© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 28, 2007

Last week we talked about an impossible possibility, the idea of starting completely fresh, as if we could write the rest of our life story on a blank sheet of paper. To try what's impossible we need to use imagination. I mentioned imagining that we have just been born, or pretending we know nothing about something that is actually familiar to us, or using imagination to connect with sources of guidance such as God, a higher power, or our own inner wisdom.

Today I want to share some thoughts about starting fresh that I didn't have time for last week, and after that we'll see how candid conversations can bring new energy and aliveness into our relationships.

My first suggestion this morning is the old trick from Re-Evaluation Counseling of focusing on what's new and good. Many of us are absolutely eagle-eyed at noticing what's old and bad, so shifting to what's new and good gives us a fresh perspective. Try keeping a diary of new and good things you have experienced. Or, when you're going to sleep at night, review the new and positive things that happened that day. It's wonderful to do this with children while we're tucking them in.

Another very simple idea is to start fresh by changing our surroundings. We are shaped by our surroundings more than we may realize, so if we change what's around us, we will also change. It's nice if we can get away for a whole weekend, but just going for a walk at Lake Elizabeth will help. And we can change our environment at home in just a few minutes. Light some candles, turn off the lamp, play some music you love, and make tea. Sit down, put up your feet, and taste the tea as you drink it. Your feelings will immediately begin to change.

This year the theme of our annual Spiritual Retreat is "Building Connections." So this morning I want to mainly focus on starting fresh in relationships. Do you remember the game we played last week called "I've Never Seen That Before?" Each of us looked at some object in this room and pretended we were seeing it for the first time. And we can do the same with people. In a business meeting or at one of our committees, observe other participants as if they were new to the group. If you're a parent, watch your son or daughter on the playground, imagining that it's the first time you have seen this child.

Let's try this now through a guided fantasy. Then we'll share what we experienced, and after that we'll get back to the sermon. In the guided fantasy we will imagine meeting someone we know well, pretending that we've never laid eyes on them before. Since this is not a therapy group, do not pick someone who stirs up intense negative emotions! And don't limit yourself to grownups. You could focus on a child. Go ahead and decide who you will focus on ... and now I invite you to close your eyes or look down so you can concentrate better.

Take a few deep breaths, and begin by tuning into whatever brings out the best in you. That might be on your own deepest values. It might be your higher self, or your sense of connection to humanity. It might be a deity, thought of as God or goddess, or just a mysterious force for Good that moves through the world. Be in touch with whatever inspires you to become a better human being. And now bring to mind the person you will focus on during this fantasy. Imagine that you have never met this person before, and you are looking at him or her from a distance. What does this person look like? What is she or he doing? Gradually come closer, seeing in more detail. Notice things like clothing and physical posture - how the person's body is held, and how it moves. Come closer still to see facial expression ... and look into his or her eyes. What do you feel toward this well-known stranger?

Now take some more time to pray or meditate, either about this person or about anything you wish ... Realize that you can do this on your own, picturing another individual in your mind's eye, trying to see them afresh. Now take a few deep breaths and open your eyes when you are ready.

I'd like to hear from a few people about what you experienced. (Discussion)

Now let's turn to the idea of candid conversation as a way of restoring freshness in our relationships. I witnessed a great revolution in communication during the 1960s and '70s. Many of us learned to state our thoughts, feelings, and wishes clearly, instead of trying to influence others by vague hints. We uncovered taboo subjects, so that today it's easier to talk about personal conflicts, weaknesses, and hot-button topics like sex, death, and addictions. These changes in U.S. culture can create problems in relating to those who grew up in more traditional societies. Some traditional cultures discourage direct statements about what we want and don't want. For example, it may be considered impolite to say "no" to a request. Instead one must say something like, "I will try," and in some cultural contexts people may understand that "I'll try," in a certain tone of voice, is intended to convey, "I won't be doing that." So we need to be culturally sensitive, but if people are comfortable with direct communication it saves a lot of guesswork. I admit that we are sometimes too candid, so let's not forget to be tactful. But saying what we mean can serve as a spiritual discipline, a practical way to learn what it means to truly love one another.

Despite our increased candor, it's easy to get into a conversational rut with our friends and family, sleep-walking and sleep-talking through the same old subjects we discuss every day. So I'm going to mention half a dozen areas that we often ignore. Please listen for what you want to add to your conversational repertoire.

Let's start with the traditional taboo subjects of religion and politics. Yes, these can lead to arguments, but we shouldn't forget them completely. When was the last time you talked with someone about God, the Bible, what happens after death, or related subjects such as mystical experiences and psychic phenomena? Mission Peak is a fine place to do that, as long as we respect the very broad range of beliefs we have here. And how about sharing spiritual experiences with others? Sit and meditate with someone and then discuss what that was like. Almost every Sunday morning we offer this opportunity at 9:15.

When I suggest we talk about politics, I don't mean to have another gripe session about the scalawags in Washington. I mean we could share some creative ideas for improving the world. If we took one percent of the energy we spend worrying and complaining about social problems and channeled that into positive social action, we would become an astonishing force for change!

A third neglected conversational topic is what we are currently learning. Many Unitarian Universalists actually read. Don't just pull information in through your eyeballs and let it lie there in your brain. It'll get moldy! Share it with friends, relatives and other UUs. If somebody asks you, "What's new?" say, "I just finished a fascinating book by Sam Harris called The End of Faith," or whatever else you've been reading.

Turning now to a more personal level, we can share some of our tender spots. People are more open these days about where they are hurting, but we may still hesitate to show our vulnerabilities.

We can also invite others to share their concerns. Unfortunately, questions like "How's it going?" are part of the standard conversational ritual and are intended to keep things superficial rather than to request a real answer. So if we have time to listen, we should signal that we are open to more than an automatic non-response like, "I'm fine." We can ask about what someone shared during joys and concerns, or some other problem we are aware of. And when someone sincerely asks how you are, don't be afraid to pause before you reply. "Well, let me think about that a second." (And of course, when counselors go to psychotherapy conventions, they greet each other by saying, "You're fine, how am I?")

We could also make a fresh start about ongoing relationship issues. For example, even if you are grown up, your parents may keep trying to parent you. You're 50, they're 70, and they're still telling you how to run your life. So maybe Mom's picking at little things you do, and you're being defensive and counter-attacking. And suddenly in the back of your mind a little voice whispers, "Oh, come on! This is silly. I don't want to be hurting this person I care about. What I want to do is to hear the criticism and accept it or reject it as an adult." So you could speak openly about that. "Look, Mom, we've had this same argument a hundred times now. We could do it in our sleep. Obviously we're not getting anywhere, so how else could we handle this issue?"

So we can discuss religion and spirituality, politics, what we're learning, and where we're feeling uncomfortable, including discomfort in relationships. Do you see anything here that you want to try?

OK, here's another idea: You can remember to tell people positive things. At Mission Peak we're doing better at complimenting people and expressing appreciation for what they do for this congregation. But some of us could still do that more frequently.

We can also mention what we feel good about in ourselves, especially to let people know how we are changing. Our friends often have a fixed, oversimplified image of who we are - industrious or lazy, serious or frivolous, dependable or irresponsible. When we try to change, they may act in ways that push us back into our old rut. People offer desserts to someone they know is dieting, or push a drink at someone who's avoiding alcohol. Entering a new phase of life is easier if we share our new goals with others.

I want to end this sermon series as I began it, by praising the power of imagination. We can be so much more imaginative in relating to each other, more creative, playful, and spontaneous. If you're in a committee working on some problem, and someone makes an off-the-wall suggestion, you could chime in and say, "I like playing with different solutions even if they seem impractical. Perhaps we could do X, Y, or Z." Then maybe someone else will join the fun. And if you have children, try to preserve their natural creativity with family brainstorming sessions. Often when parents suggest brainstorming to their children, it's just a ploy. They've already decided what solution they will accept. But at least some of the time, let's sincerely listen to their suggestions.

Despite becoming somewhat more candid, I think we are still fairly primitive at understanding what life is like for others. Even with those we love the most, we may be unaware of important feelings, thoughts, hopes and fears. I'm not sure we even know the right questions to ask. But we do know how to begin. The only question is whether you are now ready to begin. Are you willing to start fresh in your relationships by focusing on religion, politics, what you're learning, or where you're uncomfortable? Will you compliment and encourage others? Or share how you are trying to change and grow? What about showing a more playful, creative spirit in your conversations? Would you try one of these approaches today? How about during coffee hour?

The Unitarian Universalist minister Kenneth Patton wrote:

We feed our eyes upon the mystery and revelation in the faces of our brothers and sisters...
We seek to understand the shyness behind arrogance, the fear behind pride, the tenderness behind clumsy strength, the anguish behind cruelty.
As this passage suggests, we are deeply mysterious to each other. May we learn to pause and wonder what it's really like to be the familiar stranger who stands before us.

To the first sermon in this series.

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