July 26 2020
The story goes that during the World Cup a little while ago a football fan bought tickets in advance for all the England games, and then found out that one of the matches clashed with the date of his wedding. So he went online to see if someone else would like to take his place. “It’s at St Edmond’s Church in Cambridge,” he wrote, “and her name is Sarah.”
Priorities: what are yours? Football might be one of them. Most people would put their family first, then there is our home and our friends, meeting up and having a nice time, and work of course. Most of us work for a reason, to be able to afford holidays and our lifestyle, and because we might have a vocation or a calling.
As ministers our priority is the Sunday service. We describe it to our students as being the bit at the top of the pyramid. It might not be the biggest part of the structure, and certainly not as wide and as broad as the base (that would be all the admin and additional events we are involved in), but the service remains the pinnacle of our responsibilities and everything else comes second to that.
In the history of religion there have been countless attempts to prioritise our faith. What is the most important thing we believe in?
There are of course different ways of finding this out. One is to answer the questionnaire: The World’s Most Valuable Thing [created by John Murray and reprinted in the Unitarian publication Build Your Own Theology] . There are three rounds. In the first round we are shown six sets of options, each with four alternatives, and we have to choose one alternative from each set.
Set 1. A computer. A piano. Your photo album. £500.
Set 2. Sight. Hearing. Touch. Taste and smell.
Set 3. Friends. Teachers. Family. Famous people.
Set 4. Music. Art. Books. TV.
Set 5. Shelter. Health. Food. Clothing.
Set 6. Justice. World peace. End to hunger. Freedom for all.
In the second round you consider the choices you have made from Sets 1, 2, and 3, and choose the most valuable one, and likewise from Sets 4, 5, and 6, choosing the most valuable one of those. Finally you are left with just two choices, and you must decide between them what your Most Valuable Thing is.
Of course life doesn’t always make it easy to act on our priorities. There is often not enough time, and other things get in the way. Didn’t John Lennon say something like, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans…”
Here’s a good example from Lynne McGee, writing in Reader’s Digest a few years ago. It began, she said, with a visit to the dental hygienist, who convinced her to floss and brush more frequently. Then the doctor asked her about her salt intake and cholesterol in her diet, which inspired her to begin a fitness regime. And an appointment with beautician made the addition of regular facials necessary. All these intentions went up in a list on her refrigerator door.
But it didn’t stop there. Having to take her coffee maker in for a service, she was told to run white vinegar through the machine once a month to clean it. She found out you are supposed to clean the disk drives in your computer regularly.
“I was sleeping four hours a night,” she writes, “had lost touch with my husband and children, had no social life, and no room left on the list on the ‘fridge door.
Then “it all came crashing down one night when I was reading an article entitled, ‘Are You Endangering The Lives Of Your Loved Ones By Failing To Dust Your Smoke Alarms?’”
The list was taken down and shredded.
I personally find it helpful to have one priority and to stick to it. I can look after one houseplant, one pet, and do one thing at a time. More than that and confusion begins to set in.
And for me, the same rule applies in the religious life. Catechisms, articles of faith, creeds, doctrines, precepts, — Unitarians can have some of these, but on the whole, making a list of what you believe does not truly represent your faith.
I like to describe Unitarian theology as “fugitive”, in that it is essentially hard to pin down or capture in any description. Unitarians demonstrate their theology by who they are and how they behave. This is why it is so hard to provide a succinct answer to the question “What do Unitarians believe?”
In Marking The Days edited by Kate Taylor in 2006, one contributor has included the following reflection:
“We do not value stories, we do not value dreams, we are suspicious of visions, we have put the cheapness of certainty above the richness of mystery, and yet we wonder why we are so unhappy.
“We demand facts, not stories, we crave the security of certainty, and are afraid of mystery. We have denied ourselves our dreams, we have starved ourselves of stories, and we wonder why we are unhappy.
“Yet happiness and joy are within our reach. Like God, they are never more than a heartbeat away. Our happiness and joy, like God, are hidden within our [experiences]… And all our human arts have never crafted a more fitting instrument for uncovering them than the poetry of prayer…”
If like me, you prefer to have just one priority, then we must choose it well.
Our closing prayer today is adapted from a Unitarian Universalist Handbook of Services, and is a benediction we have often used in Chapel.
For those of us who have gathered seeking the holy, may the holy go with us. For those who seek to embrace life, may life return our affection. For those of us who seek a better way, may a way be found, and the courage to take it.
Hold on to what is good, even if it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe, even if it is a tree which stands by itself. Hold on to what you must do, even if it is a long way from here. Hold on to life, even if it is easier letting go. Hold on to the hand of your beloved, even when we are apart. Amen.