On Setting Our Intentions — UUS:E Worship, January 2, 2022

“The Moments of Our High Resolve” by the Rev. Josh Pawelek

I’m calling today a homecoming. You may remember we decided to postpone our traditional September homecoming service because we weren’t quite ready to return to in-person, indoor worship and religious education. I always imagined today would be our homecoming. Today would be the first Sunday of the new year, the Sunday on which we’d return to two services. Despite and because of all our safety measures – masks, distancing, open windows, etc.—we would have a decent number of people in the meeting house, celebrating our congregation, celebrating our spiritual community, looking forward to a new, hopefully better, hopefully less strange year. Thanks to the late autumn delta surge; thanks to the early winter omicron surge; thanks to increasing hospitalizations; thanks to over 100 cases per 100,000 residents in Connecticut; thanks to breakthrough infections; thanks to a big lack of clarity into what it all means for the next few months, this morning’s service isn’t our traditional homecoming. But I’m calling it a homecoming nevertheless.

If we can’t yet physically come home, the way we’d like to, to our beloved meeting house here on Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, on the ancestral lands of the Podunk and Wangunk people, land whose waters trickle down to the Hockanum River, eventually feeding the Connecticut or ‘long tidal’ River; if we can’t come home to our meeting house the way we’d like to, we can nevertheless come home to its meaning in our lives, to the values it affirms, to the peace it conveys, to the love it holds.

That sort of homecoming is actually what happens every Sunday. Every time we arrive for worship (or any other purpose), whether in person or virtual, we receive an invitation to encounter that meaning, those values, that peace, that love—mindful that what we encounter here can be very different from what we encounter in the wider world. Often the wider world centers competition and consumption. It celebrates a false understanding of youth as well as elderhood. It exerts a variety of pressures to conform. It asks us to deny the more complex and painful aspects of our history. It demands that we fit into certain social boxes, some quite limiting and even harmful. It is an inducer of stress. At its worst it is exhausting, anxiety-producing, divisive, toxic, oppressive, traumatic. But even without encountering the worst features of the wider world, even with just the wear and tear of daily life, it is quite easy to forget what matters most to us, what we truly care about, our values, our principles, the people we hold, the people who hold us, how we ought to be, how we are called to live. It is quite easy to forget. But when we come here we remember, we receive that invitation, we come home to the best possible versions of ourselves—our creative, committed, compassionate selves, our justice-seeking, peace-making selves, our loving selves. That’s a great definition of church, isn’t it? The place that invites you home to your best self.

Earlier I asked us to recite the Unitarian Universalist principles. We typically recite the principles at our homecoming service. This recitation is an important reminder. It’s part of the invitation to come home to our best selves. I know you know this, but it bears repeating: As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t gather together around a common theology or confession of faith. We gather together around these principles. They are guides. They guide us in our living, our treatment of ourselves, others and the earth, our open approach to the spiritual life, our embrace of democratic processes, our vision for a more just and peaceful world.

When I share these principles with people who aren’t familiar with our faith, more often than not, they say Yes! I agree. These principles are similar to my own. Nobody has ever said this is completely foreign to me. So as I recite our principles here, I’m mindful that they are not unique or exclusive to us. Nor are they particularly controversial or radical—there’s a universality to them. Having said that, I’m also mindful they can be exceedingly difficult to put into practice. Sustaining democratic processes, especially in this post January 6th era, requires intense engagement. Searching freely and responsibly for truth and meaning—and understanding the difference between the two—especially in this so-called post-truth era—requires intense engagement. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, especially in this era of division and spite and revenge, requires intense engagement, requires discipline, requires ongoing commitment. None of it is easy. Disengagement is easier by far. Forgetting is easier by far. Growing numb to all the negative dynamics and trends is easier by far. And every time we choose that easier path, we slip further and further from our best, truest, most authentic selves. So we come here to come home to that self. We rehearse our principles to come home to that self. We worship together to come home to that self. Welcome home!


Our Ministry theme for January is intention. As I wrote in my newsletter column, I was recently struck by a quote from Katie Covey, who serves as Director of Religious Education for Soul Matters. (For those who may not know, Soul Matters is a subscription-based, independent UU resource center that provides theme-based worship and religious education materials.) Katie Covey said that living with intention is different from setting goals or resolutions. Living with intention, she says, “pulls us into” who we truly are. Goals and resolutions “push us out” into future possibilities.

While I’m not sure this distinction works in all cases, I’m finding it very helpful this New Year’s weekend. Think about the typical New Year’s resolution. So often it is about fixing some aspect of ourselves we don’t like. I resolve to lose weight. I resolve to exercise more. I resolve to drink less. I resolve to live a healthier lifestyle. I resolve to repair my relationship with my parent, my sibling, my friend. I resolve to get a new job with more, or less, responsibility. I resolve to establish a sane work/life balance. I resolve to retire. There’s usually an implicit, if not explicit self-critique at the heart of these resolutions. There’s something wrong with my life. There’s something about me that needs repair. I could be better than I am.

It’s rare that a New Year’s resolution stems from a positive self-affirmation. It’s rare that a New Year’s resolution highlights something we love about ourselves and then resolves to maintain the status quo. I am a friendly person. I resolve to stay exactly the same! I am a helpful person. I will continue helping people. I am a good listener. I am a supportive spouse. I am a shamelessly doting grandparent or great aunt or great uncle. I resolve to stay exactly the same! So in this sense, Katie Covey is right. Resolutions, especially the New Year’s sort, push us out into future possibilities. And that’s fine. If you want or need to change some aspect of who you are, if you want or need to be different in some way from your current self, if you want or need to fix something about you that isn’t working, then a resolution makes sense. With discipline, work to achieve it. I am sure your UUS:E friends and family will support you.

However, what if we long to become more fully who we are, to hone or deepen the dimensions of ourselves that we like the most, the dimensions that give us a sense of meaning and purpose, dimensions that align with our most deeply held values? What do I like about myself, and how can I focus more attention on that? What matters most to me, and how can I pursue that? What’s right with me and how can I sustain that? If these are our questions, we’re exploring intention more than goals or resolutions. At least that’s the distinction Katie Covey and Soul Matters are offering for our reflection this month.

I like the way Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt describes this distinction. Moffitt was a publishing executive and successful editor at Esquire Magazine, who left the corporate world in the 1980s to, as he puts it, devote myself to finding more joy and meaning in my life.” Today he’s an instructor at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. In a post on his website he writes: “With goals, the future is always the focus: Are you going to reach the goal? Will you be happy when you do? What’s next? Setting intention, at least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are ‘being’ in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present ‘now’ in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.”[1]

What stands out to me in these words is that with the setting of intentions we’re not looking for something novel. We’re not trying to create a new and improved self. We’re looking for something that’s already there, something that already matters to us, values we already hold. Perhaps we’ve disengaged, perhaps we’ve forgotten, but it’s still there, still a part of us. In setting intentions we’re remembering, reclaiming, returning. We’re coming home. Living with intention is a movement in, more than a movement out.

My favorite articulation of this idea is a short piece, sometimes known as “My High Resolve” by the 20th-century, American Christian mystic, Howard Thurman. There’s a version of this piece in our Unitarian Universalist hymnal, but I want to share a longer version that Soul Matters included in its resource packet for this month. Thurman wrote:

Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve. Despite the dullness and barrenness of the days that pass, if I search with due diligence, I can always find a deposit left by some former radiance. But I had forgotten. At the time it was full-orbed, glorious, and resplendent. I was sure that I would never forget. I had forgotten how easy it is to forget. There was no intent to betray what seemed so sure at the time. My response was whole, clean, authentic. But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey. Details, lower-level demands, all kinds of cross currents — nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant — just wear and tear. If there had been some direct challenge — a clear-cut issue — I would have fought it to the end, and beyond. In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading Presence of God, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in fair weather or in foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the darkness and the foe are nameless or familiar, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.[2]

He’s talking about something essential he once knew in his heart, in his bones, in his soul, but forgot. He never imagined how easy it would be to forget this full-orbed, glorious, resplendent thing, but the world has way of distracting us, misdirecting us, wearing and tearing us down. And so he prays: “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, [so] that … I may not forget that to which my life is committed.” He’s praying to come back to his best self, his true self, his most authentic self. He’s praying to come home.

So now I ask you: what moment of High Resolve have you forgotten? What still vital commitment have you let slip away? How easy to forget through these years of pandemic? How easy to forget once children come, once their lives—and their children’s lives—become their own High Resolve with no regard to anything else? How easy to forget our full-orbed, glorious, resplendent intentions when we need to put food on tables and roofs over heads? Is there some former radiance still glowing just at the edge of sight, the edge of awareness? In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of the Holy, surrounded by your UUS:E family, I invite you to remember.

Friends: my prayer is that this place, this Unitarian Universalist congregation, will keep before you the moments of your High Resolve, no matter how deeply buried, no matter how long forgotten.. My prayer and my hope and my faith is that this place is here for you to come home.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Moffitt, Phillip, “The Heart’s Intention,” Dharma Wisdom. See: https://dharmawisdom.org/the-hearts-intention/.

[2] Quoted in Soul Matters’ worship resource packet for January, 2022. Also see Thurman, Howard, “In the Quietness of This Place,” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA, 1993) #498.