New Beginnings

You probably noticed that I made quite a few updates to my LinkedIn profile.  That’s because I’m making some major changes in my life.   If you know me even a little bit, you know how committed I am to combating issues of economic injustice in our society.  Unemployment, underemployment, discrimination in the workforce, inadequate training and education and financial illiteracy have a chokehold on many of our cities and towns.  The generational poverty and hopelessness I’ve seen in the urban areas of Philadelphia and Wilmington break my heart.  People lack the education and skills to get a decent job that pays a living wage.  Neighborhoods are plagued by crime and drugs.  Schools are underfunded and, in many cases, unsafe.

For many years, I’ve tried to help through my volunteer efforts.  It’s not enough.  I can do more.  The late Dr. Stephen Covey said, “[v]oice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and abilities), passion (those things that naturally inspire, motivate, energize and excite you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for) and conscience (that which assures you of what is right and actually prompts you to do it).  Engaging in work…that taps your talent and fuels your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.”

I first read those words in 2004 but I don’t think I fully understood them until these last few years.  My family background, every job I’ve had, my education, my time spent practicing law, being unemployed and underemployed, my volunteerism, my health and financial struggles, my music, my teaching experience and my religious study – all of it was for the purpose of bringing me to where I am today.  I’ve found my voice.  I am called to be a Unitarian Universalist minister and to use my energy working in the community to heal our world both from the “inside-out” and the “outside-in.”  This means meeting people wherever they are on their journey and helping them find their way to their personal truth.  If people are spiritually healthy from the inside-out they can do the outside-in work our communities so desperately need.  It means leading a congregation in its efforts to promote peace, justice and love in our world.  It means working one-on-one with those who most need help and joining forces with other people, other congregations, corporations, organizations and government to build a global Beloved Community.  That is my soul’s code.

I’ve spent the last 18 months focusing on my health, getting my mind and body strong again.  Through meditation, reflection and counsel with trusted friends and advisors, I’ve refocused professionally as well.  Now, I’m ready to take the next steps.  I was accepted to the Master of Divinity program at Meadville Lombard Theological School and begin classes this month.  Next week, I will start my new role as Director, Center for Employment and Training at the People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia (http://pec-cares.org).  I’m honored and excited to be part of this amazing organization that’s been a pillar of the community for more than 20 years.  I’ll also continue to make speaking appearances in the Delaware Valley and, of course, will remain an active Toastmaster, helping others find their voice and communicate their message to the world.

Thank you to the friends, family and colleagues who’ve supported me and continue to encourage me on this journey.  I love you all.

Connie

May 8, 2015

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Word for ME Today!

I’ve gotten into the habit of reading “The Word for You Today” (WFYT) each morning as part of my routine.  Some of the more hard-core biblical messages are a bit off-putting but I usually find some value in the readings.  Yesterday, Sunday, I got up and read what I thought was the entry for January 18th.  It was something about dating.  I’d love to be dating a nice man right now but WFYT wasn’t going to help me find someone. (That’s a story for another post.) I went about my day and didn’t think anything more of it.

This morning I woke up in a funk. I’ve actually been feeling this way for a few days – criticizing myself for poor food choices, wasting time, not getting everything done, not being involved in community affairs as much as I could be, etc.  Then I looked at WFYT.  What I read yesterday was actually the message for today so I went back a day.  The message for January 18th was “Don’t Be So Controlling.” It was written with husband/wife relationships in mind, talking about how two “become” one and that the process takes love, patience, kindness and hard work.  You can’t “influence the outcome’ by fixing, judging, nagging, scolding, arguing, criticizing and regulating.  Then it hit me – this message was brought to me today because I needed it today.  It was about my relationship with myself!  I’m making all kinds of changes in my life right now – I applied to seminary, I’m looking for a new job, I’m 2/3 of the way to losing 100 pounds, I’m healing my finances and I started training for my first 5K race.   I’m doing well.  I am becoming a new person.  The use of the gerund here is intentional.  I’m still a work in progress.  So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  I’ve come a long way.  No more self-judging, self-nagging, self-scolding and self-criticizing.  I will be more patient, loving and kind with myself.

Music as a Spiritual Practice

This is the text of a worship service at First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on October 27, 2013.  It was a non-traditional service that I led from the piano.  It combined recorded music, spoken word, live musical performances, readings and congregational singing.

Music: James Brown, “Doin it to Death”

“Some songs make you feel good. Some songs make you feel bad.  Some songs just make you ‘feel.’  You may not understand all the words, but your heart truly understands the feeling.”  Those words are from R & B singer Peabo Bryson – the “real” pre-Disney movie theme Peabo.  In 1981 he released a live version of his 70s hit “Feel the Fire.”  I started playing it on my then-new Walkman cassette player before every exam, every trial and every big presentation. I played it the day I was sworn in to the United States Supreme Court.  I played it two months ago in July the day of my surgery. I played it today.  It’s always among the Top 25 played songs in my iTunes library.  There’s something about the energy of that particular version that makes me feel invincible.  The song you just heard is called “Doing it to Death” by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.   Nothing can make you “feel” like a James Brown song.  Young or old, black or white, I’m sure that song made you feel something.  I hear that song and instantly feel good. Hopefully it made you feel good, too.  But maybe it didn’t and that’s ok.  That’s what today’s service is about – the power of music.  Eight simple notes.  Arranged in various combinations, played on different instruments, sung by humans or animals.   Whether it’s funk, opera, jazz, easy listening or heavy metal, it’s all the same eight notes.

For those who do not know me, my name is Connie Simon and I’ve been a member of this church since 2009.  I’ve been on the Ministry Leadership Team, the Membership and Multicultural Ministries, the Bylaws committee and am proud to be your Moderator this year.   Some of you know that I come from a musical family.  My mother and her sister were the organists of their respective churches. My sister sings in the church choir.  My niece Suzanne Burgess is a professional singer here in Philadelphia.  As a kid I sang in the choir and all the school choruses, played the saxophone and clarinet in marching band and have played the piano in all kinds of venues since I was eight years old.  Over the past few years, I’ve filled in for Jen Heyman, our previous music director and performed here with Cory Walker many times.

Even though I’ve made my living in law and business, music has always been the constant my life.  It’s my solace and my comfort.  It’s the one thing that is always with me.  No matter how I’m feeling – happy or sad, sick or well, fragile or unbreakable, loved or unloved, I turn to music.  It’s my “spiritual practice.”  It can calm me, excite me, motivate me and sometimes in its beauty even move me to tears.  Bach, Beethoven, Bryson or Brown, there is an arrangement of those eight notes for every occasion in my life.  I feel their vibrations in my soul and use them to heal and sustain me.   Today, I’ll share with you the power of music as a means of spiritual practice – as a vehicle to ground you, to carry you to a higher place or simply to take you home.  I hope you don’t mind but today will be a little bit different – a cross between a summer service and a Music Sunday.  With Reverend Nate as my worship associate, Cory, Suzanne, Joy, Zemoria, Dan and Schelly assisting, I’ll lead the service from the piano through Wonder-Joy, Prayer, Gratitude, Presence, Reverence and Hope.   My mission is for you to leave here feeling good.  I hope you enjoy and have a funky good time. So, let’s begin the way we do every week by saying simply “welcome home.”

Wonder-Joy

What exactly is a spiritual practice?  Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers.  The Spiritual Science Research Foundation defines it as “honest and sincere efforts done consistently on a daily basis to develop Divine qualities and achieve everlasting happiness or Bliss…. It’s “our personal journey of going inward beyond our five senses, mind and intellect to experience the Soul (the God) within each one of us.”    I’ve also seen it defined as something that “moves a person along a path towards a goal.”

You can define it any way you choose.  My spiritual practices are those things that keep me sane and guide my steps through this life and into the next.   My spiritual practices are tied to my core values and to the fundamental principles by which I live my life – honesty, kindness, knowledge and service.  I always speak my truth from my heart and I don’t compromise my integrity.  I believe in showing kindness and compassion to the other creatures with whom I share this universe.   I strive to learn something new every day.  And I truly believe in service.  In the words of one of my favorite authors, SARK, when asked what I do or who I am, I say “I am a creative spirit.  I just came here to help.”

Honesty, Kindness, Knowledge and Service are the outward manifestation of my spiritual journey.  Today, we’re going to talk about those practices that reflect internally and guide me on my path.  I’m going to use music as the medium through which I’ll explain what I mean.  Understand that I’m using “music” in the broadest sense.  I’ll introduce each spiritual practice with an explanation of what it means to me and then share with you a few songs, poems and stories that illustrate that practice and that are personally very important to me.

I’d like to start with the practice of “Wonder-Joy.”  Initially, in my mind, these were two different things with “wonder” suggesting amazement and appreciation for the things around me and “joy” referring simply to happiness.  And then I read “Experiencing Tears of Wonder-Joy: Seeing with the Heart’s Eye” by William Brand.  And finally, all those times I found myself stopped dead in my tracks by something I’d seen or heard made sense to me.   All those times I’d felt that indescribable feeling in my chest and the tears welling up – finally made sense.  Braud says “My skin erupts in gooseflesh, hairs standing on end.  Something literally takes my breath away; I gasp, involuntarily.  Chills run up and down my spine.  I feel a tingling around my eyes, my head, and the back of my neck.  The tone of the experience is positive.  Toward the end of the experience, or afterward, there may be some sadness.  In the midst of the experience I feel love and compassion.  My heart goes out to what I am witnessing.  I feel gratitude.  I feel a yearning, a poignancy, an intensity.  Around me, and between me and the provoking event, there is what I can only describe as a thickness, as though the surrounding air somehow has a greater density.  The experience comes up me – unexpected, spontaneous.  My attention is focused strongly upon what I am witnessing, what is provoking these feelings.  Other things fade from my attention.  … The rest of me pauses, shuts down temporarily.  I must cease, and allow the feelings to subside before I am able to continue.”

Wonder-Joy isn’t something you can look for; it’s something that’s already inside you, always waiting to be released and anxious to be set free.  As children, we’re taught that we have to “grow up and get serious.”   Sure, we all have responsibilities and obligations but we also have to keep our hearts and minds open to the world around us. Robert Fulghum says, “Surprise is the core of existence. It’s true. You never really know what’s coming next.”  Even the most mundane things can be amazing.   It is said that “Wonder begins in the senses, comes alive in the imagination, and flourishes in adoration of the Divine. It arises from our natural curiosity about the grand adventure of life. It increases our capacity to be a bold inner space tripper and an avid explorer of the physical world. … [it’s] all right here, a feast of epiphanies and astonishments in the daily round of our spiritual lives.  Put very simply by Ted Kosser, “I delight in the things I discover right within reach.”   I’ve experienced Wonder-Joy many times in my life.    In January 2009, I had a pretty good ticket for President Obama’s first inauguration.  The crush of people around me was incredible.  It was freezing cold.  But when we got to our seating area, I saw those thousands of people all there for the same reason I was.  We were one.  We were there to celebrate not just a new president but a new president who looked like us.  All at once the hopes and dreams of my ancestors were realized and in an instant – I was overcome by Wonder-Joy.  This summer I was driving through my hometown and spotted some cows hanging out on an Amish farm.  The sky was a perfect blue; the grass was verdant and plush.  When I stopped to admire the scene, one cow looked up at me as if to say “Nice day, huh?”  That’s Wonder-Joy.   Then there’s the song you’re about to hear.  My brother Doug introduced me to Chuck Mangione back in the 1970s and his soundtrack for the movie “Children of Sanchez.”  The movie, starring Anthony Quinn, didn’t do well at the box office, but the soundtrack is amazing.  One particular melody, “Consuelo,” which you’ll hear in a moment, is so haunting and beautiful in its simplicity that it always moves me to Wonder-Joy.  But first, you’re going to hear a poem by English poet Adelaide Anne Proctor about an episode of musical Wonder-Joy.  This 1858 poem was set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1877 as a death-bed tribute to his brother Fred.  When I was young my mother used to play and sing it to me.  Even now, when I sit down at my piano at home, it’s one of my favorite pieces to play.

Poetry Reading: “The Lost Chord,” Adelaide Ann Proctor read by Dan Widyano

Music: Medley – “Consuelo’s Love Theme” and “Children of Sanchez” by Chuck Mangione, arranged by C. Simon performed by Suzanne Burgess, Joy Wiltenburg and Connie Simon

Prayer

Poetry Reading:  “The Old Slave Music” by Sarah Piatt read by Rev. Zemoria Brandon

Much of the “old slave music” referenced in that poem came from the anguish and despair of the slaves who had been torn from their homes and families only to be worked like animals, bought and sold like crops and often beaten until they died or escaped.  Many of their songs were pleas for help and deliverance from the hell in which they found themselves.   Sometimes we find ourselves in our own personal versions of hell.   Sometimes it’s poverty, hunger, loneliness, danger, poor health – or sometimes all of the above.  We cry out sometimes aloud and sometimes in quiet silence for help.  That’s what prayer is.

My brother-in-law has been asking me a bunch of questions about what this church is like.  Last Saturday he asked me if we were going to pray here.  I answered “yes.”  Whether it’s in our meditation/moment of silence, our sharing of names or the songs we sing, we do pray here.   Think about the lyrics of some of our hymns.  “Help of the helpless abide with me.”  “Roots hold me close, wings set me free.  Spirit of Life, come to me.  Come to me.”  “Precious Lord, take my hand.” [Opening line only sung a cappella by Suzanne Burgess]    Each of those songs is a prayer.  A Mahalia Jackson recording of that last one plays continuously at site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  I can’t tell you how many big strong men I’ve seen reduced to tears when they walk down that hallway and hear that song.

That song is a frequent prayer of mine.  When I first started coming here, I noticed that the words “God” and “Lord” had been removed from many of the hymns I’d learned as a child.  I didn’t quite know what to make of that at first.  The invocation of “God” and “Jesus” used to bother me because I didn’t accept Christian beliefs.  Then one day I realized it was all ok.  As Unitarian Universalists, we value and appreciate the wisdom to be found in other faith traditions.  It’s ok that I sometimes pray to my “Creator” using Christian songs with lyrics that mention God.   It’s all about the feeling of the music and the sincerity of my heart.  If the song moves me and stirs something in me, then it works.  And this next song definitely works for me.  It’s another one of my “go to” songs.  I have a lot going on in my life right now and sometimes it just gets overwhelming.  But as this song says, “after you’ve done all you can, you just stand.”

Music: “Stand,” by Donnie McClurkin performed by Cory Walker and Connie Simon

Gratitude

Gratitude is the simplest of the spiritual practices, yet it’s also the easiest for us to mess up.  Scientist Robert Emmons says that gratitude is not just about acknowledging the goodness in one’s life but also recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside the self.   It’s more than just saying “thank you” for the things you receive – that’s the “simple” part of gratitude.  Where we mess up is in being greedy and wanting more, better or different.  We mess up when we feel “entitled.”  We mess up when we become jealous and envious of others.  I overheard someone say that you can’t be grateful while you’re coveting what somebody else has.

But what if that thing you are coveting is life itself? I was privileged to witness true gratitude as my mother was dying of cancer.  One day in her room at Lankenau, she said to me “It’s ok because I’m going to go be with my husband and my parents.”  I would have been angry – really pissed off – that after fighting so hard, was there really nothing else that could be done?  It just wasn’t fair.  But instead of railing against the injustice of it all, she truly was grateful for the life she had been given but understood that it soon would be time to go.  To me, that’s the ultimate express of gratitude and something to which I can only aspire.

I was given just that chance in April when my brother Rick died.  He had survived 23 years after a traumatic brain injury that should have killed him.  Sure, he missed driving and riding his motorcycle and playing with his kids.  But with the use of just his left arm, he built a new life for himself that was more active than that of many people I know. Even though he was still ornery as cat dirt as my niece would say, Rick was now gaunt and weak and his organs were failing.  My sister-in-law and I made the decision to let him go.  I didn’t want to, but I remembered back to that day with my mother.  I was grateful for the time I had with my brother but I knew he was tired it was time for him to go.

It’s not easy to let go of someone we love.  We get angry and upset at what their absence will do to us.   And that’s only natural.  Yet somehow, despite our sadness in their passing, we have to find a way to be grateful that their suffering has ended and pray that their soul found peace.

Music: “Safe from Harm,” by BeBe Winans performed by Suzanne Burgess and Connie Simon

Presence

We talk about presence a lot in this church.   When I first started  coming here, I didn’t quite get it.  I knew being present was more than just raising my hand and saying “here” but I didn’t understand how one could not be “present.” Then one day it hit me. I realized that I wasn’t living my life – my life was just happening to me. Sure I had moments of focus and clarity but I was not “present” on a consistent basis.  I’d “lose” whole hours of time during the day because I was always thinking about the next task, the next appointment, the next thing to be done.  I wasn’t living each moment.  I don’t know why I’m telling you this in the past tense as though it’s something that I’ve overcome.  I DO struggle with presence.  Think about how many more moments of Wonder-Joy I could have experienced had I just been present!  I made a promise to myself yesterday to slow down and stop letting my life live me.

When I walk through the sanctuary doors each Sunday, I make a serious effort to leave everything else outside so that I can truly worship and recharge for the week ahead.  This one hour each week is my time to lay it all down as Rev. Nate says and be still.  I come here to feed my heart and my soul and to spend time with each of you.   “Presence” for me is sitting quietly in the pews and feeling the essence of the members past and present who have attended this church since its founding in 1796.  Presence is getting my weekly hug from Barbara Higgins and seeing the latest pictures of Harvey’s grandchildren.   I enjoy being present for these moments – they nourish my soul and make me feel good.

What about our collective presence?  Each spring we do our flower communion.  We bring so many different kinds of flowers!  Each person adds his or her flower to the bucket and we make the most beautiful arrangement.  Our collective presence is reflected in the floral arrangement that we create together.

We light and extinguish our chalice each week with words spoken in unison.  Sometimes we get distracted in church – it happens to everyone.  I will admit that I have checked sports scores on my phone during service once or twice over the last few years.  But when it comes time to light and extinguish the chalice, we are all focused, together and collectively present.

In keeping with today’s theme, let’s talk about our collective presence as we sing together – our voices in unison.   Maybe it’s a hymn you don’t know very well, or one that’s too high or too low for you to sing – it doesn’t matter.  We’re all singing together.  Collectively present musically.

Hymn: Blue Boat Home by Peter Mayer

Reverence

The last spiritual practice I want to share with you today is “Reverence.”  One definition of “Reverence” is a “feeling of profound awe and respect and often love.”   Virtue.net says reverence is a combination of “loyalty, deference with love, devotion, honor and adulation.”     To me, reverence is simply remembering where I came from and living my life in a way that honors my ancestors and preserves their legacy while at the same time adding my own contributions for future generations.

As Blacks in America, my ancestors endured, persevered and thrived.  My maternal grandfather’s family were free Blacks as far back as 1820 and, with three other families, settled a town called “Hinsonville” that is now the site of Lincoln University.  They were brave and resilient people.   My mother told me stories about refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as part of civil rights protests.   That took courage.   This is where I come from.  This is the stuff I’m made of.

As a Black person in America today, I know firsthand that racism still exists.  I know firsthand that there are still people out there who judge me by the color of my skin.  They think they know all about me.  We’ve come a long way from slavery and even from the civil rights era of the 1950s-60s but we haven’t made it all the way yet.  When I first prepared my notes for today, I was going to share with you a story about a time 13 years ago I was stopped by a policeman in my own neighborhood who didn’t believe that I had just purchased one of the new homes there.  But I don’t have to go back that far.  We can pull one of the stories in the news just this week about African Americans at Barney’s and Macy’s who were detained for “shopping while Black.”

In 1900, Florida school principal James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem called “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to be read at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  With his brother John, they set the poem to music.  The song became known as the “Negro National Anthem.”  Today we still call it the “Black National Anthem.”  We are very protective of this song – like the Star Spangled Banner, it must be treated with respect.  That is why we always rise when we sing it.  The first time I heard it sung here as part of a service, I have to tell you it made me a little uneasy.   But it turned out ok.  You see, it’s a very special song.  To me, it’s a WONDER-JOY experience of collective PRESENCE for me every time I hear it.  It is an expression of GRATITUDE for how far we’ve come and a PRAYER for the future.  I sing it with profound awe and deep respect, with loyalty, love and adulation.   I sing it in honor of my ancestors and every Black American who came before me and who will come after me.  I sing it with REVERENCE.

So now, I ask you to rise as you are able and join me in singing all three verses of hymn number 149 – Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson

Benediction

Voice still and small, deep inside all,

I hear you call, singing.

In dark and rain, sorry and pain,

Still you remain singing.

Calming my fears, quenching my tears

Through all the years, singing.

 

Text of hymn “Voice Still and Small” by John Carrado

The True YoUU: Living Your Best Life

This is the text of a sermon delivered August 17, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County. 

How many of you truly believe that you are living your best life?  Do you even know what your “best life” is?   As Unitarian Universalists, we believe strongly in making the world a safer and more loving place for all creatures.    We want to do it all, give our all and create that utopian existence where everyone is loved and treated fairly regardless of their race, creed, age, marital status or sexual orientation; where everyone has an equal opportunity to be self-sufficient – to do fulfilling work that matters and to be paid a fair wage for it; where everyone has access to adequate food and water, education and health care.  As Unitarian Universalists, we work hard to promote the power of love and to foster social justice in the world.  We work on marriage equality; mass incarceration; immigration reform and environmental issues.  These are all lofty and admirable ideals.  And I believe they are attainable.  But sometimes I get overwhelmed trying to do all the “right things” every day.  I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to lead that “perfect” life.  I realized I had to give myself a break.   All I can do is live my best life.  For me that means doing the best I can each moment of every day.  When it’s time for me to die, I hope I can look back and see that I strung together enough of those moments to be able to say that I lived my best life.

Your best life is one in which you live according to your principles.  Your actions and behaviors are in line with your core spiritual beliefs.    You have found your “voice.”  The late Dr. Stephen Covey, defines your “voice” as your “unique personal significance.”  It “lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for) and conscience (that still small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it).  When you engage in work that taps your talent and fuels your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.”   When you find your voice – and use it – you are living your best life.

You have figure out what it is you want to do. No one can do this for you.   What’s really important to you?  Dr. Covey says “[d]eep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution – to really matter, to make a difference.  We may doubt ourselves and our ability to do so…but you can live such a life.  You have the potential within you.  We all do.  It is the birthright of the human family.”  Aristotle said “where talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.”   As UUs, we want to do it all and fix it all.  But I don’t think that’s humanly possible. We end up being scattered among a variety of causes and concerns yet not really accomplishing any one thing.  So let’s revisit that definition of “voice.” The intersection of talent, passion, need and conscience.

Let’s start with talent.  What are you good at?  Merriam Webster defines it as “a special ability that allows someone to do something well.”  I have a law degree and many years of business and corporate experience.  I’m also a musician.  I’d like to think I’m a good lawyer, a good writer and speaker and a decent musician.  I also recognize that there are many more things I’m just not good at.  I can handle Twitter but I can’t get the hang of Facebook and I have no idea what “Vine” is despite the fact that my 18 year-old great niece is on it constantly.    I am not good at statistics.  You get the point.  Each of us has innate special talents given to us by our creator.  We were given these talents for a reason – to use them.  When you go home today, take a minute and think about what your talents are.  What can you do well?  What special skill or ability do you have?

Next, there’s passion.  This one can be tricky.  Oprah says “Passion is energy.”  It sounds simplistic but it’s actually a pretty good starting point.  It’s also said that passion is “an intense emotion compelling enthusiasm, or desire for anything.”   Passion is that state of truly caring about a person, an issue or a thing, all the way down to the core of your being.  Passion is believing in something so fiercely that you are willing to fight for it and maybe even die for it. Andrew Carnegie said “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.”    Napoleon Hill wrote that “the starting point of all achievement is desire.  Weak desire brings weak results.”   So what are you passionate about?    I’m passionate about a lot of things but I’ll give you a couple of examples.  I’m passionate about financial literacy.  My father died when I was very young and I watched my mother struggle to take care of us on very limited resources.   My father didn’t leave a trust fund or a retirement account.  I had no idea what those things were until I started working myself.  Now I dedicate myself to making sure that the people I encounter know the basics of financial literacy – budgeting, saving, etc.  I make sure every woman knows the basics.   I speak on the topic at churches, women’s groups, to children and at community centers.  I take every opportunity that arises to promote it.

I’m also passionate about preventing people from driving under the influence.  My brother was killed by a drunk driver and I’ve spent many hours doing Victim Impact Panels in the hope that I can dissuade just one person from having a drink and getting behind the wheel of a car.    I speak on the topic every time I’m asked and share my story.  I give of myself to advance this cause.   As Tiffany Madison writes, “[if] we don’t fight for what we ‘stand for’ with our passionate words and honest actions, do we really ‘stand’ for anything?”    I embrace my passions full-on.  They make me who I am.  As Nichols Sparks writes in Dear John, “[t]he saddest people I’ve ever met in life are the ones who don’t care deeply about anything at all.”  In my mind, those people aren’t just sad.  They simply aren’t living.

Let’s move on to “need.”  This is perhaps the easiest for us UUs to grasp.  What does the world need?  Clean water, renewable energy sources, affordable quality health care and education for everyone.  The list goes on and on.  The key in living your best life is in identifying that thing that the world needs that you have the talent and the passion to provide.  Maybe you have the formal education and training to be a doctor in a rural or underserved low-income community.  That is a need that you can fulfill.  But don’t sell yourself short – there may also be a need for volunteers to make outreach phone calls for that doctor’s office.  That might be the need that you can fulfill.  Revisit your list of talents and see where they line up with the need you see in your community.

Finally, there’s conscience.   Trudy Govier writes that “[t]he ‘voice of conscience’ is something we have constructed for ourselves, taking into account personal experience, feelings, social teaching, scientific findings and relevant religious teachings.”  Conscience is that inner law by which we live. It is our innate sense of right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.   According to Reverend Thomas Berg, “[a]uthentic moral conscience, however, is not merely something that I roll up my sleeves and produce—the product of having weighed my feelings, likes, dislikes, my friend’s opinion on the matter, advice from others, and so on.  While all of this might serve to help me arrive at a genuine judgment of conscience, that judgment—if sound and genuinely proceeding from conscience—will proceed from the core of my being, and will correspond to objective moral norms  anchored in the truth about what perfects us as human persons.  It will be a weighty and carefully distilled judgment of what—given the objective ends of human nature—is reasonably required of me (or someone else) in the present circumstance.”

By now, I imagine there are a few different types of thoughts bubbling up out there. Some of you are thinking I already know all this; I’m already living my best life.  She isn’t telling me anything new.  If that’s you, I’m happy that you’ve already taken the time to be fully present with yourself and do this work.  It’s not easy.  For some of us, it takes years to discover who we really are, what matters most to us and how to make a difference in the world.

Others of you might be overwhelmed because you’ve never really taken the time to think about your individual voice.   Some time ago, Jane Romeyn of the UU Fellowship of Vero Beach in Florida wrote a letter to UU World.  She wrote ”[t]he articles in the Spring issue about undocumented immigrants and the various ‘Occupy’ movements are yet additional examples of UUs deciding that certain current events will become UU dogma, and that anyone claiming to be a UU must agree with the UUA position.  This makes it especially painful for those of us who joined because of the UU openness to all of the various religions in the world but now find most congregations to be much more concerned with ‘social justice’ than with helping members think about and work through all the complexities of spirituality and personal growth.”  This letter struck a nerve with me.  I’ve shared with you some of the things I’m passionate about.  They don’t necessarily “line up” with UU hot-button issues.   For a minute, I seriously thought I was a failure as a UU.  Then I remembered what drew me to Unitarian Universalism in the first place – the recognition of diversity of thought and the encouragement for each of us to find our own truth – our own path – our own voice.

Lastly, there are some of you who have taken this message to heart and have found your voice but aren’t using it.     Many of us simply lack self-confidence.   I’m not making a difference. I can’t change things.  There’s a saying that “Hell would be if God were to show me things I could have accomplished if only I had believed in myself.”  Often we have all the confidence in the world but still have lapses when our voice goes silent.  I know I do.  When that happens, 9 times out of 10, it’s because I’ve become DISTRACTED.  I’m sure many of you can relate to this.  I believe there are five major distractions to cultivating and using our voice.

One – LACK OF RESOURCES –You don’t have the time to do the things that move your spirit.  Perhaps you are the parent of a new infant.  You feel you barely have time to shower, let alone engage in soul searching and self-care.  Maybe you have a demanding career and work 80 hours per week.   But you’re not only short-changing yourself; you’re shortchanging your child or your employer.  You owe it to the child to be the best “you” that you can be.  You’ll be a better employee if you’re emotionally and spiritually balanced.  Heed the words of H. Jackson Brown Jr.:  “Don’t say you don’t have enough time.  You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.”

Maybe lack of money is your dilemma.  My company closed in 2009 leaving all of its Pennsylvania employees without jobs.  I’m not extravagant by nature but after I lost my job, I was momentarily gripped by fear that I’d never earn a decent living again and that I had to hold on to every penny I had.  But it doesn’t take money to think or to feel.  Instead of buying books for my spiritual study, I went to the library.   If you don’t have a computer or internet access at home, you can always visit your local library.  You can participate in free seminars around town or find webinars online. Maybe instead of money, you can give time.  Lack of financial resources is a distraction, but it’s not an excuse.

Two – LACK OF EDUCATION.  I have an acquaintance who never went to college but wants to work with at-risk youth.  She says she “can’t” because she doesn’t have a college degree.  I reminded her she can volunteer at her neighborhood community center, be a Big Brother/Big Sister or simply mentor one or more of the kids in her congregation.  Depending on what she truly wants to do, a degree might be a necessity but it’s not a good reason to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.  It’s a distraction, not an excuse.

Three – LACK OF OPPORTUNITY.  Perhaps the opportunity to do what stirs your soul just doesn’t exist in your area.  If rescuing beached whales is your passion, Kansas is probably not the best place for you to live.  This may be an extreme example, but I think you get the point.  I love tennis.  One of my dreams has been to work at a Grand Slam tennis tournament.  There are no grand slam tournaments in Wilmington, Delaware where I live.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t follow that passion.  It just means I have to be creative.  Maybe I relocate to New York for the two weeks of the U.S. Open each year.  If it means enough to me and if I want it badly enough, I will make it happen.  Living in Delaware is just a distraction – not an excuse.

Four – TECHNOLOGY.  We are bombarded by images and information every day.  Technology is everywhere.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, text messages, phone calls, Instagram, etc.  Every day you see people staring at their smartphones for hours on end, afraid of missing a single message or post.  If something is truly important to you – if it really stirs your passion – you’ll turn the technology off for a little bit.  Technology was meant to make our lives easier – not to BE our lives.  It’s a distraction from living your best life, not an excuse.

Five – OVERLOAD and APATHY.   We all know someone who’s a Superman or Superwoman of causes.  They’re passionate about absolutely EVERY SINGLE ISSUE that you name.  This is the proverbial “Jack of All Trades and Master of None.”  You can’t be passionate about everything and do it well.  It’s just not possible.  Or, you’re not being honest with yourself about what’s important to you.  It’s OK not to be involved in or connected with every single issue.  There is someone in my congregation who is sincerely and passionately involved with the issue of mass incarceration.  I am asked at least once a week to be involved with her program.  I’ve explained truthfully and lovingly  that I cannot take on that issue right now because of my other commitments and causes.  I’ll repeat – it’s ok to say “no.”   Agreeing to do something that either doesn’t move you or would overwhelm you distracts you from living your best life.  Just say no.  Overload and apathy are distractions from living your best life, not excuses.

Can we overcome these distractions? With self-discipline, sincere desire and commitment, yes.   Then comes the best part – LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE.  You’ve already identified what stirs your passion.  Now comes the time to do something about it.  Volunteer your time to work on a specific project or cause – once a month, once a year, whatever works for you and fits the needs of the particular project or cause.  If you can’t give time or are physically unable to give of yourself, give your resources.  Send a donation to that group rescuing beached whales on the California coast.   Or – just talk about how important your cause or passion is and then do nothing at all about it.  Having talent, passion and conscience in the face of great need while doing nothing about it is a waste.

I leave you today with a challenge:  (1) Find your voice – pinpoint that intersection of your talents, passion, world need and conscience.   (2) Remove all the distractions and excuses that prevent you from cultivating that voice.  (3) Use your voice and live your best life.

May it be so.