There’s an anonymous “Prayer of Good Intention” I want to share with you. It goes like this:
Sometimes I don’t even make it out of bed before my good intentions go awry. That’s a tough day. This light-hearted prayer acknowledges a serious reality in human experience. Our good intentions are hard to live up to. And alone, they are not good enough. That does not mean that intentions do not matter. It does mean we need some help bringing them to fruition.
There can be gaps between our good intentions and the ability or commitment to follow through on them. This is where I want to focus our attention this morning. This distance between our intentions and our behavior can be small or it can be cavernous. It can prevent people from accomplishing the things they say matter to them, and can even unintentionally lead to harm to oneself and others through the failure to act.
I mentioned Miep Gies in a recent sermon. Miep is one of the people who helped to hide Anne Frank and others from the Nazis in the Netherlands and also preserved Anne’s diary, which was later published by Anne’s father. He was the only member of the Frank family to survive the camps. After I mentioned Miep in that sermon, one of our church members, Susan Peña asked me if I had read Miep’s memoir, Memories of Anne Frank, and if not would I like to borrow it. I very much wanted to read the book and eagerly took her up on the offer.
After having the book for over a month, I still had not cracked the cover. I read other books, but I just kept stalling on reading that one. Then one day I mentioned the book to my partner Chris, and he started reading it almost immediately. This motivated me. I decided I would start reading the book as soon as he finished it. Once I got started, I read the book in a few days. After all, being someone who reads is part of my identity. It seems I just needed some additional motivation to do what I actually intended to do all along.
After reading Miep’s book, Chris and I both independently decided we wanted to read Anne Frank’s diary. We are both reading her diary right now on our separate kindles. Actually, he just finished the diary. I thought I might catch up, I’m a little competitive that way, but I’m only about halfway through it. The peer pressure is helpful. It pushes me to read when I might otherwise watch TV or play solitaire or go on Facebook. This evening I’m getting on a plane to go to a continuing education program for UU clergy, and I intend to spend the time on the plane reading Anne’s diary.
Now this is an example of a relatively small and possibly harmless but not a meaningless gap that initially existed between my intention and my action. And it is one that I ended up addressing. These kinds of discrepancies between intent and action happen all the time. And they can add up to our delaying or failing to do many of the things we want to do or say we want to do. It can even lead us to delay or fail to act on some of our most deeply held values and beliefs, including the religious principles of our faith.
The Epistle of James, also called the Letter of James, in the Christian New Testament, examines this relationship between faith and action. There are several theories about who wrote it. The author may have been the brother of Jesus. The author says:
The emphasis is clearly on doing, on acting on what has been heard. The author of the text concludes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” This idea of being doers not merely hearers who forget, of the necessity of works as well as faith, is central to the Book of James and it is also central to Unitarian Universalism. Faith needs to be acted upon. It isn’t enough to hold a belief or idea or principle. Without follow through, even the best idea is in danger of becoming meaningless and empty. The point is to bring one’s behavior closer to one’s beliefs.
Francis David, who founded the Hungarian Unitarian church, in the 16th Century gave expression to the relationship of faith and works in a similar way. He said: “Faith is the gift of God. The true signs of faith are an inner purity and love and an honest life and good deeds.” He concluded that “Love is the ultimate interpretation and completion of the law.” David was the court preacher for the only Unitarian King in history, King John Sigismund. Sigismund is known for presiding over one of the world’s first statements of religious tolerance. It is called the Edict of Torda and this month marks the 450th anniversary of the Edict. To this day, Unitarian Universalists embrace the intention of the Edict of Torda to uphold religious tolerance and support religious freedom.
Despite the wisdom that true faith requires good deeds, and that love is the ultimate completion of the law, it turns out to be a real challenge to live up to our ideals. This led Todd Rogers to do some research into bridging the gap between intention and behavior. His interest is in using insights from behavioral science. He’s a professor at Harvard Business School. He used voter turnout as his case study. But his findings can be applied to many areas of life including the intention to save more money, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy diet, alter one’s energy use, do more volunteer work, become an active anti-racist, or increase financial commitments to the church, among other things.
What Rogers found is that the intention to vote doesn’t necessarily lead people to vote. What he did find, however, is that it is possible to bridge the gap between a voter’s intention to vote and their actually going out and voting. He identified three crucial factors. Those three keys are 1) having a plan, 2) leveraging positive peer pressure, and 3) reinforcing a relevant identity.
It works something like this. To improve the likelihood that someone will go out and vote, it is necessary not only to ask if the person intends to vote but also to prompt them to create a plan. This would include asking them questions like: What time will you vote? Where will you vote? How will you get there? Second, a little positive peer pressure improves the chances of action. What this means is that people are more likely to do something when they believe that lots of others will be doing it too. If a person’s peers are all going out to vote, that’s an incentive for an individual to vote as well. And last, people are more likely to act if a relevant identity of theirs is reinforced. In the case of voting, this might be their understanding of themselves as a good citizen. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fn82cNy52a4)
In fact, without realizing it, this is the kind of process that prompted me to read Miep Gies’s memoir and also Anne Frank’s diary. This same process can also help when trying to live into our deepest spiritual aspirations. In our sermon reading, you heard Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies say that he went to church because he fell below his own standards and needed to be brought back to them.
I want to tell you a bit about Davies to give you some insight into just how remarkable this statement is coming from him. Davies served our congregation, All Souls, in Washington D.C. from 1944 until his death in 1957 and stimulated growth in Unitarianism in the 1950s.
His social and political activism included being responsible for “the total racial integration of public restaurants in Washington” and “heading campaigns in post-war Washington to feed starving Europeans and deal with Washington slums.” He also “defended the right of atheists to teach” and even more than that proposed that every campus have at least one atheist on its faculty. After his death, the Washington Post, eulogized Davies as being
militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice. Convenience and convention never silenced him. . . . He was, among all the members of his calling, the most resolute and indomitable champion of righteousness as he saw it and the [unity of people].
This minister and activist with a long legacy of accomplishment said he went to church because he fell below his own standards and needed to be brought back to them. I don’t know about you, but I find that statement from him extraordinarily humble and also humbling.
Davies knew the challenge of putting principles into action, and he had the wisdom to seek support to hone his conscience and ensure that he continually returned to his own highest ideals. For him, it was the Unitarian church that provided inspiration and grounding, keeping him on track. He said the church goaded him to what he was capable of and to become his best.
Journeying together as members of a spiritual community can and does help us individually and collectively do this. To close I want to share a concrete and uplifting example with you. Just last week we took a collection for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism to advance our efforts toward being an anti-racist multicultural faith.
The UUA asked each congregation to set an intention to raise the equivalent of $10 per member toward a total goal of $5.3 million. This congregation was challenged to meet the goal, in our case to raise $1,610 to qualify us for a match. We exceeded that goal, raising just over $1,700. This was the largest special collection we have taken as a congregation.
There is momentum and strength and positive impact that comes from putting an intention like that into action. There is a sense of accomplishment and hope that comes with it, a reinforcement of what we can do together, and a positive influence in the world.
And so like A. Powell Davies, I come to church to bring myself to my best, to live into my good intentions through right, wise action, and to recommit myself to expressing my faith through good works. I am grateful to be on this journey with all of you. May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.