washington D.C., with a long string of personal defeats abrading his spirit.
Things began well enough. He graduated from Yale, and chose education as his profession. He was a failure at school teaching. He was too easy on his students. So he turned to the legal world for training.
But, he was a failure as a lawyer. He was too generous with his clients and too concerned about justice to take the cases that brought good fees. The next career he took up was dry-goods sales.
He was a failure as a businessman. He could not charge enough for his goods to make a profit, and was too liberal with credit.
He wrote poetry and though it was published, he didn’t collect enough royalties to make a living.
He was a failure as a poet. And so he decided to become a minister, went off to Harvard Divinity School, was ordained as a minister of the Hollis Street Church in Boston. But his position for prohibition against slavery got him in trouble with the influential members of his congregation and he was forced to resign.
He was a failure as a minister, then also a failure at politics for his stance on slavery. The civil war came along, and he volunteered as a chaplain of the 22nd Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. Two weeks later he quit, having found the task too much strain on his health. He was seventy-six years old. He couldn’t even make it as a chaplain.
Finally someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington D.C. where he finished out the last five years of his life. He actually wasn’t too good at that either. His heart wasn’t in it.
John Pierpont died a failure, having accomplished nothing that he set out to be. Today there is a small memorial stone marking his grave. The words read: POET, PREACHER, PHILOSOPHER, PHILANTRHOPIST.
John Pierpont knew what to hold onto in his life. Even when his commitments appeared as failure to some, he continued to pursue the life he knew was in his heart. It took a while for the rest of the world to catch up with him, but in the end, it was his commitment to his true self that made him a really remarkable human being. Not titles or trophies, but personal commitment and fortitude marked his life. He knew well, what to hold on to, and what to let go of.
If knowing what to hold onto and what to let go of is about tuning into your heart, and your true self, I guess we should talk a little bit about the differences between our true self and the things that distract us. We all have distractions, different coping mechanisms that make life a little more comfortable. Some of them are big, some small, some are momentary and others can last a whole lifetime.
I remember a very jaded moment several years ago, a friend thought he was being wise and real, when he said “Isn’t that all life is anyway, a long series of coping mechanisms?” I look back and remember the conversation and part of me thinks, wow, what a terribly sad and bitter thing to say. “Isn’t that all life is anyway, a long series of coping mechanisms?”
Each one of us uses some coping mechanisms. They are ways that we act, masks that we wear to make the world a little more comfortable. We learn to start wearing them from a very early age, as soon as we learn that some piece of us isn’t that pleasant, or we find that our feelings can get hurt. So we hide a little bit, or take on some persona to cover up something.
This is especially true for survivors of trauma. Whatever the trauma is that occurs in our life, it changes the way we act in the world for a while. Our sense that the world is safe is challenged, so we add a layer of protection, a mask, a shield. We create a slightly different persona to hide behind. Of course if we are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn again that the world is safe, through friends and family and loving community, then we can put down some of that shield. We can let it go. But the truth is many of us, I might even say most of us, carry with us throughout our lives a bit of a mask, a coping mechanism, a way of being that is not in complete harmony with our real self, because it is not our real self.
There are a couple of unfortunate things about these masks, or coping mechanism. Probably the most important is that they get in the way of us being our full and complete self. But they also stand between us and the people that we care about. Rather than two people sharing their sincere hopes and dreams, we find a couple of coping mechanism coming up against each other. Don’t get me wrong, coping mechanisms and masks can fit very, very well together. They can lock two people together like glue. But is that the best that life has to offer? Two false versions locked together forever? I’m fully convinced that life and love has more to offer us than that. But for real relationship to develop, romantic or otherwise, we have to set down some of the disguises and put our real amazing self out there.
The other really unfortunate thing about masks is that they take a tremendous amount of energy to maintain. Acting is very hard work. Being someone other than your true self is exhausting stuff. And it is taking evergy that could be spent doing things that you really care about. As I told my friend, no, life is not just one long series of coping mechanisms. Though we do all from time to time grab a hold of an idea or a way of being that isn’t really true to our self. We’ve all been there, we all have a few things in our life that we would be better off without.
We have been talking about letting go for a while now. By now you have probably begun taking stock of your own life. You have probably started to name some of the things that you do that mask the real you, or some of the things that tie you down rather than give you a foundation. If you haven’t, well then I want you to think about it right now. What two things do you want to let go of, two things that prevent you from being your true self? These are things that take up your energy that could be spent on something you really care about. They are things that build a barrier between you and the people you love. What two things do you want to let go of?
I want you to hold them in your two hands. Make a fist and hold on to them tightly, as tight as you can. You’ve probably been holding onto these masks and coping mechanisms for years and they probably make you feel much safer. In just a minute, we are going to let them go, but for now, take this time to say goodbye to them.
On the count of three, I want you to open your hands, and just let go.