Archive for July, 2013

Together We Are More

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 19th 2013.  The first service that Sunday featured a “traditional” format based around the sermon, while the second service was “multigenerational” with the three stories told interactively as bracketed by an introduction and a reflection.)

Introduction (multigenerational service)

This morning we’re going to hear three different folk tales from around the world — one from Africa, one from India and one from Japan — as well as a song based on a saying from China.  All of them provide us with some different ways to look at what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Now all of us are part of something larger than ourselves, often more than one thing.  We’re part of our families, part of our communities, part of our society, part of the human race, part of life on this planet.  And all of us here this morning are part of this congregation — even if you’re visiting us for the first time, we welcome you into our religious community for the time that you’re here.

One of the reasons to choose to be a part of something larger than ourselves is that it allows us to do things that we cannot do by ourselves.  In the first story, we’ll meet Hare, who realizes he must ask others to help him if he’s to do what he promised Hyena; in return, Hare gives the others a couple of marvelous gifts.

Often we’re part of something larger than ourselves because there’s some bigger goal we’re trying to achieve together.  In the second story, when a fowler or bird-catcher is trying to trap some quail so that he can sell them at the market, we find out what can happen to a community when it loses sight of its own goal.

And our third story is short but makes a simple point about the importance of how we are together making all the difference.  We’ll go with a woman who wants to see both heaven and hell; the monks at the local temple show her two scenes that are exactly the same except in one particular way that turns one scene into hell and turns the other into heaven.


Anthem: “Where There Is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander


[“Hare’s Gifts”, a story from Africa, told by Kenneth Collier]

It wasn’t until I’d completed about a year’s worth of seminary classes that I realized that one of my main interests was in the subject of community.  And this wasn’t just an academic interest in building and sustaining community, I knew, but a deep, personal need to be a part of something larger.  I’ve always been a “joiner” — by which I don’t mean a carpenter who specializes in assembling woodwork but somebody who becomes a member of organizations — and where they was no organization to join, I would create one.

As a young child, for instance, I rounded up the other young children who lived on my street, starting with my sister and one of the neighbors, to form what I naïvely called a gang.  Rather than going out and getting into trouble, though, we met in a shed in my parents’ back yard and held committee meetings.  I guess I was destined for church work.

Twenty years later I was living in San Diego and had become part of an on-line community that was forming under the name of Scientific Pantheism.  I’d been attracted — in spite of the bizarre-sounding name — on the basis of a web page that asked questions such as:

“When you look at the night sky or at the images of the Hubble Space Telescope, are you filled with feelings of awe and wonder at the overwhelming beauty and power of the Universe?

“When you are in the midst of Nature, in a forest, by the sea, on a mountain peak, do you ever feel a sense of the sacred, like the feeling of being in a vast cathedral?

“Do you believe that humans should be a part of Nature, rather than set above it?”

Well, my answer to all of these questions was “yes”, just as it is for many Unitarian Universalists.  Only I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalism at the time.  Even though there were active, healthy UU congregations in the towns where I’d lived since moving to the United States, none of them offered a campus ministry that had reached me at the universities where I studied and worked, so I was left to my own devices to find religion on-line.

Of course, that wasn’t very satisfactory.  So, discovering that there were a number of other people living in Southern California who had also found that on-line group, I suggested we get together.  Apparently other people felt the same need for seeing one another, as I found that I was welcoming into my little apartment not only people from San Diego, but from Orange County, from Riverside, even from Los Angeles.  To give you an idea of the time and distance, that’s like someone coming here from Fredericksburg, only with much, much, much worse traffic, as well as immigration check-points.

We started meeting every month, for picnics and potlucks, for meditation and story-telling and drumming, to go hiking or to visit places like the San Diego Zoo or the La Brea Tar Pits.  We called ourselves the Pantheists of Southern California, and I even have one of the surviving mugs that I had made for us.  It was community at its most instinctive, its most informal, as is entirely appropriate for a small group of a dozen or fifteen people, but it met a real, human need — our need — for community.

[“The Fowler and the Quail”, a story from India, told by H. T. Francis and E. J. Thomas]

Even before I officially began here at the Fellowship, I received a message from someone who wanted to start what he was calling an “Interfaith Communion” to bring together liberal churches around issues of LGBTQ equality.  The inaugural event was to be held at Hilton Christian Church, with a potluck and a showing of a documentary about California’s Proposition 8.  A number of you here attended, and there seemed to be interest in more such events that would bring together Unitarian Universalists, Congregationalists and Reformed Jews as well as some of the more progressive Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

I suggested that it would be good for the ministers from those churches and other clergy to meet, to figure out what we might do next as well as to support one another in our own social justice efforts, and very quickly we got together and started meeting once a month.  Now after a few such meetings, the original organizer of the potluck and movie event told us about a distinguished sexuality educator he knew who’d be willing to visit Hampton Roads to do a weekend workshop for us.  We reasoned that a lot of homophobia, for instance, is rooted in ignorance about human sexuality, so anything we could do to educate people would be a step in the right direction.  We readily agreed to organize the workshop and even received a grant from the Advocacy Office of the United Church of Christ to help with costs.  Again, a number of you here attended that weekend workshop.

Not long after that, though, the group fell apart.  That’s not because we started arguing, but we did stop cooperating with one another.  Those of us who were ministers found ourselves too busy with other things.  A couple of people were ill and for some reason just about all of the Congregationalist churches in the area seemed to be having problems of their own.  We found it harder and harder to keep a regular meeting time that worked for even a few of us, and eventually the attempts to re-convene the Interfaith Communion simply ended.

[“The Difference Between Heaven and Hell”, a story from Japan, told by Elisa Pearmain]

I think that’s the difference between what I experienced with the Pantheists of Southern California and what I experienced with the Interfaith Communion: in San Diego, we figured out how to feed each other.  I’m not talking about actual food, of course — there was always plenty of that, and none of us were hindered by only being able to use three-foot-long chopsticks to pick it up.  No, I’m talking about feeding one another spiritually, something that very few people can do — or at least do for very long — all by themselves.

I’ve heard a number of ideas about the origin of the word “religion”, but the one that seems to make the most sense — at least to me, particularly as a Unitarian Universalist — is that it comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind together again”.  I don’t recommend looking it up in any dictionary, though, given that a lot of overly specific theology tends to get inappropriately included.  As I said here one sunny Sunday morning a little over three years ago, there’s a dirty little secret about religion that I learned while I was in seminary:

Religion isn’t really about belief, at least not for most people, even in main-line Christian denominations.  Rather, religion is about community.  It’s about family and friends and feeling connected with other people, being a part of something larger that gives us a sense of purpose in the world, that challenges us to be more than we are, that asks us to help make the world a better place, for our children and for one another.  It’s about feeding one another spiritually.

And here’s what happens when we do that: unlike physical food that’s consumed, when we feed one another spiritually, we end up with more, not less, and we find that we are more together than we are as a mere collection of individuals.  When we come together with our preoccupations with time and who’s responsible for what, with concern for who’s getting credit and unresolved disagreements over what we’re going to do together, it’s easy to be less.  That’s not to say that there’s never a group that’s free of such problems.  Chances are, if it’s doing worthwhile work, there’ll be different ideas about the best way to do that work.  But if the people in the group are feeding one another spiritually, those differences are a source of strength, not weakness.

As I bring this sermon to a close, let me give you an example.

The Fellowship’s Finance Committee is responsible for preparing the congregation’s annual budget.  Though the budget is actually approved by voting members at the annual meeting, as will happen following services today, the budget obviously needs to be developed before that.  That’s not something that happens in a vacuum, though.  For one thing, we can’t assume infinite pledges.  Much as our Canvass Chair cooked up all sorts of creative ways we could raise more money — though I’m not sure how fracking in the Sanctuary’s back yard was ever going to work — we can only work with the pledge commitments we actually receive, modestly supplemented by reasonable estimates of income from fund-raising events and things like the re-sale of the books that many of you donate.

On the other side of the balance sheet, we have a lot of known expenses.  Much as we might plead with them, Dominion will not keep the lights on or the air-conditioners running unless we pay our bill from them each month.  We are similarly committed to pay back our own members who bought bonds to help us pay off the mortgage on the office building.  Then there are the congregational goals and priorities for which the Policy Board is ultimately responsible, from being a “Fair Share” supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Association so that it can continue to offer programs that are of benefit to us, to ensuring that our own dedicated staff are at least better compensated than if they were employees at Walmart.  Finally, there are common-sense requirements, including that the budget should be balanced.

Now all of that can seem like a pretty tall order.  As anyone who has been a part of it can tell you, it takes many meetings, poring over spreadsheets, looking at past budgets, calculating and re-calculating estimates of this year’s actuals, moving numbers around to try to make it all work.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  In that ideal universe with infinite pledges — or, perhaps, an enormous and somehow completely non-polluting source of crude in our own back yard — it’d be easy.  In the real world, it’s not.  What’s more, it may not even be possible to satisfy all of the requirements at the same time.

But here’s the thing.  When the members of the committee are there not just to do the job, but to be in community with one another while doing that job, not just to complete a far from easy task, but to help one another bring their best selves to that task, then they are not just a committee, but are also a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

So may it be.


Reflection (multigenerational service)

So heaven and hell turned out to be pretty much the same, except in heaven the people were helping one another and in hell they forgot that they could do that.  It seems like a small thing, but even the simple ways in which we work together can make a big difference in the end.  Sometimes we think that helping one another makes things too complicated, that asking for help from somebody else is being a bother to them, that we should be able to do everything ourselves, but we can only be part of something larger than ourselves if we’re willing to help one another, and be helped, too.

Now in the story from India, do you think the quail ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in hell, too.  And really, it was a hell of their own making.  They forgot that they needed to work together, and their own quarrels with one another became more important to them than the larger goal of saving all of the quail from the fowler’s net.  Okay, perhaps there were some quail who were sometimes working harder, either because they were naturally stronger or because they happened to be in just the right place to do more.  But those quail wouldn’t always be as strong and they wouldn’t always be in a good place, and the time would come when they wouldn’t be able to do as much to help with the net, so really they should have counted their blessings rather than complain.  Perhaps then the fowler wouldn’t have been able to trap them.

And in the story from Africa, do you think Hare and the others ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in heaven, too.  Even Hyena, once he’d realized that Hare had done what he promised fair and square, probably had a good time at the feast and enjoyed the music as much as everyone else.  Maybe, when it was time for him to rebuild his hut, he moved into the village along with everyone else, too.  That’s not to say that nobody in the village ever disagreed with one another or got into arguments.  But keeping in mind the promise of the village — that it really is good to live together, sharing, helping and knowing each other — they’d find ways to resolve their disagreements and settle their arguments so that they could continue to enjoy that heavenly promise.

So the next time you find yourself part of a group of people with a particular job to do, think about how you can be in community with one another while doing that job.  Suppose you’re part of a class project or a team with some task to complete, try to find ways to help one another bring your best selves to that project or task.  Like the people at the feast in the temple, it’s important to be there not just as a group of individual people, but as a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

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Harry Potter and the Standardized Test

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 7th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

During the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, the Ministry of Magic tries to take over the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.  Some of this is driven by the supporters of the evil Lord Voldemort who work at the Ministry of Magic; they create a smear campaign to discredit Harry, who personally witnessed Voldemort’s rebirth, as well as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Some of it is driven by the personal paranoia of the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who refuses to believe that Voldemort is back and is instead convinced that Dumbledore is raising a secret army to make himself the new Minister of Magic.

The agent of interference at Hogwarts is Fudge’s Senior Undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge, whose pinkly saccharine manner belies a cruel and vindictive soul.  At first she is on the staff as a teacher, but then becomes acting headmaster when Dumbledore is removed.  Through an ever-growing number of Educational Decrees issued by the Ministry of Magic, which are framed and hung on the wall outside the Great Hall, Umbridge imposes her draconian rule over the students, the teachers and all other aspects of school life.

In the end, though, it is the students themselves who fight back, with Harry secretly training the others in the defensive spells that Umbridge refuses to teach them, and the Weasley twins Fred and George generating mayhem where appropriate.

In this scene from the movie, things come to a head during an “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exam that Harry and the other fifth-years are taking under Umbridge’s watchful eye.

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Standardized Test”

Some of you may not know this, but I actually went to school at Hogwarts.

Oh, I don’t literally mean the magical castle with its animated paintings, fantastic creatures, shifting staircases and energetic ghosts.  But from the age of seven until I was eighteen I did attend British boarding schools, with big halls where we ate our meals and took our exams, dormitories where we slept, and even houses into which we were sorted, though instead of being named Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, they had names such as Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans.  Such schools were, of course, the basis for J. K. Rowling’s creation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which in a 2008 survey was, in spite of its fictional status, voted one of the best schools in Scotland.

And, of course, the British educational system generally was part of Rowling’s inspiration.  When I was in school we had two sets of nationwide exams that students took at the ages of sixteen and eighteen respectively.  At sixteen we all took the Ordinary or O-Levels in just about every school subject, which Rowling turned into the “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exams.  How each of us did in those determined which three or perhaps four subjects we might study for the next couple of years before taking the Advanced or A-Levels at eighteen, to which Rowling’s equivalents are the “Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests” or NEWT exams.

Now when I was working my way through the O- and A-Level system, there were, of course, other end-of-year exams, designed within the school, to test us on what we were supposed to have learned during the course of each school year.

Few of those exams, I should note, involved questions with multiple-choice answers.  Other than the occasional essay question, most questions required long answers, where we students were expected to provide not only an answer but to demonstrate the reasoning that went into figuring out that answer.  In fact, it was possible to get partial credit even for an incorrect answer, if some of the reasoning that went into it was still valid; on some exam questions the reverse might even be true, that a correct answer all by itself with no demonstration of how it was obtained would not receive full credit.

In college, too, there were similar exams, the final results of which were considered in regard to admission to graduate programs in the UK and by many potential employers, too.  But when I started down the path of applying to graduate schools in the US, I was told that I needed to take the Graduate Record Exam or GRE as part of the admission process.  The GRE, I discovered, was nothing but multiple-choice, with the answers marked by filling in these little circles on a computer-readable form using a number-two pencil.  Oh, and I’m guessing that part of the pretty high fee we had to pay to take the GRE went toward shipping those number-two pencils from the US because that’s not how pencils are categorized in the UK.

Now fifteen years after I went down to London one very cold October morning to take the GREs, I found myself teaching other college graduates how to prepare for the exams.

I worked for one of the big test preparation companies, which the legally binding agreement I signed to get that job prevents me from mentioning, and during my time with them I helped people prepare for a number of the standardized tests that are used to help determine admission to higher education in the US.  I got to revisit a lot of grade-school math and English, though I was disappointed to discover that essays had replaced the abstract reasoning section that had been part of the GRE when I had taken it.  More than that, though, I felt like I had become part of a privileged inner circle that had been given the secrets to unlocking these standardized tests.  And I guess that’s part of the reason why people who can afford to do so — or whose parents can afford to do so — pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to take such test preparation courses and why the content of them is proprietary.

Now that’s not to say that being comfortable with arithmetic, algebra and geometry and having a good vocabulary and a good grasp of grammar aren’t important in these exams.  They certainly are.  But for most of the multiple-choice questions created for such standardized tests, being proficiently literate and numerate is very nearly besides the point.

For instance, knowing how to do long-division is actually a handicap on questions that look like they need long-division to answer.  Now I learned how to do long-division when I was eight, and I was so proud after the class where our teacher taught it to us, that I went back to my teacher from the previous year and showed her.  (Obviously she didn’t already know how or she’d have taught it to us herself.)  I remember whole sets of questions we were given for homework that involved doing long-division, as well as a more general emphasis in all of my school science classes that precision was something to be valued.  I don’t remember ever being taught with equivalent dedication about how it’s sometimes okay to estimate the answers to some long-division problems as opposed to calculating them, that in some circumstances estimation provides an answer that is good enough in its imprecision — or, as an old colleague of mine used to say, “close enough for government work” — but will at least do so faster.

So one example of a standardized test question is to find the answer to some horrible-looking division problem, like 2,393 over 607.  (I don’t use math to illustrate my sermons too often, and I hope this doesn’t induce any traumatic flashbacks in anyone!)  Now this problem is specifically designed for the student who knows how to estimate: that student quickly rounds the top up and rounds the bottom down and concludes that the correct answer is a little less than four, which of course matches just one of the possible answers on the test.  The student who knows how to do long-division, on the other hand, ends up with a more precise answer of 3.94…, which of course also matches just one of the multiple-choice answers, but they spent so long doing the long-division that they’re now four questions behind the student who estimated.  There’s also a bigger chance of making a mistake in calculating than in estimating.

So what is such a question actually testing?

In most situations in real life where long-division is actually needed, chances are it won’t lend itself nicely to estimation.  Remember that a problem like this is intentionally designed to benefit the student who knows how to estimate.  It’s an artificial problem in another way, too. Real life problems do not come with a pre-determined set of possible answers, one of which is guaranteed to be correct.  So the question is not testing the student’s ability to solve such a problem in anything like a realistic situation.

In these and all other such questions where there are tricks and tools for taking shortcuts to the correct answers, and even for improving your odds of simply guessing if that’s all you can do, the questions aren’t really testing students on what they appear, at first, to be about.  Most of the questions, in fact, are testing how well the students have learned to use the tools and the tricks, which means that what standardized tests are really testing is how good the students are at taking standardized tests.

Now I maintain that it is important for schools to assess students on what they’re learning, and when students from all over the country, even all over the world, need to be evaluated on as level a playing field as possible, it’s clear that tests that influence college admission decisions, for example, need to be standardized.  But let’s not kid ourselves that what standardized tests are really testing is anything other than the ability to do standardized tests.

And as a tool for evaluating teachers, when there are so many other factors at play such as the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students, the amount of support and encouragement that they’re getting from their families, standardized tests simply do not yield the accountability that was promised of them.  It’s not surprising that people have taken to referring to “No Child Left Behind” by other names such as “No Teacher Left Unshamed”.

All too many public school teachers find themselves “teaching to the test”, because that’s what matters most when it comes to their continued employment as teachers or even when it comes to the continued existence of their school.  Some school districts report that their teachers spend as much as forty-five days, in other words a quarter of the school year, in preparing and administering tests, even at the same time that the curriculum is dumbed down to be more suitable for standardized testing, sending higher level reasoning and critical thinking into the trash can right along with art and music.

Now in spite of the fact that there is no evidence of success when it comes to either student improvement or teacher accountability, the US relies upon standardized testing far more than any other economically developed nation.

The Texas program that was the prototype for “No Child Left Behind”, for instance, only appeared to be successful at the time because districts were fudging their numbers, such as by under-reporting dropout rates.  What’s more, reducing both students to test scores and teachers to test score producers gives the students incentives to cheat and gives the schools incentives to dump hard-to-teach students.  The culture of testing, in fact, enables what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”, where once again students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families are disproportionately impacted.

So the fact that Virginia’s testing regime is known by the initials S.O.L. is little more than a cruel irony.

Now I could continue by talking about how much standardized testing costs school districts, which now pay over a billion dollars a year to for-profit companies for the creation and administration of tests.  I could talk about how such tests fail to be teaching tools because they provide no evaluative feedback that closes the didactic loop in order to reinforce the original learning and guide continued improvement.  I could talk about how, with my daughter’s first birthday less than two weeks away, I’m conflicted about sending her, as and when, to public schools, given the culture of testing, and yet I believe supporting public education is the most important way we can resist the systematic destruction of the middle class that’s been taking place during the last two decades.

But I want to change gears and talk about how we, as Unitarian Universalists, do children’s religious education.  Aside from the fact that, right now, we’re doing a Summer RE program specifically based on the content of the Harry Potter stories, how we do RE may have more in common with J. K. Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts than with what goes on in public schools, even if that’s the parallel we tend to draw.

For all that we’ve embedded what we do for children in the larger process that has been named “life-span faith development”, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we do may be better termed religious exploration.  But there’s one aspect of the word “education” that still holds value, if only we can remember to hang onto it, and that’s because it comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to draw forth”.

While secular education consists, at least in theory, of the imparting of the facts and skills deemed necessary for life in today’s world, religious education is a drawing forth of one’s inner being, building upon personal and shared experiences to grow a soul that is capable of shining life into today’s world.  It is, as poet William Butler Yeats noted, “not the filling of a [bucket], but the lighting of a fire.”  Or in the words of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, “The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.”

It’s certainly important for religious education to include some didactic components — drawn, for example, from Unitarian Universalist history and theology as well as from the wisdom of the other faith traditions of the world — but they serve to support faith development in its largest sense, namely the formation of Unitarian Universalist identity at its best.  So within our Sunday school classes, we aim to give our children a basic understanding and appreciation of many different forms of spirituality and many different ways of approaching life, encouraging in them a respect for religious difference in general and for their own religious heritage in particular.

Religious education also needs to take place in age-appropriate ways and should take into account different learning styles.  I projected that long-division problem on the screen, for instance, because most of us are visual rather than auditory learners.  As Confucius is reputed to have said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember.”

Of course, Confucius completed that saying with “I do and I understand.”  We can’t just teach UU theory: we must teach UU practices, too.  Thus religious education extends beyond the congregation itself to the family setting as well.

I was actually stunned a few years ago when I realized that Sunday school alone only represents about forty hours of religious education each year.  That’s the equivalent of just one regular work week — fewer hours than were part of last week’s GoldMine youth leadership school — and yet we somehow think that that’s enough to teach our children about our faith and to help them grow up to be the sorts of adults we can only wish we were.  So no, the religious education of children and youth that takes place on Sunday morning should serve to support and enhance the religious education that they are receiving at home, rather than the other way around.  Parents are thus the primary religious educators of their own children and the congregation should provide them with the tools necessary to responsibly and successfully take on this role.  And, frankly, secular education should be viewed more like that, too.

Now I want to note that DRE Joanne does include activities for her RE classes that allow the lessons to be taken home and continued.  I’m pleased to know that many of you who are parents of children in RE here have used those activities at home and have given Joanne positive feedback on them.

A lot of how we do religious education ultimately comes back to the nature of Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition.  While most religions have a basis in creed, which is a particular statement of belief, Unitarian Universalism inherits from its religious forbears a basis in covenant, which is a particular standard of behavior.  As generally interpreted for the purposes of religious education, this means that the way of approaching belief is more important than the content of belief. In other words, while we have a vision of ourselves as a community that “offer[s] a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education”, we nevertheless strive to place the pursuit of truth within a context of respect, kindness, responsibility and fairness.  As Universalist minister and educator Angus MacLean put it, “The method is the message.”

Weirdly enough, that’s actually one of the philosophies of standardized test preparation.  One of the things we teachers tried to get our students to remember was that it wasn’t the content of the example problems we worked through with them that mattered.  Rather, it was the tricks and tools we used for tackling the problems that we wanted them to remember.  Any specific problem, after all, would probably never come up in a test in that exact way, so it was the general means of solving the problem that needed to be remembered.  We assumed that higher level of reasoning as part of preparing for test questions that didn’t require it!

And in the Harry Potter stories, what matters to Harry and Hermione and Ron throughout their seven years of battling Voldemort and his minions isn’t really the specifics of the spells and the potions that they learned at Hogwarts, though they certainly help.  What made a difference definitely wasn’t the narrow curriculum approved by the Ministry of Magic.  What did make a difference to them were the resources for courage and hope that they found within themselves and within one another, and the love that made them and their friends stronger together than they would have been alone.

And in the religious education we do here, what matters isn’t whether we know all the details of Unitarian Universalist history or can recite by rote the words of all Seven Principles and all Six Sources.  What matters are things that can’t possibly be evaluated by multiple-choice problems: that we bring a willing spirit; that we offer one another an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand; and that we engage together in this religious exploration by building upon our personal and shared experiences and dreams so that each of us may grow a soul that will shine life abundant into the world.

May it be so.

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Reply from Representative Scott

(This is in reply to a Letter to My Representatives in Congress.)

Dear Rev. Millard:

Thank you for contacting me to express your concern regarding the effects of the automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the furloughs that are now taking place due to this law.  I appreciate you apprising me of your views on this issue.  As you may know, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) was signed into law on August 2, 2011.  In addition to including a mechanism to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, the BCA set annual caps on discretionary spending over the next decade, producing approximately $1 trillion in savings, and established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (commonly referred to as the “Super Committee”) tasked with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.  If the Super Committee failed to submit a plan by November 2011, then automatic across-the-board spending cuts, totaling approximately $1.2 trillion over the next decade, would be implemented through a process known as “sequestration” beginning January 2, 2013.  The Super Committee ultimately failed to submit a plan which triggered the sequestration process, unless Congress canceled or delayed the sequester.

On January 1, 2013, Congress passed H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act, also known as the “Fiscal Cliff Deal”, which extended tax cuts at a cost of $3.9 trillion, while regrettably only delaying sequestration until March 1, 2013.  Unfortunately Congress has not taken any further action to delay or cancel sequestration, and, as a result, these across-the-board spending cuts are now being implemented.  With few exceptions, sequestration impacts the budget of every federal department, agency and program, including the Department of Defense, NASA, job training programs, Head Start, the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  In order to implement the budget cuts, these federal entities essentially must either fire 10% of their workers or pay their workers 10% less through unpaid furloughs.  This obviously will severely disrupt the important work they do on behalf of the nation.

I voted against the Budget Control Act because I was concerned about the impact spending cuts of this magnitude would have on the nation.  I also voted against the American Taxpayer Relief Act because it both added $3.9 trillion to the deficit over the next decade by extending tax cuts and at the same time failed to address any of the $1.2 trillion sequester.  It is unfortunate that Congress placed a higher priority on extending tax cuts than on canceling the sequester.  Now the nation and the federal workforce are suffering because of this misplaced priority.  Unfortunately, this predicament was predictable, because Congress has repeatedly focused on extending costly tax cuts without addressing the federal budget as a whole.  I remain committed to urging my colleagues to revisit these ill advised policies, so that we can responsibly reduce our budget deficit without cutting investments in our nation’s future or dismantling the social safety net.  You can find my statement on the American Taxpayer Relief Act as well as additional statements and press releases on the federal budget by visiting my website,

Please be assured that I will keep your views in mind as this issue comes before me.  Please feel free to contact me in the future on other issues which may be of concern to you.

Very truly yours,
Robert C. “Bobby” Scott
Member of Congress

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That Transcending Mystery and Wonder

UUFP Changing the World

I remember being on Star Island about ten years ago and noticing that everyone was reading what seemed to be the same book.  Everywhere I went I saw them — on the sofas in the lounge, in rocking chairs on the porch, even at the tables in the dining hall — adults as well as youth and children, all of them lost in their reading.  Sitting next to one of them, I waited until a suitable moment and asked what he was reading; eyes aglow with the light of imagination, he responded with just two words: “Harry Potter.”

Well, I had already heard of J. K. Rowling’s novels about the famous boy wizard, of course.  With each subsequent volume, their popularity grew even more, and Rowling was rapidly becoming one of the best-selling British authors.  Her own rags-to-riches story added to the mystique, and there were rumors about the…

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