Archive for August, 2013

The Spirituality of “Powers of Ten”


For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers;
The heron and the otter are my friends;
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.
— from “Colors of the Wind”, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

As a young child, I used to come home from school and watch the television programs that the BBC put together specifically for school-age children.  There’d be a couple of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but also in the mix were programs about art and creative projects, or solving puzzles, or making a difference by helping other people.  There was even a ten-minute news show, talking about current events in a positive and child-friendly way.

While I don’t remember many specifics of the programs I watched, there’s one I remember very clearly.  It was a short movie that, starting…

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Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 16th 2013.  A portion from the end of it was published as one of my columns in the Daily Press.)

Reading: “For Those Thinking of Having Children”

Our reading is one of those things that gets e-mailed from one person to another, or posted by one person to another on Facebook, until it’s not clear where it came from or who originally wrote it.  I imagine that it’s most often sent by those who are already parents to those who are not yet parents, usually with a knowing comment such as “You’ll find out this is 100% true!”

Here, then, are ten lessons for those thinking of having children.

Lesson One: Household Finances

Go to the grocery store.  Arrange to have your salary paid directly to their head office.  Go home.  Pick up the paper.  Read it for the last time.

Lesson Two: Giving (and Receiving) Advice

Find a couple who already are parents and berate them about their methods of discipline, their lack of patience, their appallingly low tolerance levels and the fact that they allow their children to run wild.  Suggest ways in which they might improve their child’s breastfeeding, sleep habits, toilet training, table manners, and overall behavior.  Enjoy it because it will be the last time in your life you will have all the answers.

Lesson Three: Night-time Schedules

Get home from work and immediately begin walking around the living room from 5pm to 10pm carrying a wet bag weighing approximately eight to twelve pounds and with a radio turned to static (or some other obnoxious sound) playing loudly.  Eat cold food with one hand for dinner.  At 10pm, put the bag gently down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep.  Get up at twelve and walk around the living room again, with the bag, until 1am.  Set the alarm for 3am.  Since you can’t get back to sleep, get up at 2am, make a drink and watch an infomercial.  Go to bed at 2:45am.  Get up at 3am when the alarm goes off.  Sing songs quietly in the dark until 4am.  Get up.  Make breakfast.  Get ready for work and go to work — work hard and be productive!  Repeat these steps each night for three to five years.  Look cheerful and together.

Lesson Four: Child-Oriented Redecorating

Smear peanut butter onto the sofa and jam onto the curtains.  Hide a piece of raw chicken behind the stereo and leave it there all Summer.  Stick your fingers in the flower bed, then rub them on the clean walls.  Take your favorite book, photo album, etc., and wreck it.  Spill milk on your new pillows and cover the stains with crayons.

Lesson Five: Dressing a Small Child

Buy an octopus and a small bag made out of loose mesh.  Attempt to put the octopus into the bag so that none of the arms hang out.  Time allowed for this: all morning.

IMAG0587Lesson Six: Feeding a Small Child

Hollow out a melon and make a small hole in the side.  Suspend it from the ceiling and set it swinging.  Now get a bowl of soggy Cheerios and attempt to spoon them into the swaying melon by pretending that the spoon is an airplane.  Continue until half the Cheerios are gone.  Tip most of what’s left into your lap.  The rest, just throw into the air.

Lesson Seven: Auditory Resilience

Make a recording of Fran Drescher saying “mommy” repeatedly.  It is important to have no more than a four-second delay between each “mommy”.  An occasional crescendo to the level of a supersonic jet is required.  Play this in your car everywhere you go for the next four years.

Lesson Eight: Adult Conversations

Start talking to an adult of your choice.  Have someone else continually tug on your clothing while playing the “mommy” recording from the previous lesson.

Lesson Nine: Vehicle Maintenance

Buy a chocolate ice cream cone and put it in your car’s glove compartment.  Leave it there.  Get a dime and stick it in the CD player.  Take a family size package of chocolate cookies and mash them into the back seat.  Sprinkle Cheerios all over the floor, then smash them with your foot.  Run a garden rake along both sides of the car.

IMAG0378Lesson Ten: Grocery Shopping

Go to the local supermarket.  Take with you the closest thing you can find to a pre-school child — a full-grown goat is an excellent choice.  (If you intend to have more than one child, then definitely take more than one goat.)  Buy your week’s groceries without letting the goat out of your sight.  Pay for everything the goat eats or destroys.

Sermon: “Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me”

Today is my first Father’s Day.  A couple of years ago I had no idea I’d now be a father — it’s amazing how much life can change in just two years!  And they’ve been two years that have somehow gone by very quickly, too.

I am loving it, of course.  For all that I feel exhausted almost all the time, for all that I don’t get to read the newspaper anymore or that dressing Olivia really is like wrestling an octopus into a mesh bag or that our living room is now wall-to-wall toys — or that I sometimes find myself humming the obnoxious tunes that said toys play over and over again — I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lots of people, of course, have been giving us advice of varying degrees of helpfulness.  Many of the more dire predictions concern what our lives will be like when Olivia’s a teenager, but Allison and I keep reminding ourselves that we still have another decade or so of relative sanity ahead of us.

Life, of course, is famous for failing to come with an instruction manual, and the chapter that’s the most missing is undoubtedly the one on parenting.  Oh, there are experts and classes, of course.  Allison and I dutifully attended the series of childbirth classes offered by Mary Immaculate, learning about the stages of labor, techniques for relaxation, the importance of breathing, and so on.  As it happened none of that helped, because at twenty-five weeks Olivia apparently decided she was going to sit upright for the rest of the pregnancy and was eventually delivered by scheduled Caesarian section.  Since Olivia’s head was measured in the ninety-ninth percentile, though, that was the only way she was going to come out.

Now there are some helpful resources on parenting.  For instance, I was recommended a book by pediatrician Harvey Karp called The Happiest Baby on the Block, which explains the consequences of the fact that there really ought to be a fourth trimester of pregnancy.  For those women who’ve had children and just broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of there having been a fourth trimester, I apologize!  Dr. Karp argues that there’s so much developing that newborns do during their first three months that it’s like a fourth trimester, only it takes place outside the womb.

For instance, Olivia had a mild case of hip dysplasia when she was born, given that she hit the trifecta of being Allison’s first child, being a girl, and being in the breech position for the last fifteen weeks before birth.  Thankfully it was only mild, so keeping her in two diapers and swaddling her tightly at night for the first couple of months was enough for her hip joint to finishing developing correctly.

And we saw with our own eyes how much Olivia changed outwardly during the three months after birth, too, not just growing in size but transforming from primarily reflex-driven behaviors to an emerging consciousness with more awareness and control of herself and her surroundings.  It was actually amazing to me, during those early weeks of not enough sleep and irregular meals, that it was possible to calm Olivia and get her to sleep by following Dr. Karp’s advice in regard to those newborn reflexes, particularly in terms of what Karp calls the five “S”s.

After all, before being born, the baby pretty much fills the uterus.  Being out in the open where, as one parenting blog put it, the arms and legs are free to flail around “like an octopus on meth”, well, that can be scary.  So the first “S” is swaddling.  While that helped fix her hip dysplasia, as I said, it was a struggle to maintain it as Olivia grew.  That’s because she’s on the long side and the swaddle wraps that are made with the Velcro and so on are apparently designed for babies who are shaped like miniature sumo wrestlers.  Thankfully tucking her into her cradle had much the same effect.

Another “S” is shushing, or really any white noise, that mimics the sounds made by the blood flow and other bodily functions going on around the uterus.  And the shushing can be loud.  You can apparently get an idea of what it sounds like to be in the womb by filling your bath-tub with water, turning on the taps full blast and then sticking your head under the water.  After being born, then, a baby’s world is too cold, too bright and way too quiet.  One night, when Olivia just wouldn’t settle down and go to sleep, I moved her cradle into the kitchen and started the dishwasher running.  Now we don’t have a quiet dishwasher, but that was good, because to Olivia the racket it makes was apparently the sweetest lullaby.

Then there’s the “S” of swinging, which is mimicking the rocking motion that is felt in the womb when the mother is moving around.  We had this swinging cradle for Olivia that was a life-saver for us.  We tried a few times in those first few months to transition her to her crib, but she wouldn’t sleep, even when the swaddling didn’t fall off her.  So when the motor on the swing broke, we despaired of ever sleeping again.  I think Allison actually cried.  Thankfully we survived long enough to get the replacement motor that Fisher-Price sent us, and, once it was installed and the swing was working again, there was much rejoicing.

There are, though, a number of things I’ve noticed or wondered about, some from when Allison was pregnant and many from since Olivia was born.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, being a parent and playing with Olivia and reading to her and so on means that, in a way, I’ve been doing some teaching at home, but I know I’ve learned a lot more from her than she’s learned from me.

Here, for instance, is something my baby daughter taught me even before she was born, as we were getting ready for her arrival.  There it is, in fact: we use some weird euphemisms, like “arrival”, to talk about birth.  It makes it sound like we expect babies to show up on a baggage claim carousel at the airport.  Or we talk about a child “coming into this world”.  That would imply that the womb is in another dimension, outside the Universe, and the birth canal is some sort of hyperspace portal.  When all of us so readily use bizarre language like that in everyday conversation, I guess it’s not surprising that politicians keep creating bizarre legislation to control women’s bodies.  Maybe they think trans-dimensional aliens might use women’s “hyperspace portals” to invade the Earth otherwise.

484106Then there’s something Allison had told me about, having had more recent baby experience than me with all of the younger cousins on her side of the family, but I don’t think I believed her until I saw it with my own eyes.  And that’s what Allison calls “gas face”.  Yes, apparently babies, a month or two old, will smile, quite serenely, while passing gas.  Now when she was older Olivia would smile when she saw us — and I have to tell you, nothing else has ever made me feel as good as peeking my head around the door of her bedroom in the morning and seeing her, when she sees me, breaking into a big smile — and then, when she was a little older than that, she started smiling when she saw the cats.  Apparently it took her a while to figure out that cats are not just mobile furniture.  But before any of that, there was “gas face”, so I have to wonder what that implies for actual smiles.  Perhaps there’s something back in our hominid evolution where smiling meant “I’m so happy to see you that it feels as good as when I pass gas.”

Here’s another thing my baby daughter taught me.  It’s very hard to spoon-feed someone, particularly if they’re reluctant to open their mouth, without opening your own mouth.  This need not be a conscious attempt to invoke mimicry, either.  My mother-in-law pointed it out, in fact, back in the early weeks of feeding Olivia puréed vegetables, that both Allison and I were opening our own mouths each and every time we offered her a spoonful of food.

Then there’s the fact that while babies certainly do learn by mimicry, they seem to learn an awful lot by figuring things out by themselves or by doing them instinctively.

For instance, we quickly realized how much of a difference it made to Olivia being able to fall asleep if she had a pacifier in her mouth.  (Dr. Karp’s fifth “S” for calming babies stands for sucking, either a pacifier or a thumb.)  But often, being on the verge of falling asleep, her mouth would relax and the pacifier would fall out, at which she’d quickly wake back up, meaning we’d have to restart the whole process over again.  Soon after being born she only managed to get her thumb in her mouth by accident, and when another random arm movement took her thumb back out of her mouth, she’d actually get upset, as if someone else had played a trick on her.  When she was a few months older, she did figure out how to get her fingers in her mouth, at which point she spent a lot of time with her face, her bib and her clothes saturated with drool.  I’m glad we have a high-efficiency, front-loading washing machine!  Finally, thanks to a pacifier that she discovered let her put her thumb inside it while it was in her mouth, she figured it out.  That was a glorious day!  We can’t claim credit for any of that, of course; we’d just seen that brand of pacifier mentioned on a parenting blog.  But once Olivia knew how to suck her thumb, she could help herself go to sleep, or go back to sleep if she woke up during the night.  Someday, of course, we’re going to have to wean her off her thumb, or else be prepared to pay a lot of orthodontist’s bills when she’s older.

Then there’s a more recent example of this that continues to stun me.  One day, playing with Olivia and in something of a silly mood, I made a burbling sound by moving my finger across my lips.  Well, she copied me!  Allison did it, too, and Olivia copied her as well!  Mostly she just made the same sound, while moving her hand across her mouth, though since then she’s refined her technique and she does actually swipe her thumb across her lips.  That’s not what stunned me.  What stunned me was when she started clicking her tongue.  She figured out how to do that all by herself.  And doing it first, she got us to copy her by doing it, too.  I’m still amazed at that.

Something else my baby daughter taught me is that there’s no such thing as average.

Oh, there are common developmental milestones that typically happen in certain windows of age after birth, but even the best pediatrician can only make general predictions.  Allison and I had heard a pretty widespread opinion, for instance, that when babies start making pre-verbal sounds, “də də də” comes before “mə mə mə”.  Well, Olivia’s been making “mə” sounds for ages.  I don’t think she’s ever connected it with a way of calling or referring to Allison, and she’s never said anything that sounds like “mama”, and for that matter there were occasional periods of a week or two where she’d stop saying “mə mə mə” and instead every sound would be screeched as by an angry pterodactyl.  Then she discovered “bə” sounds.  Allison and I agree that the first actual word Olivia spoke is “baby”.  We have a video of her, crawling through the grass in my mother-in-law’s back-yard, clearly saying “baby” to herself, over and over again.  That was probably because, during our visit to her that week, my mother-in-law kept using the word “baby” whenever she saw Olivia — or, for that matter, whenever she saw the puppy they’d just brought home.  I’m pleased to report, though, that just in the last couple of weeks, Olivia has started making “də” sounds.  Perhaps she knew that Father’s Day was coming.

There’s much more that I could talk about this morning, and I know there will always be more I learn with every passing week and month and year.  I’ll end, though, with something that seems particularly appropriate for inclusion in a sermon, for consideration by a religious community, and that’s what my baby daughter has taught me about morality.

Morality, after all, is something that is of concern to every religion.  Every religion ought to help its adherents distinguish between good behavior that is to be encouraged and bad behavior that is to be discouraged.  Religions that have a holy book or a great leader have a relatively easy time of identifying their moral center, in that it’s whatever the book or the leader says it is.  There’s still the problem of interpretation, which keeps the priests and the scribes employed for generations, but in principle it’s straightforward.

Unitarian Universalism has neither a holy book nor a great leader, though.  Rather, every book can be holy, if holiness can be found amongst its words.  And every person can be someone who inspires, supports, guides, comforts and counsels others, given aptitude and/or training.  So, on the basis of how other religions do it, it’s not uncommon to hear expressed doubts about the moral center of Unitarian Universalism when it’s not given to us by some specially designated source.

IMAG0270Well, our own Unitarian Universalist versions of priests and scribes have been hard at work on this for a long time, usually constructing elaborate systems involving evolutionary biology and categorical imperatives and other complex psycho-social theories.  But my almost-eleven-month-old has convinced me that it may well be a whole lot simpler than that.

After all, when Olivia eats her food without dribbling it down her face and over her clothes, when she lets go of the cell ‘phone charger wire and stops trying to chew on the little plug on the end, when she lies still on the changing pad and lets me not only put a clean diaper on her but, more importantly, dispose of the old one without any of its contents escaping, then I find myself, quite without thinking about it, praising her for “being good”.

In other words, when she behaves according to my expectations of her behavior, when she does what I want or simply does what’s convenient for me, that, really, is what it means to me for her to be good.  Perhaps understanding morality doesn’t need highbrow ideas or elaborate psychological or sociological concepts.  Perhaps it just needs the recognition that when we are in relationship with one another, then we have certain expectations of one another, and when those expectations are met, then that’s good, and when they’re not, then that’s bad.

And that’s great news for Unitarian Universalism, a religion that is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, a religion that trusts that revelation is not sealed and that we can always learn better and deeper and more loving ways to be in relationship with one another.

I know I’m going to need to remember that as Olivia grows up.  It’s something I know I need to do a better job of remembering in my marriage with Allison, in my rôle as the son of my parents, and in my ministering to all of you.  After all, there’s no instruction manual for any of this.  We figure it out as we go along, and each of us tries to remember that we are human and each of us tries to remember that the other person is human, too, and we accept that we’re going to make mistakes and when we do, we try to own those mistakes so that we can at least learn something from them.  And we are all one another’s teachers, from the elder with the wisdom of years of hard-won life experiences to, well, a child who isn’t even a year old and who has only a one-word vocabulary and who sometimes screeches like an angry pterodactyl.

May we always be open to whatever life has to teach us, whoever the teacher may be.

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Mining for Gold

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 30th 2013.)

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more appropriate word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, about the ideal of sharing power with rather than holding power over people, and about companioning others in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, but I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership means — both as a minister and for lay leaders — within Unitarian Universalist congregations.  And given some of the trainings and workshops I’ve attended in recent years, I’m apparently not the only one who’s been thinking about this.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given what some might identify as a common Unitarian Universalist temperament.  “We may be a relatively small denomination,” former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens once remarked, “but look at it this way: we’re the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.”

Then there’s the not unrelated fact that we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a Unitarian Universalist who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

Now this isn’t necessarily a character flaw reflective of little more than procrastination: it’s part of our tradition, too, to emphasize good process as much as good product, to not only value but also to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.  Historical Unitarianism, after all, emphasized its own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance, while today’s Unitarian Universalist values include “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”.  So it makes sense that the ideal Unitarian Universalist leadership style is cooperative and collaborative, that the ideal leader is, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, someone who “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Well, okay, that sounds great.  And though Pohl wrote those words sometime in the 1980s, I’d be prepared to bet that if we were to jump into a time machine, go back to the 1930s and show Pohl’s words to what was then the American Unitarian Association, there’d be little disagreement.  On the other hand, some of what they said back then still holds true today.

For example, a 1936 report of the AUA’s Commission of Appraisal lamented the denomination’s condition as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius. Leadership,” the report noted, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle. It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”

Leadership, in other words, doesn’t come naturally.  It takes intentional and deliberate training, what is often named “leadership development”, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

The good news is that, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe that just about everybody has some capacity for leadership; the challenge is that any given person’s capacity for leadership needs to be intentionally cultivated if it is to flourish; the added challenge is that, as Eric Wikstrom notes in Serving with Grace, we’re talking about leadership in the context of a religious community, something that is clearly distinct from a small business, a country club, a political action committee or a social service agency.

Now one of the ways that Unitarian Universalists have been responding to these challenges is to think not just about leadership but about what’s called “adaptive leadership”, so let me explain what is meant by that.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered “technical” problems, in that it’s simply a matter of applying the appropriate knowledge and skills to resolve each one.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for example, it’s either a matter of taking it to a bike shop for the tire to be replaced or buying a new tire and then replacing it myself.  I come out of the process pretty much as I went in, at least once I’ve washed the dirt and grease off my hands!

A lot of what happens in the day-to-day life of a church involves technical problems, too.  If a light bulb burns out, we get a new bulb and replace the old one.  If the kitchen sink gets clogged, we clean out the P bend.  If the weather changes from cold and dry to warm and humid, we get the piano tuned so we don’t feel like we’re trying to sing hymns in an old West saloon.

Now you might have noticed that all of the examples of technical problems that I’ve given you involve things, devices, mechanisms.  If they break, they can be fixed, and it’s just a matter of finding the right knowledge and applying the right skills to fix them.  Well, people can break, too, so to speak — and the relationships between people are particularly prone to breaking — but they can’t usually be fixed in that technical sense, in spite of the fact that we base an awful lot of how we do education and medicine and economics on the hugely false assumption that we can.  It’s false because people and groups of people are not mechanisms to be fixed; they’re organisms that need to be nurtured.

So, many of the problems faced by groups of people — from congregations to human societies — are not technical, and addressing them isn’t simply about having or acquiring knowledge and skills.  Rather, they’re described as adaptive, requiring, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “developing the organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to meet problems successfully according to our values and purposes.”  Addressing adaptive challenges can be messy, as tends to be the case for organisms rather then mechanisms, but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

Let me give you an example of an adaptive challenge that just about every congregation — at least every Unitarian Universalist congregation — faces, and not just once but every year.  And that is completing a successful Canvass in order to fund the operating budget.

A Canvass is, in simple terms, the process by which we ask each member and friend of the congregation to figure out how much money they intend to give during the next church year — what is, in shorthand, referred to as their pledge — so that the Finance Committee can put together a balanced budget that supports the Fellowship’s mission in general and funds the specific goals determined by the Policy Board.

Now it might seem like ensuring that there’s a healthy budget is a technical problem: after all, isn’t it simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit generous pledges and that’s all there is to it?  Well, no.  It is far from being a technical problem, and there is no such thing as the perfectly written appeal letter or the perfectly designed Canvass brochure or the perfectly worded pulpit update, any of which would, thanks to their perfection, get everybody to pledge promptly, generously and with a minimum of fuss.  If such magic did exist, trust me, a whole lot of denominational staff and church consultants would be looking for other work.

Rather, each and every Canvass is an adaptive challenge.  Each and every year offers us, in Heifitz’ terms, a new opportunity to develop our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be the best congregation we can be.  Unlike a technical problem, where we come out of fixing it pretty much the same as we went in, responding to such an adaptive challenge requires us to examine our purpose for being, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium and change.  That’s why this is not just about leadership but about adaptive leadership, requiring an organic rather than a mechanical approach to problems, and where a good process for problem-solving is, if anything, more important than a good product.

Let me give you an example of how we’re trying to do that in one particular case, something that really brought home to me one lesson from the program for leadership development called “Harvest the Power!” that I co-taught a couple of years ago.

At the start of this year, our chair of the Sunday Services Committee published an article in the Flame about the state of the pulpit, the physical object which usually stands on this platform and from which the lay leader speaks and I preach.  He wrote about how the pulpit was showing its age and had needed some repairs.  Now you’ll notice that I’m not using the pulpit this morning, and that’s because more repairs need to be made, and we don’t want to risk further damage by moving it again until it is repaired.

So, the article was the first step in a process of addressing the deteriorating condition of the physical pulpit.  Now it would be natural, given our cultural habits when it comes to problem-solving, to treat this as a technical problem.  Pulpit’s broken?  Fix it.  Can’t be fixed? Get a new one.  Find the money, repair it or buy a replacement.  Case closed.  End of story.

Well, not so fast.  We know the pulpit’s been here as long as this Sanctuary, about thirty years.  That’s a long time for people to develop not just opinions about it, but feelings, too, and different feelings depending on their personal histories and aesthetic senses.  And that’s just the people who look at it.  The people who use it, the people who use this space, even this platform, whether for worship or for other purposes, they have feelings about it as well.  And it’s not just a wooden box, like a maitre d’ might use to assign people to tables at a restaurant: it’s a pulpit, with the symbol of our faith on the front of it.  So it’s even more complicated than just listening to what people want and then taking a vote.

The deterioration of the pulpit then, is an adaptive challenge.  This was most obvious when we put the article on the Fellowship’s blog and linked to it on Facebook.  A conversation about the pulpit sprang up almost instantly, with some people sharing positive feelings about it and others sharing negative feelings.  The Sunday Services Committee already knew about some of that, which is why we had scheduled a town-hall meeting, to bring people together in person to share their feelings about the pulpit with one another.

Now that Facebook discussion turned out to be an excellent example of one of the lessons of the “Harvest the Power!” course, namely that getting people to talk with one another about their different perspectives on a particular issue is much more effective than having all those people provide their individual opinions to a single person or committee.  Here’s the simple explanation as to why: if you hold an opinion on something, it’s natural to think — in the absence of any evidence to the contrary — that most other people will hold that same opinion.  And if you feel very strongly about your opinion, then surely everybody else feels the same way, because no healthy psyche starts by assuming that it’s wrong to feel what it’s feeling.

So when people individually send in their individual opinions, they naturally assume that theirs is representative of the majority opinion — and they’ll keep assuming that unless and until they get some sort of feedback that indicates otherwise.  The problem is that the feedback usually comes only in the form of hearing about the final decision, in which case all the people who held minority opinions will be disappointed if not angry.  Whoever is responsible for making that final decision is, in fact, faced with the impossible task of satisfying many different people who all think that their own individual opinions are in the majority.

In a multi-directional conversation, by contrast, people can quickly recognize that other people have different ideas and they can start figuring out together how to meet on common ground.  The final decision emerges — or is, at least, indicated — naturally because that’s where everybody in the conversation ends up, given long enough.  The minority is usually okay not getting their way if they at least feel that they’ve been heard, while the majority has at least some understanding that not everyone agrees with them and owes the minority a measure of compassion.

And that, really, is the goal of having a good process to figure out what to do about the deterioration of the pulpit.  Adaptive leadership recognizes that it’s not just about finding a logical solution, something that is particularly true in this case.  Rather, it’s about developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be in community with one another, such as by learning how to avoid the temptation to use a simple vote as a bludgeon to beat a minority into submission, by learning how to be in that minority without holding everybody else hostage as the only way to prove the worth of your opinion, and by learning how to really listen to the people with whom you disagree.

There will always be people with whom you disagree, and if the wider culture is doing a thoroughly awful job of teaching us how to be in community with different people holding different beliefs and different opinions, we should at least make sure that our congregations do better.

And that is one of the reasons why, this week — starting this afternoon, in fact — we’re hosting a Youth Leadership School here at the Fellowship.  It’s known as GoldMine and it’s designed to train Unitarian Universalist youth not only in leadership skills but also in worship arts and religious values and heritage, which are the same three areas of emphasis as at most of the leadership schools for adult UUs.  GoldMine isn’t an extended lock-in or even a youth camp, but is an intensive series of workshops for learning, reflection and sharing, though of course fun and friendship are still important parts of it.  The intention is to provide a whole experience that is as much about faith development, the deepening of religious identity and community building as it is about giving leadership tools.

Now if you haven’t guessed by now, yes, I came up with the name of this sermon based on the name of the youth leadership school, but nowhere in two-hundred page staff manual did I see anything explaining the origin of that name.  The manual does say that GoldMine was created by Unitarian Universalist minister Jaco ten Hove who had himself been a UU as a child and then a youth.  He wanted to adapt the Pacific Northwest District’s leadership school for adults, while also drawing upon the energy of the young adults in that district, to offer a leadership development experience for youth.  So I wrote to Jaco and asked him how he came up with the name.  I’m please to say that he wrote back, explaining that “The name arose, as you might guess, from my musings on the value of the participants — golden! — combined with the goal of the school to bring forth — or ‘mine’ — their emerging abilities as conscious, UU-strong leaders.”

Now Jaco concluded by noting that “Despite understandable misgivings about the extraction industry, one generally thinks of a gold mine as a positive resource.”  Of course, taking a literalistic approach to a metaphor is, to paraphrase writer E. B. White, “like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  So let’s try to stick with the metaphor for a little longer.

Unitarian Universalist leadership development is a process of mining the spiritual gold that is everybody’s capacity for leadership.  Sometimes it gives us hints of its presence, the glimmerings of a rich vein just beneath the surface.  Sometimes it may even be out in the open already, small nuggets collecting where the streams of experience have washed them.  But leadership, as our religious forebears noted over seventy-five years ago, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.”  Rather, it is up to us to unearth that spiritual gold, working with one another through faith development, community building and the deepening of religious identity to lift up our best selves.

May it be so.

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The Bittersweetness of Human Relationships


The good good-bye includes: acknowledging feelings, sharing memories,
offering praise, making a promise, and giving a final blessing.
— Danita Nolan

Olivia has recently started to wave good-bye to people when they’re leaving our house.  She seems to have an easier time saying words that begin with ‘B’, so the fact that she’s able to say “bye bye” isn’t too surprising; the fact that, in addition to the young child’s usual finger-bending wave, she sometimes does the wrist-twisting “royal” wave was rather less expected!  In any case, we haven’t really had much success getting her to wave hello — or if she does, she still says “bye bye” as if it were like “aloha” or “shalom”.  Of course, when she does wave “bye bye” it’s almost always in a context where “au revoir” or “see you again soon” would be appropriate.

Life is filled with many occasions to say either…

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Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 28th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry seems to have been a hard one to fill.  Another teacher even suggested that the position was jinxed, resulting in its extraordinarily high turnover.  During Harry Potter’s first few years at the school, for instance, Defense Against the Dark Arts was taught, in turn, by one of evil Lord Voldemort’s minions, by a best-selling author who turned out to be a complete fraud, and by a closeted werewolf.  For Harry’s fourth year the school recruits a retired Auror (or Dark-wizard catcher) named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody who had been single-handedly responsible for capturing many of the world of magic’s criminals.  Paranoid, eccentric and more than willing to defy the system, Professor Moody accepts the invitation to teach so long as he’s allowed to show his students the reality of the Dark Magic they might encounter.

[Moody demonstrates the three “Unforgivable Curses”: the Imperius Curse that controls another’s will, the Cruciatus Curse that induces terrible pain, and the Killing Curse.  Harry is the only person who ever survived the third.]

Anthem: “Double Trouble” by William Shakespeare and John Williams (from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”)

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil”

I’ve had something of a soft-spot for the “Scottish Play” since studying it as part of my high school English Literature class.  You may have recognized some of Shakespeare’s lines in our anthem, which was composed by John Williams for the Hogwarts choir.  (Our version, sadly, lacks the part scored for toads, which some of the students at Hogwarts keep as familiars.)  In the original play, of course, these lines are chanted by the three witches as they prepare their cauldron for a visit by Macbeth.  “By the pricking of my thumbs,” the second witch intones when they are ready, “Something wicked this way comes.”  And that is Macbeth himself, of course, knocking at their door.

I remember being taught in that English Literature class that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy because Macbeth, while capable of both good and evil, chooses the latter as the way to fulfill his ambitions, but given the results of his choices he eventually loses everything, including his life.  The witches, who are certainly practicing the Dark Arts if the list of ingredients they add to their cauldron is any guide, don’t actually tell Macbeth what to do — his bad decisions are his own — but in their fortune-telling they do give his ambitions a nudge, sinking the whole kingdom into chaos.

J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that the Scottish play may well be her favorite of Shakespeare’s, and so its influences can be found within the Harry Potter stories.  The band that played at the Yule Ball during Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, for instance, was named the “Weird Sisters”, part of their weirdness being, no doubt, that all eight band-members were actually male.  More significantly, perhaps, one of the themes driving the story arc through all of the books is the tension between fate and free will, particularly in terms of the danger that comes from knowing one’s destiny.

So Shakespeare’s Macbeth murders King Duncan because the witches have predicted that he will “be king hereafter”.  By similar logic, Rowling’s Voldemort attempts to kill the baby Harry Potter because of a prediction that one of them “must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.”

Where the comparisons between Macbeth and Voldemort break down, however, is that while the Scot was driven by his ambition for power, the wizard, much as he hungered for power, too, was really driven by his fear of death.

We find out in a later books that, while still a student at Hogwarts, Voldemort learned that there was a way to safeguard a piece of his soul by storing it in some other object, such that even if his body was killed, he would not actually die but could be resurrected.  While granting the wizard immortality, such magic comes at a terrible price: as explained by a former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, it requires the wizard to commit murder, which, as “the supreme act of evil […] rips the soul apart.”  That is a price, of course, that Voldemort is willing to pay, and in the end it costs him everything.

From the very beginning of the stories, Rowling makes it clear that in the epic struggle between good and evil, Voldemort’s primary opponent has been Albus Dumbledore, whom Harry knows as the Headmaster of the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At first, Dumbledore comes across as something of a kindly old eccentric, with a twinkly goofiness that hides his true power.  He genuinely loves his students and does everything he can to protect them, but in doing so, Dumbledore demonstrates the inevitable tension between being good and being kind.  In his struggle to prevent Voldemort’s ultimate designs, Dumbledore discovers he must, in some cases, withhold the truth from those who otherwise have a right to know it and, in others, resort to various forms of manipulation, to the extent that Rowling described him as “quite a Machiavellian figure”.

If Dumbledore is Harry’s mentor, then Potions Professor Severus Snape is Harry’s antagonist, at least amongst the grown-ups.  The two get off on the wrong foot right from the start, with Snape apparently taking delight in tormenting Harry and never failing to malign the memory of Harry’s father, and with Harry casting Snape as his first suspect in every sinister plot, in spite of the number of times that Dumbledore vouched for him.

And yet almost at the very end of the entire series, we find out that Dumbledore was right about Snape, when his great secret is revealed in what is surely the most powerful scene in any of the books or movies.  If you don’t know what that secret is, I won’t spoil it for you, but I will tell you that Rowling always planned for Snape to find redemption, and in the end Harry sees the good in him and forgives him.

Harry’s antagonist amongst his fellow students, of course, is Draco Malfoy, and there’s a whole psychology thesis’ worth of material contained in the antics of the Malfoy family.

Draco first appears as a thoroughly arrogant snot of a boy, and he quickly becomes a typical school bully.  We gain some insight into Draco’s character when we meet his father, Lucius, a condescending bigot who doesn’t hesitate to abuse his power over others — or to do whatever he can to save his own skin when someone else has the power.  Another family member is Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco’s aunt, and she’s simply insane.  Utterly faithful to Voldemort and trying to find out what had happened to him after he failed to kill the baby Harry, Bellatrix had tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents with the unforgivable Cruciatus Curse and was sent to Azkaban prison.  Bellatrix’s sister and Draco’s mother, Narcissa, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the welfare of her own family, to the extent that she lies to Voldemort in order to protect her son and then, in the final battle between Voldemort and Harry, simply stays out of it, taking both Draco and Lucius with her.

Now if you’ve never read any of the books, nor even seen any of the movies, I hope that this quick survey of some of Rowling’s principal characters at least shows some of the complexity that she brings to her portrayal of the epic struggle between good and evil.  In the first book, sure, it’s pretty simple to identify which characters are good and which are bad, and though there are still a couple of surprises, the lines separating them are fairly clear.  But as the books progress, some of those lines become rather blurred.

Rowling herself made it clear that, just as Harry and Neville and the other students got older through the years, so would her stories invoke more mature and more challenging themes.  Sure, Voldemort is as evil as it gets, but we discover that Dumbledore is willing to lie and manipulate if that’s what’s needed, and we get confused about whether Snape is really bad or good a double-agent or perhaps even a triple-agent, and we even find that we can feel, as much as we might resist it, just a little bit of pity for Draco, if only for a short while.

That adds to the appeal of Rowling’s stories, of course, since an essential part of growing up is realizing that the world is never neatly divided into red and blue, but consists of all sorts of shades of purple.  As Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote during his time in the Soviet Gulag, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.  […]  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Solzhenitsyn lamented, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Now “evil” isn’t a word you’ll hear used very often by Unitarian Universalists.  Aside from being one of those words that’s been used to hurt and oppress, or at least to promote a world-view that seems at odds with our claim of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it’s all too easy to reduce evil to the cartoonish images that have become embedded in our culture.  One of those images, which I’m sure has already popped into your head, consists of a figure all in red, with horns and cloven feet and a spiky tail and a probably a pitchfork, but unless it’s a costume worn by our own J— to preach his sermon about the subject, you won’t see that image on display within this Sanctuary.

And yet a number of Unitarian Universalist theologians have observed that in refusing to use the word “evil”, in failing to challenge the cartoonish imagery left to us by the Dark Ages, we short-change not only Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition, but also our individual spirituality.  Cutting out a part of the religious vocabulary to which we have just as much a right as anybody else, we only make it harder for ourselves to address brokenness and pain and hatred and suffering.  As Dumbledore cautions Harry when he struggles to choose between referring to Voldemort by name and using the common euphemism of “You-Know-Who”, “Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

So let’s face this business of how Unitarian Universalists might use the word “evil”.

First, let’s deal with the First Principle — you know, the one that is usually taken to say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  How do we reconcile that with the reality that people lie to one another, hurt one another and generally screw up, whether intentionally or accidentally, just about all the time?

Sometimes it’s much worse than that, but we don’t have to invoke the likes of Hitler to call the First Principle into question; we just have to pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news.  But the First Principle isn’t some existential claim that everybody is really a saint, or a requirement that we should permanently attach rose-colored glasses to our faces, or a demand to never call anybody on bad behavior.  The First Principle, in fact, is precisely about how we ought to treat one another — particularly when, inevitably, we screw up — and for that matter about how we ought to treat ourselves when we realized we’ve screwed up.  So how do we “affirm and promote” someone’s inherent worth and dignity?  We hold them accountable for their actions, and we insist that others hold us accountable for our actions, too.  If we are to take all of the other Principles seriously, particularly the Seventh in its announcement of the interdependent web of all existence, then such accountability is essential.

Second, what do we mean by evil?

In classical theology, goodness is like the water in a fountain, welling up and out from the godhead and overflowing into the rest of creation.  Anything that blocks or removes that goodness is then evil.  Within Unitarian Universalism, we might think of it in terms of the interdependent web of all existence, where a higher quality of interdependence — as gauged by the health of human relationships, for example, and the sustainability of our relationship with the environment — corresponds to greater goodness.  Evil is then damage to the threads of the interdependent web.  Both natural events and human actions may break the threads, reducing interdependence and diminishing the web’s goodness.  Some evil is natural, part of what process theologian Catherine Keller notes is an inevitable part of the creativity of what she describes as “a living, whirling, open system of a world[, …] this real world of finite creatures who live, feed, risk, exult and die, a world of change and interdependence in which suffering is inevitable.”  And then we are faced with a choice: we can learn and grow from it or we can respond with further evil, because in refusing to realize our place in the web, we break the threads of interdependence, resulting in the violence of injustice, ecological damage and unhealthy communities.

Third, how do we respond to evil?

Well, if evil is doing damage to the threads of interdependence, then the good response is healing those threads, healing relationships, healing the community and healing memory.  We don’t need to be able to explain why bad things happen to be able to identify them and call them out, to respond to another’s pain and suffering, to address injustice wherever it takes place, and to find ways to live upon the Earth so that wholeness may be restored to the interdependent web.

There are a couple of aspects of this that, in bringing this sermon to a close, I’m going to lift up by referring back to the Harry Potter stories.

In the second book, havoc is wreaked at Hogwarts when Lucius Malfoy tries to dispose of a magical artifact that had once belonged to Voldemort, namely a diary in which he had stored a piece of his soul.  Malfoy slipped it amongst the schoolbooks being bought for Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny, and soon enough she writes in the diary.  In doing so she awakens the piece of Voldemort’s soul and leads to the unleashing of a terrible serpent that had been hidden in the bowels of the school itself.  When Ginny disappears and Harry and Ron go to try to find her, Harry eventually succeeds in destroying the diary, but not before he is troubled by some of the apparent similarities between himself and Voldemort — like their ability to speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  Harry later takes it up with Dumbledore, in one of the sections of the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers love to quote.

“Professor,” [Harry said, “the] Sorting Hat told me […] I’d have done well in Slytherin.  Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak Parseltongue …”

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Voldemort — who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin — can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he [first tried to kill you.” …]

“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face.  “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it …”

“[It put] you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly.  “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students.  His own very rare gift, Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again.  “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor.  You know why it was.  Think.”

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  “Which makes you very different from [Voldemort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is our choices that make all the difference and, what’s more, we don’t have to make those choices alone.  Throughout the books, one of the two great themes is love.  The baby Harry Potter survives the Killing Curse because of his mother’s love in sacrificing her life to protect his.  Dumbledore, Snape, Narcissa Malfoy — they’re all motivated by love, and that’s where they find their redemption, too.  And Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he neither loves nor is truly loved.

It’s not for nothing that the Second Source of Unitarian Universalism consists of the “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love”.  It’s no accident that the Unitarian Universalist campaigns for marriage equality and immigration reform and other interfaith public advocacy issues come under the heading of “Standing on the Side of Love”.

Love in our world may not literally be a mystical force that magically grants protection from evil, as it is in Harry Potter’s world, but it comes very close.  It is love that gives us strength in the face of suffering.  It is love that gives us courage to call injustice to account.  It is love that heals our relationships with one another and with our world.  So how do we respond to evil?  We choose love.

May it be so.

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