Commitment and Balanced Life

Commitment and the Balanced Life  a sermon by Rev. David M Bryce 

        I have a confession to make: I live with a continuous though mild guilt for all that I “ought” to do but do not do.   This morning I am speaking especially about the area of social action.

        Just this past Thursday I saw a television commercial which began with the following phrases

You put your friends first;

You put your family first;

You put your job first.

        My reaction to that as, “One cannot do that.  We cannot put our friends first, and our family first and our job first.”

But my second reaction was that most of us are called to do just that. 

Someone who owns a company or a shop or restaurant often feels that they have to put work first or else they will not be able to take care of their family or of other areas of their lives.   

And if we work for someone else, our employers often expect us to put our job first. 

That is too many things coming first.

I have often said that if am faced with a choice between my family and my job, my family comes first.  But that is easy to say in a general and categorical way.  The problem is that so often the choice is a smaller one; it is a choice between working on Saturday and going to my child’s game; or it is a choice between taking that business trip and being home for my child’s birthday.  Sacrificing being present for a family event once doesn’t seem like putting my job before my family.  But string together enough of those one-time events and that is what I have done; I have made the job more important than my family. 

When my daughter was thirteen she had her Coming of Age ceremony at our home congregation in Connecticut.  But by that time I was the minister of a congregation in New York, and I did not realize until quite late that both congregations had chosen the same date for their Coming of Age services.  I chose to attend the one where I was the minister because I felt I had made a commitment to do so.  For the past eighteen years I have regretted that decision.  I ought to have been at my daughter’s Coming of Age service.  The congregation I served could have found a way to get along without me for that Sunday.

And so we are called to put many things “first”:

Should my family come first? Absolutely.

Without my job I could not feed my family, so shouldn’t my job come first?  Absolutely.

If I do not take care of myself, I cannot take care of others, so shouldn’t my needs come first?  Absolutely.

But wait; didn’t I say family come first?  Absolutely.

And isn’t all of humanity a single family?  Yes.

If the structure of the world is unjust, my children and grandchildren and all of my human family will suffer, so shouldn’t social action come first?  Absolutely.

Within the field of social action there are any different calls.  Shall we put poverty issues first, after all, people are going hungry and their lives are being stifled by the effects of poverty—and some people around the world are dying from poverty.  Yes, clearly poverty is our number one issue; we should absolutely put it first. 

What of human rights, shouldn’t those be our number one priority?  Absolutely.

And what about the environment; if we do not save the environment we will not have any other issues to worry about, shouldn’t that be our first priority?  Absolutely.

So shouldn’t I work tirelessly, twenty four hours a day, on social action?  Absolutely.

Far too many things come first.

How on earth do I balance out the call of all of these?

Well, first I function better if I can find a place of solitude or community, a place of calm and serenity.  I can go to the mountains or the shore; and I can go to religious services, join religious community, and seek comfort and peace there. 

A religious service provides me with the opportunity for time and quiet that I might not otherwise have.  It allows me, therefore, to connect with community, with my deeper self, with divinity however I may define that term.  It gives me a place of stillness of mind and soul that allows my true nature to come forth and allows my entire self to sort out what is really and truly important in my life.  Important, that is, to me. 

It is easier for me to do that if I set aside the noise and din of the many calls upon my time and energy.

Within my deepest self, within my heart of hearts, what is first?  What do I want to fully commit myself to and what comes second and third and fourth?  Only I can decide that.

Maybe what comes first is one of the things that clamor for attention; maybe what comes first for me is God or spirit.  Maybe not, but maybe. 

Where does social action enter my life?

My conclusion, after some consideration, is that I am someone who wants to change the world and make it better, but that must always be within the context of the rest of my life.

Before I was married and had a child I took part in many demonstrations about political and social issue, though I was only arrested once.  But I took part without any concern about being arrested; if it happened, it happened. 

Ten years ago this coming February, the mayor of New Paltz, New York began performing same sex weddings.  More than three hundred couples signed up to be married.  This was before New York became an enlightened state, so what he was doing was not legal.  A court issued a cease and desist order against the mayor, which he obeyed.  Two nearby Unitarian Universalist ministers, Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey, went to New Paltz and picked up where the mayor had left off; they began performing weddings.  One of those ministers–knowing how strongly I supported human rights–called me the following week and asked me to join them.  I hesitated.  I did so because I had to think through the possible effects upon my family.  If I were arrested and sent to jail, would my congregation continue to pay me?  Or, if they did not, might we suffer economic loss and therefore, as on example, lose our house?

[By the way, I raised this issue with the Board of my congregation and was met with deafening silence.]

As it happened those two ministers were arrested and charged with violating New YorkState law by solemnizing what were then illegal marriages.

After some a period of discussion, Genie and I agreed that this issue was important enough that we would take a chance on the legal and financial consequences and I signed up to do wedding ceremonies, which I did.  I am happy to say that so did dozens of other clergy, many, maybe even mostly–but not only–Unitarian Universalists.  So I actually had to wait two months to take my first turn at performing weddings.  And just to finish the story, Kay and Dawn went to court in March of the following year and the judge threw the case out.  

The point of this tale is that when we have multiple obligations and ties, life becomes more complex.  I now must consider other people and other aspects of the future before I act.  And I have to take into account the feelings and opinions of others, not just act on my on impulses of what is right for them.  To me that is part of maturity.

    And because I have other obligations, I do less in the field of social action than l would if I were on my own.  Those other obligations include this congregation.  One of the reasons I went into ministry was the ability to take part in social justice issues—I was going to go into community ministry but went into Parish ministry instead; a choice I do not regret.  But just as is true of family obligations, a parish minister has congregational obligations that call attention away from social justice work. 

Congregations do a lot more than social justice work. They also do lifespan religious education, they do caring and comforting, they do the search for truth and meaning.  A parish minister’s time is taken up with many institutional obligations and I attend many meetings here.

That is not a complaint; that is not a bad thing, it just a fact.  The point is that like many of you, I need to balance out my time and my commitments.  But part of that balance is surely answering the call of social justice in some way.

I cannot solve every ill in the world.  I cannot even do all that I once did.  But I can do something.  But I can also be overwhelmed by all that there is to do, especially in a time when I believe some things are getting worse.

For a balanced life that includes ease of mind about social action, I must count on several things:

First, that I will recognize the many calls in my life and strive to seek balance in the here and now, but know that I cannot do everything;

Second, that while I may be not have the full balance that I want right now, while I may not engage in the amount of social action that I would like to right now, I believe that I need not do everything right now, that what I have done and will do over the course of my entire lifetime will balance out;

Third, I should recognize that what I do to support other people, including the social action efforts of this community, counts as part of my effort even if I am not directly involved—but that means I must support this community;

And fourth, that what I do in my lifetime is but a part of the overall struggle for justice, that I cannot assume that I will solve all of the world’s ills—that is egotistical andpresumptuous–but instead will recognize that I stand in the long line of reformers over the centuries who have contributed to a better world.

My own wish is to do social justice, not social service; I am called to changing social structures.  That is to say, I do not want to just serve meals to the hungry, I want to change a system that allows hunger to exist; I do not want to just bring blankets to the homeless, I want to change a system that has allowed homelessness in this country to grow to a magnitude that would once have been unimaginable; I do not want to reinforce a system that tells people that they have to take personal responsibility for their poverty when poverty overwhelms them, I want to remind people that we have a societal responsibility to help those of our fellow human beings who are suffering.  And that is important: that it is not I personally who have the responsibility; it is we as a society who have that responsibility.

And I would add to that the recognition that I cannot change the world alone even here and now. I cannot do much of that at all because other things take my time an attention.  But I can work towards these things in the context of community.

And because it is within the context of community, even with everything else community requires—teaching in the religious education program, serving on the Caring Connection, an the Lay Pastoral Care program and the Fellowship committee, etc, still I can work with others to achieve more than I could achieve on my own and we can achieve more together than could be achieved if each of us worked alone.

May we, by whatever means possible, participate in the struggle for a better world.  May we do so in community sharing responsibility for building a world of justice, equity and compassion for all.