As I did last year at about this same time, yesterday I gave the sermon at my UU church. And, again, as I did last year, I've put the content of said sermon here, just past the cut. And as I did last year, a UU light bulb joke, for your edification:
How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
It's about 5 or 6, isn't it? Whatever the quorum is for the church board meeting. Well, plus, of course a couple of members of the Building and Grounds committee to actually get the ladder and DO it -- and of course the chair and vice-chair of the committee to supervise - oh, they can't come Saturday? Well, how about Sunday just before the service? Oh, the choir's rehearsing? Oh God! No, I'm not praying! It's just an expression!
A few Sundays ago, a UUer mentioned that she was looking forward to today’s sermon. It’s our new tradition, she said.
I’m looking forward to having written it, I said. By her response, which was laughter, I think she thought I was kidding.
That conversation stuck with me, clearly, not just because no one ever believes me when I mention the dread that actual writing work evokes, but because of the idea of a new tradition. How do you know when a behavior moves from the category of “something you do at the same time each year” to “tradition?”
For example, exactly when did the act of decorating and illuminating a pine tree become a tradition rather than just something that nut Larry does every December and has convinced a couple of other people it might be fun to do, too?
Right now, frankly, I’m feeling a little bit like Larry.
At about this same time last year, on the last Sunday before the old year becomes a new one, I came up here and talked about a tradition - I’ll call it that for now - that I’d stolen from a friend many years ago. He and his partner, shortly before the chimes rang midnight, write down just one word that they want to focus on in the coming year. One word is just so much easier to keep in mind for 52 weeks than a list of resolutions. Besides, resolutions are so easy to break, mostly because it’s human nature to push against any boundaries placed around it.
The first part of the tradition I talked about is to choose a word. The second part is to write my word on several pieces of paper and put them in places I’m likely to find them during the year.
I do it this way because the act of writing something down, the physical act of forming letters on paper, helps our brains hold on to information. My kids, who’ve spent a sizable chunk of their lives interacting with screens, might argue that the act of typing works the same way - but that argument would be an Everest-length uphill climb because I don’t know that I’ll ever agree.
Writing your word on several pieces of paper allows you to scatter them all over your house. You can pin one on the bulletin board by the phone and one in the file where you put the bills that need to be paid. You can tape one on the mirror by the front door. Or on the wall behind your computer screen.
As you stumble on each of those tangible reminders to “breathe” or “stretch” or “believe” during the rest of the year, you can take just a second to remember why you chose that word. Remembering is almost always the hardest part.
Last year, for a variety of reasons I’ll not go into again, my word was “courage.” One of the greatest outcomes of having the courage to stand in this pulpit last year was that I didn’t have to write my word on as many pieces of paper. You all have acted as my tangible reminders of what I’d decided to focus on in 2013. Not one month has gone by without someone mentioning that sermon or my word or, better still, their own word. Thank you.
And now I have to ask the next question, since 2013 is about to tick over into 2014: was I more courageous this year? Did I face my fears and, as Neil Gaiman implored, made new mistakes?
Yes, I guess. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started a novel, which I’ve always lacked the courage to do. I had the courage to say “no” to projects that I felt like I ought to do but really didn’t have enough enthusiasm for.
I had the courage to ask all of the knitters I know, whether in person or virtually, to knit a pair of mittens for a good cause, then send them to me so that I could build a tree out of them, a visual embodiment of hope and community. To my great surprise, they did. After the holiday season ends, these hand-crafted mittens will warm the hands of those who need them most.
Could I have had more courage? Probably. But one can almost always do more.
One of my courageous acts, however, has led to my word for 2014.
This fall, on a day I was feeling especially bold and/or crazy, I committed both mentally and financially to running a half-marathon in May in my hometown. At the time, the idea of running 13.1 miles was empowering. Now, knowing that my longest run ever is just over 7 miles and I’ll be training through some pretty bleak weather, I’m wishing my word had been “sit.”
The problem with courage - the everyday life sort of courage rather than the courage that an emergency requires - is that it requires follow-through. It’s not just one action but a series of them over what seems like a vast ocean of time.
For 2014, my word is “consistency.” It isn’t merely the “hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson wrote, but is the only way to break big projects into do-able goals. The hard part, I discovered last year, isn’t always the courage to start that novel or that race. The challenge is to finish it. The only way I know to do that is to remember that many small steps add up over time.
And maybe the same can be said for traditions.
It might be that Larry - you remember Larry - found his illuminated tree to be useful during a time of darkness and did it the following year in the hope of capturing the same sense of well being. And Larry’s community, seeing how well it worked out for Larry, decided they’d give the whole tree thing a whirl. Generations of consistent tree lighters later, here we are.
Those of you who chose a word last year, may have discovered that it subtly colored your life. Or not. There’s no predicting when it comes to both words and life. It also might be that you forgot to chose or chose not to pick a word last year. Participation by all members of a community is not required to establish a new tradition, especially not in this particular church.
If you’d like to join in, however, I’m going to pause for a minute to give you a chance to think about what word you might like to use to guide your next year.
On December 31, step prepared into the new year.