The Gift of Starting Over
January 7, 2018
In Time For All Ages this morning, Baboushka,
at first is caught in her thinking mind about what she has to do that day-.
In the first part of the story, she is not allowing her heart to open.
But slowly, she awakens to the reality of what is occurring around her.
A special child has been born, and she creates the intention,
a new resolution, to let go of her past, and open to a new present.
She goes in search of the special child the wise men have revealed to her.
Her intention has changed from a self-absorbed direction
to one of her intentionally helping others open
to a newness, to a holy Love for all.
And our scripture this morning is from The Gospel of Matthew.
This particular scripture we included in our Christmas eve service as well, and was read by Matt Soza .
The writer Matthew is believed by scholars today to be an unknown evangelist
living in the 80s in Syria, who was a Greek speaking Jewish Christian.
He is not believed to have been an eye witness of Jesus’s ministry.
In this scripture Matthew tells us the ancient and beloved story of the three wise men,
Travelling most likely from distant Asia, following the star of wonder.
Theirs is not a rational journey, for sure, but a spiritual one,
of seeking a newness, a spiritual wholeness, of struggling through cold and hunger,
and long distance traveling, with the threat of Herod’s possibly ending their journey.
Herod’s speech is deceptive, telling the wise men that he,
too, wants to find Jesus so that he can go and worship Him.
What strikes me as most powerful about this scripture is that
the wise men follow their own truths-
believing in the star, and in the holy child to be found in Bethlehem.
They listened to their dreams’ advice to not go back to Herod,
recognizing Herod’s wish to kill Jesus, and even possibly them.
They listen to their dreams and follow a different path out of Bethlehem,
so that Herod would never find them.
Not one of them betrayed the other to Herod.
They held together as three, true to the real import of their journey –
to find Jesus, to witness to His birth, to honor Him with their gifts,
and then to leave, to return to tell the good news of His birth to those who would listen.
Most likely they had to make huge changes in their lives
to follow their star of wonder.
Which brings me to ask, “Where is your star of wonder?”
Can you sense what is calling you forward in this new year, 2018,
calling you into the next moment, and then the next?
In the words of Dr. James, Luther Adams, UU theologian,
are you, like the wise men, able to follow what is the highest within you?
To follow our own star can create huge changes in our lives.
Changes that are perhaps as radical as what the Magi experienced.
Each of us may find ourselves on our own road to Bethlehem,
letting go of whatever is holding us back from being fully who we are.
And especially, I would add, from finding our own spiritual sources of inspiration.
Such a road to spiritual wholeness for ourselves may be as difficult as the one the Magi followed.
We may want to become more compassionate, but find it difficult to do so.
We may wish to be more loving, but find ourselves at times, at least,
pushing those who differ from ourselves away.
We may want to widen the circle of those we include in our lives,
but may find that fear or judgement impede our doing so.
It takes real courage to follow one’s own star of wonder,
To seek to be truly compassionate, to develop more gratitude,
to become more accepting and welcoming of diversity in our midst.
Jesus taught that we will be rewarded if we persist in such spiritual goals-
He said, “Knock and ye shall enter, seek and ye shall find.”
To knock, to seek, to begin the spiritual journey, and then to continue to walk the path.
So that we, too, can discover that which nourishes our spiritual selves and others.
We must have faith that we can indeed develop such spiritual qualities
and not delay the journey.
Like the three Magi, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh,
To honor the holy child, Jesus, in Bethlehem,
we can honor the gift of our lives, the preciousness of life,
and the possible choices we have, each moment that may lead to deepening our spiritual selves.
To help us on our spiritual journeys,
it is best if we can develop the quality of intention to focus us on our path.
Both Baboushka and the three wise men had the intention of following their spiritual paths.
What do I mean by intention?
Coming from the Latin word, intentionem, intention literally means a stretching out,
a stretching out of mind, of heart, of body, of spirit.
When we set an intention, we are turning our attention toward something,
or someone, or some idea, and stretching out to meet it.
Many of us have good intentions as we move into 2018.
At this time of year it is common to make New Year Resolutions.
However, keeping such resolutions is not easy to do.
Often, by the time a year ends,
fewer than 10 % of New Year’s resolutions have been met.
But ever hopeful, we humans keep on making New Year’s Resolutions.
Here are a few resolutions I found on The Boston Globe’s Fast Forward column a few days ago:
“I’m making 2018 a year of Gratitude.”
“My resolutions include donating more money to charities; donating more time to worthy causes; eating healthier; .”
“my intention is to be kind to everyone I have an issue with, or different perspectives. “
“ I want to lose four pounds, maybe five, and read Moby Dick, finally.”
“My New Year’s goal is to live 365 days until 2019.”
“I’m trying to use less plastic, Brita pitcher, and water bottle. Take cloth bags to the store. The tap water here in Virginia is terrible.”
“I resolve to work on my happy.” I will be more accepting, especially on my morning and evening commutes, where traffic communes my emotions and rips me apart inside. Accepting things I cannot change seems like a good mantra here.”
“My resolution this year is never to make any more resolutions.”
“To hug my wife at least once a day.”
And thus, we make our intentions known to start off well our New Year.
But as Nancy Schaeffer’s poem tells us,
when we intend to do something, we may end up doing something else-
like spilling milk, or waste parts of our precious lives, or damage friendships inadvertently.
And while we love black oaks, we forget, and take over their mountain side.
We cannot take back words we said that hurt another.
We forget to include the hungry at our table,
We may not attend to people suffering as much as we would like to do so.
Nancy suggests that we are imperfect in our living,
and we need the gift of starting over,
beginning again at whatever we have failed to do.
There is indeed hope here. We can start over again and again.
If we break our intention, our resolution, we can begin again
even if we break our intention in the next five minutes. We just start over.
Continuously. Until eventually, we do get closer and closer to what we intend.
Here are four possible ways we can start over when we lose our intention.
First, each of us can work on developing better self control-.
No matter who we are, we all can use a little bit more self control,
whether it is struggling to end a destructive habit that is harmful, such as an addiction,
or whether it is establishing and/or continuing our own spiritual discipline and/or practice,
or whether it is learning how to be kinder to the people we love, and so forth.
Researcher Walter Mischel did a famous experiment on self control
That is instructive here, as we explore this morning some aspects of intention.
Dr. Mischel offered one child at a time in his experiment one marshmallow,
and told each of them that they could have another,
if they waited for fifteen minutes before eating the first marshmallow.
The children who could wait -- who had more self-control-
proved later to do better academically and in life, in general.
A number of studies have shown that people who can work towards long term goals-
such as personal finances, healthful eating and exercising, and job performance,
are most likely to be successful.
What will help us have better self-control?
While will power can work at moderate levels,
solely using our will power and rational analysis can become detrimental to well being,
especially if we fail at whatever goal we intend to accomplish,
according to Dr. David DeSteno, Professor of psychology at Northeastern University.
Dr. DeSteno’s research suggests that:
“ From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that exercising willpower doesn’t come
naturally to us makes a lot of sense. For millenniums, what led to success wasn’t the ‘
ability to study for exams, save for retirement, go to the gym or wait for a second marshmallow.
For most of our evolutionary history, none of these self focused goals mattered or even existed.
It’s far more likely that what led to success was strong social bonds.”
And thus, what helps us achieve our goals best is to exercise self-control, says Dr. DeSteno, by
“keeping up our own end of a deal or helping another person by giving time, money,
food, or a shoulder to cry on, of which require a willingness to sacrifice some resources in the moment.
These are spiritual goals that we can intentionally set, if we wish for 2018!
Thus Dr. DeSteno’s research shows even better self-control can be developed
when emotional qualities such as gratitude and compassion and pride in one’s work
are linked with the intention to benefit self and others.
Secondly, another way we can start over when we lose track of our intentions
is to acknowledge that change is indeed occurring in our lives,
whether we like it or not. In starting over again,
we best realize that we are not living as we had, even in the past year,
nor even in the previous few weeks. For indeed, change is all around us.
I visited two of my adult children and their families
in California over the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
My five grandchildren are growing up in ways quite different from how I raised my four children.
The internet and all that is available to all of us today
brings the entire world much closer, indeed right into our living rooms.
Part of our starting over is to understand such changes,
and to not try to hold onto our past ways of doing things,
but to open ourselves up to newer ways of being, and to help out wherever we can.
Thirdly, when we fail to follow what we have intended,
it’s interesting to ponder how Buddhists’ think about intention.
Buddhists have a major aspect of their spiritual path called Right Intention or Skillful Intention.
Phillip Moffitt, Vipassana teacher at The Spirit Rock center in California, writes that
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.
I believe this to be true.
In starting over, I believe that all we ever have is the present moment.
In starting over, my intention is to align my inner values with my actions in the world.
And yet, I know that I will fail, again and again,
and need to start over, again and again.
Clearly, if anything that my meditation practice has taught me,
it is this truth. For example, I intend to sit well in meditation every time I begin.
and many times, I get distracted by something and have to bring myself back
to my object of focus. Over and over again, and again.
I have discovered that the more I persevere at being honest with myself,
saying something like ,”Oops, Judith, you’ve lost your object of focus.
Come back to your object of meditation” when I do so, and start over again,
the better I am at meditating in the long run.
And fourth, another way we can start over and return to our good intentions
is by learning how to change our negativity bias into positive ways of thinking.
Dr.Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher.
teaches that while we often in our lives
have been at the effect of negative experiences, (such as loses our intention, our resolution)
we can change that.
He teaches that our brains have a negativity bias.
His research shows that we are good as human beings in holding onto negative experiences.
Just think for a moment with me,
If you had five positive experiences, four neutral experiences, and one negative experience,
what will you be remembering when you get into bed at night?
Dr. Hanson believes that this is because our brains were programmed
to survive many generations ago when life was more primitive.
We needed to learn how to hold onto negative information or we might not have survived.
But we don’t live like this anymore, worrying for example,
where the creatures are living that are dangerous to our lives.
Dr. Hanson has discovered, as a neuropsychologist, a way to reprogram our brains
so that we can actually not only experience good and happy moments,
but we can learn to hold onto these positive experiences,
and have them become part of our being.
Let’s just take a moment to experience this method right now.
Think about someone who you know who cares about you.
Think of a good experience with this person. Know that this is a memory.
Hold onto that memory for about 10-20 seconds,
And then, allow that memory to move from memory into your experience right now.
Let yourself sink into that experience right now,
Allow yourself to have the experience of caring from another for a few more seconds.
Let that experience sink into you. Have it grow. Let it last.
Let it become a neural memory.
We can do this method of Dr. Hanson’s with any positive experiences
we have throughout our day.
Move from memory to experience, and then let that experience sink into oneself.
A person smiles at us. A child makes us laugh.
We receive hugs from people we love.
As we remember positive experiences such as these, we can let them sink into us.
Have the intention that we will take the time to do this method, so that
we not only have good experiences, but we can hold onto such experiences, and
build up more and more positive experiences inside us.
Dr. Hanson says that the more we are able to take in the good,
the more we are able to overcome the brain’s negativity bias.
If we set the intention to do this, over and over again,
even our actual brain structure can be changed for the better.
Inspired by Buddhist teachings, Dr. Hanson quotes the following Buddhist saying:
Do not think lightly of good –
Saying it will not come to me.
Drop by drop, the water pot is filled.
Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little,
Fills oneself with good.
And thus, intention. We can use intention to help us have better lives,
and even change the structure of our brains!.
We can start over when we fall down, picking ourselves up,
and beginning anew.
We can learn to question more kindly, think more positively, accept
and lend a hand in changing times.
We can link our intentions with our best emotions,
so that we too, like Baboushka and the Three Wise Men
follow our own spiritual truths, our own wondrous stars,
our own callings to the highest in our lives,
as we traverse our own spiritual paths and wend our ways home.
Peace and love to you.
 Order of Worship. Universalist Congregation of Minneapolis.
 Boston Globe, January 4, 2018. Fast Forward Column.
 David DeSteno. MatterGray The Only Way To Keep Your Resolutions. Sunday Review. The New York Times. January 2, 2018.
 David DeStano. Ibid.
 Phillip Moffitt. http://dharmawisdom.org/teachings/articles/hearts-intention.