First Things First
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.” Rumi
We heard the story of Higgins the drop of water earlier on – who found his great purpose in life. He inspired others to join him and, despite being just one drop of water, made a big difference to the world. He made a difference for the better we need to add as, of course, it’s always possible to make a difference for the worse – and I guess most of us would rather avoid that if possible. In this address I’m offering two contradictory viewpoints and in true Unitarian fashion will leave us dangling somewhere between the two of them, free as usual to make up our own minds. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with some of you in recent weeks about this topic of how we choose our priorities in life – thank you for your input.
Some of the ideas I’m exploring are included in the yellow handout you were given along with today’s order of service – if you’re listening to this service at a future date on a podcast, or reading it online or in our newsletter, then send us an email and we’ll get the handout to you. It includes various quotations and I’m hoping that some of those will have you responding – ‘oh yes I agree with that’ – and some will leave you growling in irritation. If you have a red pen in your hand you could start crossing some of them out right now. Those quotations on the handout express potentially contradictory ideas:
• The first is the idea that life is empty and meaningless.
• The second is that life is made more fulfilling by having a sense of purpose.
At the end of a week exploring this topic I think that both of these ideas can be true. I’d even go a step further and say that by finding ways to hold these contradictory viewpoints as true – at the same time – we are likely to feel more happy, more peaceful, certainly more real. Because if anyone tells us that there’s only one way to live life it’s probably a good idea to have our doubtful bells ringing. Reminding us to ‘hold on a minute – isn’t there another way to look at this?’
There is something very appealing about the idea of going with the flow, isn’t there. Guy Browning’s reading on the subject from his delightfully titled book How To Be Normal makes it sounds rather hip and fun. (You can access the reading online: www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/oct/27/weekend.guybrowning )
John Lennon’s oft quoted ‘Life is what happens as we’re busy making other plans’ is a useful reminder to those of us who carry endless ‘to do’ lists around with us, a reminder that we might not be quite as much in charge of the show as we’d like to imagine. The longer I live the more I think that chance plays quite a part in our lives – things just happen and we humans then attach meaning to what happens. We attribute sense to the senseless – a feeling that we were meant to meet a certain person or choose a particular course of study or discover a place, find a house, etc etc. I guess many of us have our own versions of these.
But let me introduce you to someone who holds a different point of view. Rick Warren, evangelical Christian church leader, who led prayers at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, author of best-selling books A Purpose Driven Life and A Purpose Driven Church. I only wish he could be with us today because if he was I suspect we’d have some conversion experiences. He’s an inspiring preacher, he speaks from the heart and he’s surprisingly convincing – even to a religious liberal like me. Rick Warren has a particular theological stance. He believes that there is a God – a God who has created you and who has a plan for you and your individual life. Everything that happens to you is part of that plan. If you find yourself in a tough place, Warren brings comfort by saying there are things for you to learn in this tough place and from that learning you will be better able to minister to others, to help them in their life struggles.
This is not my theology, though the idea that we can empathise with and assist others through our own struggles has certainly proved to be the case in my own life, with all its ups and downs. I agree with Warren that life gives us opportunities to learn and grow. And I appreciate his heart centred approach to life and his key message that if we live for ourselves alone our lives may indeed be bleak. His headings – connect, grow, serve, share, worship – can all be translated into secular ideas for living life well:
• Connect with other people
• View life as a process of learning and growing
• Use our own unique gifts to better the world
• Think of others and act to improve their lives
• Be grateful for life, appreciate the world we live in
Rick Warren’s work has some similarities for me with the work of another best-selling author – Stephen Covey – author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s Covey we have to thank for the title of today’s service – First Things First – step three in his system. You can entertain yourselves by imagining what the other six steps might be, or indeed pondering upon the eighth step which he revealed in a later book. Or you can find them listed and explained online. We can also thank Covey for this useful quadrant diagram.
I: Urgent and Important
Deadline-driven projects, meetings, preparation
II: Important and Not Urgent
Time for the people you love
III: Not Important and Urgent
Some phone calls
Many pressing matters
Many popular activities
IV: Not Important and Not Urgent
Trivia, busy work
Some phone calls
He suggests that all human activity belongs in one of these four boxes – depending on whether it’s important or not and urgent or not. It’s a simple but revealing system that points out for most of us that we spend much of life responding to crises like a burst water pipe (urgent and important), or to interruptions like emails and phone calls (generally seeming to be urgent but not actually important), or lying around on the sofa worrying about all the things we ought to be doing (neither urgent nor important, yet strangely compelling), when really we’d all be better clarifying what’s important in our lives and making sure we give time to what’s important but not urgent.
I have a lot of respect for Covey’s work because what he’s suggesting we all get clear on is what really matters to us – what are our values. Once we are clear what our values are – the deep, underlying principles that guide our existence, we are in a much better place from which to assess our priorities. We can start to put first things first. Getting clear about our values isn’t a one off exercise, it’s the work of a lifetime and in a lifetime our values are likely of course to change and develop. Amongst all the other things we could be doing I think it’s worth stepping back from time to time and checking what’s motivating us, what’s driving us, what matters now. It’s also worthwhile checking that our values aren’t contradicting one another. How many of us place a high value on connection with others, for example, and yet also value freedom and independence. That’s not a problem unless it confuses us or gives confusing messages to others. Our values may pull us in differing directions and we may gain a useful understanding of ourselves and others if we investigate a little more deeply.
And it’s into this process of self-reflection that I’d put some Zen-like zest, the possibility that life is utterly empty and meaningless. Consider the possibility that we are fragile, flawed and short-lived creatures floating on a planet in space and that nothing about us matters, not one bit. Chance has brought us into being and chance will end our lives. Nothing matters. There is no meaning or purpose to life. Such an existential approach can leave me despairing or exhilarated depending on my mood. But for me it’s a healthy reminder that each of us has a freedom to create our own meaning in life.
This search for what’s important is an age long search for humanity. As creatures who can choose – once our basic needs for safety and nourishment are met – we have a great gift and an equally great responsibility. We could say that it both matters profoundly how we choose to spend our days and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. So let’s be guided by those whose messages appeal to us, let’s take time to reflect on how we spend our hours and our days, let’s support one another in putting first things first and living fully this empty and meaningless, utterly intriguing thing called life.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 17th May 2015