Sunday, February 7, 2010

New Year Resolutions, failure and success

Yesterday I preached at the UU church in Pittsfield, Maine. It was the first time I have done so since receiving a call to ministry. It was very different from what I did in Belfast back in November. That was politics and fun organizing. Yesterday was thoughtful worship. And I was keenly aware of just how untrained I am. Bless the host minister for being there to nurse me through and to chat afterwards about ministry and seminary and all manner of things.

I need to leave the house early this morning, so I am going to post my sermon and hope you like it. I'll try for more profound writing later. Please be patient with me.



So let’s talk about those New Year’s resolutions.

How’re they coming?

Lots of people I talk to say they don’t do resolutions any more. Not on New Year’s anyway. Too much pressure. They fail and feel bad and give up before Valentine’s Day.

Resolutions are serious business.

Town Councils pass resolutions. The Legislature will make resolutions and issue proclamations. “Be it resolved … such and such and so forth.”

We are frightened of grand things. We think we should try something big like that, but we stumble. We fall. We get discouraged. The task is too big. Too much. We cannot succeed.

So we quit. We give up.

Resolutions we make affect our lives.

I resolve to eat healthier. I resolve to lose weight, to exercise, to be more kind and patient, to recycle.

I resolve to tithe 10 percent of what I earn to my church and give 10 percent of my non-work time to charity.

These things involve a re-wiring of how we operate, and perhaps our finances and how we live within our families. That’s a tall order.

New Year Resolutions are a thing many of us used to do every year, but it seems that very few bother any more.

Resolutions are bold proclamations of our intents, of things we consider important enough to state out loud, or on paper, perhaps taped to the bathroom mirror where we can be reminded daily of our pledge.

Resolutions can stem from a desire to better ourselves, as in the “eat healthier, lose weight, exercise more” vein, or a desire to better our communities as with the “recycle, give to my church and charities, be kind to people” line of resolution.

And what drives us to make these resolutions? Are our aspirations so out of character that we need to write them down to remind us to change ourselves completely from what we are into what we want to become?

I doubt it.

We make resolutions to make ourselves better versions of who we already are. We have things that we believe in, things that we value, things we want to work toward to improve ourselves. We want to get better at what we do.

And yet, when we stumble early in the game, we are quick to give up. Before a few weeks have passed, we despair that we will ever be thin and fit and healthy, or that we can rearrange our finances to adequately support something in our lives as important as our church and we give up.

Oscar Wilde said “good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

But Webster’s offered me some additional insight into “resolution.”

A resolution is not just a promise, it is an answer.

We resolve conflict.

We find a resolution to a difficult situation.

Resolution indicates an answer, and an answer in the affirmative.

Yet we bludgeon our psychic selves when we stumble with our resolutions. We beat ourselves up emotionally, for being human and having room to grow.

What matters, it seems, is not so much how we came to this place, but how do we get past it. How do we learn again to pedal into life with the fearless enthusiasm of a ten-year-old on a bicycle on a summer’s day? And when we fall and skin our knees, how do we remember that getting back on the bike is what is really important?

I think the “kids on bikes” analogy is a good one.

There is much adults could learn if we’d hang out for an afternoon at a skate park. Yes, kids ride bikes at skate parks. And they ride skateboards, and they ride in line skates. If it’s got wheels, kids will ride it and make it do tricks.

If there is a ramp, a kid will want to go down it. And another kid will want to go up. And a third kid will want to spin circles while going in either direction. A fourth kid will try to do it all while upside down.

And if you watch long enough, you will see an amazing thing.

The kids fail.

All the time, they fail.

They go up, and they come down, and not always on the same set of things they rode up on.

They scramble back up, push off, and try again.

And fail again.


Boards and bikes fly off in crazy directions and helmets and pads hit ramps and boards and pavement and parents cringe and wince.

The kids get up, dust off and go again.

They try and they try and they try, they watch each other, they help each other, they offer advice, and the mimic the guy who’s got the move down.

They fail.

All the time.

And unlike us, they get over it.

They understand that there is a big difference between failing and BEING a failure.

You ask a kid with a board and a helmet what his goals are, he’ll likely tell you about a guy named Tony Hawk and name a bunch of moves that would make most adults blanch to contemplate.

Ask if he thinks he’ll ever get that good, and you’ll get a bunch of different answers depending on the kid. Some are cocksure, saying they’ll beat Tony Hawk one day. Others will be reverent, saying breathlessly that they can only dream of such a thing, and others still will say “maybe.”


As in “maybe I will, maybe I won’t.”

But they don’t get hung up on the “maybe I won’t” part. They just keep skating.

If they got each thing right the first time they tried it, there wouldn't be any challenge, now would there?

And the fun is in the challenge, the learning, the mastery. And finally, in moving on to the next cool thing to try.

They don’t get freaked out about failure. To them, it’s a natural part of learning and mastering a new skill.

When a ball player comes home from a game, be it the big leagues or t-ball, all covered in dirt from sliding into base and chasing balls around the outfield, we do not judge her harshly, saying “you should have been able to achieve your goals standing up and staying clean.” Of course not. We know that success often means getting dirty.

It usually means trying more than once.

Trying several times means you didn’t get it right the first X number of times.

It means being like Robert Bruce’s arachnid muse. It means if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Or, as Walter Elliot said in The Spiritual Life, “perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.”

Let me read to you the text on a little card I carry in my wallet. The emphasis added is my own.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These are the principles that make us who we are as a faith community.

These are not small things.

These are big things, huge ideas.



Things perhaps forever beyond our reach.

Do we commit ourselves to them once a year, do them imperfectly for a couple of weeks and then quit?

Of course not.

And why not?

Because these principles are too big, too important, too much a part of who and what we are to just abandon them.

Even if we stumble.

Even if we fail.

Recently, the UU Church of Ellsworth held a series of after-service classes for adults focusing on the seven principles of our faith. It was led by members of the congregation and drew a diverse group of participants, ranging in age from 22 to the northern side of 75. It is impolite to ask how far north of 75, I am told. We had some lively discussions and some heartfelt silences. Perspectives varied but stayed within mostly predictable bounds. We all agreed that the principles were good and that we ought to work toward practicing them in our daily lives. And we all agreed that we fall short, often, but that we do what we can and must be satisfied with progress, if not perfection.

The discussion around the sixth principle seemed to be the most anguished. Principle six states a simple goal: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

It was so big, so enormous.

A world community?

With peace?

And justice?

For ALL?!

It was so monumental that many of our group despaired of ever reaching this goal. So long as there are dishonest people, and greedy people, and mean people, and hateful people, it seemed like we’d be shoveling against the tide.

“How can we ever hope to achieve something like this?” some wailed.

Our group was split. There were some who decried such an impossible task, and there were others who shrunk it down into something a little more manageable and got to work.

I call this the “light a candle” approach.

As in “better to light a single candle rather than sit and curse the dark.”

Another woman there took the Tip O’Neil approach.

“All politics is local,” she said.

Will the whole world be able to see by the light of our single candle? No.

But the people around us might.

I was reminded of the parable about the boy on the beach throwing starfish into the sea. The beach is covered with thousands and thousands of starfish, washed up on shore and certain to perish as the tide recedes. A man notices the boy and his efforts and questions why he is tossing starfish, one at a time, back into the surf. “There are so many,” the man said. “The birds will eat them and the sun will bake the rest. They are doomed. What possible difference can you make?” the man asked the boy.

The boy holds up a starfish and nods at it before he tosses it gently into the waves. “It matters to that one,” he said.

We do not need to change the whole world to work toward a goal. We only need to change what we can reach. And sometimes that means that the only thing we can change is ourselves.

Sometimes we have to be the single candle we light. It is not easy, but it is the next right thing to do. Just keep doing the next right thing. Just reach out and offer a kindness. Just help someone who needs it. Just eat the salad instead of the fisherman’s combo platter. Just take the walk instead of watching TV.

When we make resolutions, the field is really quite wide open.

We can pick an easy target that we can comfortably achieve, designed to make us feel good about ourselves. “I resolve to return my hymnal to its place and recycle my order of service every week.”

Or we can choose something that challenges us to get outside the place where we are comfortable. “I resolve to tithe 10 percent of my income to my church and donate 10 percent of my time to charity work.”

When we aim for the big resolution, we run the risk of setting an impossible to achieve kind of goal, unless is it something we can peck at and work at and make small progresses as we go.

For me, a resolution is a thing I hold in my heart that I strive for, a principle that is in my thoughts every day, or perhaps most days.

Some days I hit it, and some days I do not.

Does it mean I have failed, on those days when I have not hit the target?


Failure is not permanent.

A single failure does not mean I AM a failure.

Failures teach us what doesn’t work.
The problem comes when we insist that the methods that have not worked will work if we try them again, even if no other variables are different.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results.

So perhaps we need to learn from our kids.

If a kid at a skate park tries a thing a half-dozen times and it doesn’t work, he adjusts what he’s doing until it does work. If he still has problems, he asks someone for help. He’s not too proud. He wants to master the trick.

This behavior is difficult for many adults. We get jammed up at the first sign of difficulty.

We are afraid to skin our knees. We are embarrassed to ask for help.

We fear failure and we fear shame.

We put an awful lot of power and emotional baggage behind the word “failure.”

It stops us from even attempting things that are difficult.

We are Unitarian-Universalists! Do we not thrive on a challenge? Do we not crave difficult concepts, uncomfortable ideas, flexible theologies, things that make us swallow hard and step forward into the fear?

Yet the idea of resolutions, which remember, are answers in the affirmative to difficult things, send us grouching away remarking that they are useless.

We know that our UU principles are important enough that we commit ourselves to them, not just every Sunday when we sit in this sanctuary, but in our everyday lives.

We work to remind ourselves that every person has inherent worth and dignity, and we struggle – and sometimes fail – to treat them accordingly.

We try to work for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. And sometimes we fail. We fall short of that compassionate ideal.

We do our best to accept one another and encourage each in our congregation to the kind of spiritual growth that calls them. And we often fail. We sometimes have difficulty accepting each person. We sometimes disagree with the spiritual truths our neighbors might find.

We try to support and affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, but we fail here, too sometimes. If we’re honest, we can admit we’d really rather others find our version of truth and meaning.

We affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and society at large -- except when things get bogged down in committee. Then we’re not so sure democracy is a good idea.

We believe in the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, but we despair that we will ever achieve it. We seem to be up against such enormous odds, in a world filled with greed and hate, we struggle to not get discouraged.

And we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, although sometimes we wish our neighbors would not bounce the web so violently. It disturbs our place in it, and we begin to forget again that they have inherent worth and dignity.

These are our principles. We know them. We do our best to live them.

And we fail.


We fall short of what we want to be.

When we fail, do we abandon it all, throw our hands in the air and walk away in defeat?

Of course not. We try again.

We stop, take a moment (or several) a deep breath (or several) and then, gently, as we are able, we step forward again into the work that our religious tradition calls us to do.

The UUA issued resolutions to covenant and affirm our principles with the authority of the gathered congregations at the convention.

Have we the authority to covenant and affirm similar broad, grand and sweeping declarations of intent and affirmation with regards to ourselves? Yes.

Do we afford ourselves the same measure of worth and dignity that we struggle to see and affirm in others?

Perhaps we should be gentle with ourselves.

So let us now take a look at our resolutions and see them as solutions, as answers in the affirmative, progress toward a goal of perfection.

We want progress for ourselves.

We want to be as fully human and as fully divine as we can be.

Let us resolve, then, to treat ourselves gently in our criticisms of our humanity while we encourage ourselves to continue to strive.

This we ask, in all the names of the Divine.

Blessed be. Amen.


AndyPants said...


So, you can write.

judyhill39 said...

Dawn, that was good. Wish I could have heard it spoken.