© Dr. Chris Schriner 2003
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 14, 2003

As I sat down to plan the first sermon since my summer break, I asked myself once again that basic question: "Why are we here? Why is it good for us to gather as a congregation?" And one of the answers that came to mind is that Mission Peak is a place where we can enrich the quality of life, for ourselves as individuals and for the larger world. We strive to be a community of caring hearts and open minds, and to help create a caring and open-minded society. So this morning I want to talk about enriching the quality of life, stretching beyond our own limitations.

Jesus of Nazareth is quoted as saying, "In my father's house there are many mansions," and this is such a wonderful image. He's saying that God has a house, and inside of this house there are mansions - not just a few, but many of them. And there's a sense in which you and I are houses with many mansions. This idea reminds me of Snoopy's doghouse, in the Peanuts comic strip. I noticed some years back that Snoopy's canine cabin supposedly contains a great many features that wouldn't seem to fit, such as a pool table and a rumpus room. One can imagine basements and attics, and a whole elevator system in there: "Snoopy's doghouse, twelfth floor, meditation chapel and Jacuzzi."

We may not realize that our minds are like Snoopy's doghouse, far bigger on the inside than they seem on the outside. And so much of this bigness within seeming littleness is the bigness of possibility. Each of us contains many rooms we have never walked into, or that we lived in as children and abandoned long ago, rooms that are locked up, boarded up, long hallways full of dust and cobwebs. How sad to possess many mansions but only occupy a little shack.

Many people restrict themselves to only a few basic moods and attitudes. They get up and go to work full of stress, spend the workday in anxiety, and top it all off with an evening of numbness watching TV. Family therapist Virginia Satir talked about the way we limit ourselves. She believed that most people respond to life-situations with one of four different styles: placating, blaming, computing (operating entirely from their heads), or distracting:

"From what I have seen ... Fifty percent will [placate; they'll] say yes no matter what they feel or think ... 30 percent will [blame; they'll] say no, no matter what they feel or think ... 15 percent will [compute' they will] say neither yes nor no and will give no hint of their feelings ... and percent will behave [distractingly] as if yes, no, or feeling did not exist.... That leaves only 4 percent whom I can expect to be real ... My colleagues tell me I am optimistic ..." (Virginia Satir, People Making, p. 78)

Personally, I often become frozen in a statue that might be called The Thinker. I spend lots of time analyzing, concentrating, ruminating. I love thinking, up to a point, but eventually it becomes tedious. So I have discovered that I can take a vacation from living in my head by going out dancing, and the freer the dancing the better I feel. Since I hurt my leg I have to be more careful how I throw myself around, but I got out on the floor a few times this summer and I loved it. There's a great free-form dance in Palo Alto on Wednesday nights.

People who teach creative dance often speak of "expanding our movement vocabularies." Most of us are limited to a small number of movement styles - our own personal movement signature. And it's wonderful to open up to new ways of being with one's body. If you dance like this [held in], dance this way [opened out] instead. If your movements are staccato, let them flow.

Mission Peak provides programs that expand our spiritual vocabulary. You put lots of energy here into preparing Sunday services to help open people's minds and hearts. We also offer adult religious education classes, but we haven't put as much energy into that - so this is a new room into which we could expand as a spiritual community. I admit that it's difficult for a small congregation to offer a broad range of adult programs, but we are good at achieving beyond the expected level of a group this size, and we are starting to do better with adult ed. There's a mandala workshop one week from tonight, led by Jo Ann Schriner and Becky Gunn. I'll bet some of us here have decided not to attend, because we don't know what a mandala is - except that it involves drawing pictures, such as the ones displayed this morning, and that would take us away from our highly-verbal comfort zone, outside of the rooms in which we typically live our lives.

I'm the world's worst artist, but I always get something out of workshops that involve crayons or pastels. Many children just begin to discover what it's like to create images that express what's inside, and then someone tells them that they don't draw very well, and the child immediately boards up and abandons an enormous inner mansion of personal possibilities. You can unlock that mansion through the mandala workshop.

Another adult ed program begins in October: Cade Murray is going to begin a series of conversations about God. I have seen Cade's course outline and I know that those who attend this program will be exploring spiritual issues that are quite fascinating, regardless of whether you are theistic, atheistic, or agnostic.

And besides the mandala workshop and the discussions of God, on September 28th after the service we are going to meet briefly to begin revitalizing Spirit Buddies, which has had some fine results but which has even more marvelous potential.

So every person here is far bigger inside than we realize, particularly in our own untapped possibilities. We tend to freeze ourselves into just a few basic positions in responding to life, as it we were statues rather than flowing and flexible human beings. Mission Peak is a living laboratory of spiritual growth and exploration, a place where we can try out new ways of being human.

Stop for a moment to think about how all this applies to you. What moods and attitudes and behaviors do you fall into automatically? And if you could expand your own capabilities beyond these automatic attitudes and behaviors, what new capacities would you like to develop? What are some of the vacant rooms in your mansion that you'd like to move into? And I'd like to hear a little about what comes to mind when you think about these questions. Who wants to say something about that? [Discussion]

OK, thank you for those thoughts. Now if we want to start moving into those vacant rooms in Snoopy's Doghouse, we need to push ourselves and we need to nurture ourselves. There's a balance between giving ourselves a kick in the pants and giving ourselves some TLC.

My wife Jo Ann showed me a passage in her personal journal about pushing ourselves. The journal entry began, "Life Lesson #1: I can do impossible things."

"First piano lesson at age 8. I receive an impossible assignment for my next lesson, a week from now. I know it's impossible because I've never done it before. It's new, frustrating, foreign, strange, incomprehensible to me.

Every day I struggle a bit.

Second piano lesson at age 8. I proudly play everything that had been assigned to me!!!

What a life lesson that was, week after month after year at the keyboard. My love of the piano helped me learn that I could do "impossible" things if I kept at it.

Fast forward and it's 1993 and the hardest university class I've ever taken, a music theory class in counterpoint. Our professor brought us a wise saying that is taped to my desk even now: "Bean by bean the sack is filled." And he was right."

She goes on:

"I'm reminded of the theme of the AIDS ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few years ago. The word 'impossible' was written on signs all over the place, but spelled 'I'm Possible.'"

We can push ourselves by making a commitment to a goal we care about. One of my goals as a minister is to help build up this congregation, both quantitatively and qualitatively, greater numbers and greater effectiveness. I know that many of you are powerfully committed to the same goal. So how do we think about it? Impossible or I'm possible? Thursday night the Comprehensive Planning Committee proposed a Five Year Plan for Mission Peak to our Board of Trustees. The Board agreed that this plan was indeed possible to achieve, and they hope the congregation will agree when you give us your feedback about this proposal. And the way to make it possible is to make a commitment - to challenge ourselves, to take a risk.

So we need to push ourselves, with appropriate risks and challenges. But we also need to nurture ourselves, and one of the best ways of doing that is through laughter, humor, and play. I was once in a workshop at Esalen with a tai chi master named Al Huang, who suggested that the best way to start out every day is to get out of bed, throw your head back, and laugh loudly from the center of your belly.

So you could try that some time, right? Well, how about right now? Earlier you heard that to laugh is to risk appearing the fool. But would you laugh anyway? Would you take that risk now? On the count of three, try laughing loudly from your center. 1-2-3!

I should have made a bet with someone that I could get a good laugh out of this congregation without even telling a joke!

Norman Cousins and the Readers' Digest agree that laughter is the best medicine. Humor and playfulness move us back into the positive states we experienced as children when we were feeling happy. This is important to me personally because I have a great capacity for laughter but also a tendency to be very serious. I'm so task-oriented and I get so frustrated when I run into obstacles. Life starts to look grim, unless I exercise my capacity for laughter.

Another way to nurture ourselves and each other is summed up in that old cliche about the "attitude of gratitude." When I express my appreciation to you for something you've done, then we both feel better. You probably like to be complimented, and when I feel grateful I feel good. It's a great example of what psychologists call reciprocal inhibition, which just is a fancy way of saying that some attitudes block out other attitudes. It is very difficult to feel bitter and resentful at the same time one is feeling deeply appreciative.

How many of you have seen the motion picture, Babette's Feast? Most of the characters in Babette's Feast are members of a small Scandinavian religious community, and this is truly a community of statue-people. They are locked into rigid and negative ways of experiencing life and treating each other. They can find nothing better to do than to dwell upon real and imaginary wrongs from years gone by.

Babette, a French woman, lives with members of this community. She is a sort of Christ figure, because she finds a way to save these people through her own caring self-sacrifice. At considerable cost, she prepares a great feast for the members of this religious group. Her guests come to dinner determined not to enjoy it, since it's so different from their typical fare. We see them nibbling a delectable entree of quail, commenting on how little taste it has, and yet making sure they locate and consume every single morsel, their eyes bright with delight. By the end of the meal, even the sourest of them has essentially fallen in love with everyone else at the dinner table. Delicious food has seduced them into enjoying each other.

I have seen UU congregations that were somewhat like that little Scandinavian community. There are plenty of folks who make a life profession of criticizing others. I found much less of that critical attitude here than in some other churches. But being non-critical is not the same thing as being appreciative. I did not observe you nipping at each other, when I began my work as your minister, but neither did I observe much open appreciation. But so many people have done so many good things to build up this place that I guess it's become impossible not to express appreciation. We are becoming better at living gratefully, and this is a room that we could expand into further.

Although Snoopy cheerfully consumes the canned Alpo that Charlie Brown dishes out, I know that somewhere in his vast muttly mansion, Babette's feast is being served every night. There is far more nourishment and tastiness in our lives than we could possibly experience. Like the sourpusses in the movie, we may not say out loud how much we love what we're tasting, but secretly we're smacking our lips. How sad to keep it a secret, even from ourselves. We are all members of that dinner party, and we are all Babette, and we are all the feast. By learning to openly appreciate this bounty that is before us, we can escape from the rigid positions in which we have frozen ourselves like so many statues.

Mission Peak Congregation is a living laboratory of personal and social transformation. We can use our time together to explore new rooms in the many mansions of our minds, by making commitments, taking risks, laughing together, and appreciating each other when appreciation is due.

Think of this little meeting hall as a combination of Snoopy's doghouse and Babette's dinner table. If you dance with Snoopy and you dine with Babette, it's impossible to be rigid and unbending. True spirituality is a resurrection of the living, in which human statues come to life, and move and breathe and touch.

Back to Top