Posts Tagged courage

But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 8th 2013.  At the time, it looked like a military strike by the United States on Syria was imminent; that’s no longer the case, though Iran is now the object of our saber-rattling instead.  The first service used a pre-sermon reading while the second used a multigenerational drama to tell the story.  Both are included here, but you can jump down to the sermon.)

Reading: “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Harper was born in 1825, the only child of free African-American parents living in Baltimore.  During her long life, both before and after the Civil War, she applied her skills as a writer and a public speaker in political activism for the abolition of slavery, for civil rights and women’s rights, and for other social causes.  She died nine years before women gained the right to vote, and her funeral was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where she had been a member.

Harper wrote “Songs for the People” at the very end of her life as “the culmination of [her] literary goals as well as her self-conception as a writer, speaker and activist”.

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of [all]
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.

I would sing for the poor and agèd,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of [all] grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

~ ~ ~

Drama: “Jonah” (based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Book of Jonah)

Scene One: In Jonah’s Home

Jonah is sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper, the Joppa Daily Press.  A prominent headline says, “Wickedness on the Rise in Nineveh?”

Narrator:  Now the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah son of Amittai.

God:  Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Jonah:  Do I have to?  It won’t do any good, you know.

God, a little taken aback:  Wait; what?  Why do you say that?

Jonah:  Er…  Well, look.  You are a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

God, flattered:  Well, that’s kind of you to say so.  Ahem!  In any case, [speaking more commandingly] you will go at once to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness!

Jonah:  But I don’t want to go to Nineveh!

God:  Tough luck, sunshine.  That’s an order.  Now go!

Narrator:  But Jonah decided instead to flee to Tarshish, hoping that there he would be safe from the presence of God.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid his fare and went on board.

Scene Two: In the Hold of the Ship

Jonah is asleep in a chair to one side of the platform.  The mariners, including the captain and the sailors, are huddled fearfully in the middle.

Narrator:  Now God hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm arose that it threatened the ship.  The mariners were afraid, and each cried to his own god as they threw their cargo into the sea, to lighten the ship.  Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and was fast asleep.

Captain:  Okay, what’s next?  What else can we throw overboard?

Sailor #1:  Captain, look!  There’s that passenger we took on in Joppa.  How is he managing to sleep through this storm?

Captain, waking Jonah:  What are you doing?  Get up, call on your god!  Perhaps your god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.

Sailor#2:  Captain, we’re out of cargo, and out of ideas.  I think we should cast lots.  Then we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.

The captain produces a handful of sticks.  Everybody takes one and then holds it up for the others to see.  Jonah’s is shorter than the rest.

Captain:  Tell us why this calamity has come upon us.  What is your occupation?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  And of what people are you?

Jonah:  I am a Hebrew.  I worship the Lord who is God of Heaven and Earth, who made the sea and the dry land.

Narrator:  And the mariners grew even more afraid.

Sailor #3:  Oh, that doesn’t sound good.  What is it that you have done?

Jonah, sighing in resignation:  I am fleeing from the presence of God.  [Looks sheepish.]  Didn’t I mention that as I was getting on board?

Captain:  No, you didn’t!  And look, the sea is growing more and more tempestuous!  What should we do to appease your god, that the sea may quiet down for us?

Jonah:  Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.

Sailor #4:  Captain, we’ve tried rowing as hard as we can to bring the ship back to land, but the sea is too stormy against us.

Sailor #5:  We don’t want to perish on account of this man’s life, but we don’t want to be guilty of spilling innocent blood either!

Narrator:  But they knew that God had brought the storm on Jonah’s account, so they picked him up and threw him into the sea.  [The mariners push Jonah off the stage.]  And the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the mariners feared God even more, and they offered praise and made vows.  And God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in its belly for three days and three nights.

Scene Three: In the Belly of the Great Fish

Narrator:  Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the great fish.

Jonah:  I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.  You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.  Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”  The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.  I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.  As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.  Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.  But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Narrator:  And the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah a second time.

God:  Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

Jonah:  Okay, if you let me out of this great fish I will, sure.

God, skeptically:  No running away this time?

Jonah:  Nope.  I’ll go.  I could do with a hot meal, too, if you want to throw that in.

God:  Don’t push your luck.

Narrator:  Then God spoke to the great fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Scene Four: In Nineveh

Jonah is off stage.  The people of Nineveh are going about their business on the platform, while the queen of Nineveh sits on a chair to one side.

Narrator:  So Jonah went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord his God.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, requiring three days to walk across it.  Jonah went into the city, going a day’s walk.  And he cried out,

Jonah, stepping onto the platform:  Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

Narrator:  And the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s words.  They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the queen of Nineveh, she rose from her throne, covered herself with sackcloth, and had a proclamation made in Nineveh.

Queen of Nineveh:  By the decree of the queen and her nobles:  No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who knows?  God may relent and reconsider; God may turn from this fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

Narrator:  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God reconsidered the calamity that was to befall Nineveh.  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah:  O Lord my God!  Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord my God, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry?

Narrator:  But Jonah did not answer.  Instead, he went out of the city and sat down to the east of it, making a booth for himself there where he could watch the city.

Scene Five: In Jonah’s Booth

Jonah sits on a chair in the middle of the platform.

Narrator:  Jonah sat, waiting to see what would become of the city.  Meanwhile God appointed a bush, and made it grow up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.  And as the Sun rose, God prepared a sultry wind from the East, and the Sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.

Jonah:  It is better for me to die than to live.  For I can’t help but feel, O Lord my God, that you’re just messing with me.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah:  Yes, angry enough to die.

God:  You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

~ ~ ~

Sermon: “But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!”

One of the traditions of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is that the Book of Jonah is read at the afternoon prayer service.  It’s one of the shortest books in the Hebrew Bible, but it tells a great story that many people have heard — or, at least, they’ve heard part of it.

I remember, as a young child in Sunday school, hearing the story of Jonah and the Great Fish.  It’s certainly a tale that captures the imagination, particularly the part about being swallowed by a large sea creature as a key stage of character development, something that’s been used in stories from Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.  In the case of Jonah, this half of the story appears at first sight to be simply about refusing, but ultimately accepting, responsibility.

Jonah hears God tell him to go and be a prophet, but he doesn’t want to do that.  Rather than heading east, inland, to Nineveh where he’s been told to go, he tries to head west, across the Mediterranean, to what is now Spain.  That’s not part of the divine plan, of course, so God hurls a storm at the ship to stop Jonah from getting away.  After arguing about what’s going on, Jonah finally admits to being to blame for the storm, and the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard.  The storm ends, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, where he is kept for three days and three nights while he thinks about what he’s done.

The reluctant prophet is a fairly common theme in the Bible, of course.  Being a prophet isn’t supposed to be a happy, healthy occupation.  When you go up against wealthy and powerful people who aren’t treating their fellow beings very well, telling them to mend their ways can get you into a lot of trouble.  As for Jonah himself, he seems to be a good person, taking ownership of his decision to run away, holding himself accountable for the storm, offering himself up to the sea in order to save the mariners, and eventually agreeing to accept the responsibility that had been given to him.  But that isn’t the end of the story.

For all that the first half of the story seems to be a fairly straightforward tale of someone running away from great responsibility, that’s hardly what the second half of the story is about.  And it’s certainly not a typical story of wicked people refusing to listen to one of God’s own prophets.  So let’s think about what the person who wrote the story, and wrote it something like two-and-a-half thousand years ago, might have been trying to say through the whole book, not just the first half of it.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, when he’s barely gone any distance across it and has only said what in Hebrew is just five words, he has the most amazing success of any prophet at any time in history ever.  The people of Nineveh change their ways instantly.  They refuse to eat or drink, they put on sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes, and even the animals fast and repent and go into mourning, too!  But is Jonah happy with his amazing success?  No, he is not.

In fact he’s not just unhappy with it, he gets so angry about it that he can’t see the point in living any more.  He thinks that God is taking it way too easy on the people of Nineveh.  If it were up to Jonah, in fact, he’d give them what they surely deserved for their wicked ways, rather than letting them off so easily.  God asks Jonah if he’s really justified in being so angry, but rather than answering, Jonah leaves the city, finds a place to sit and watch and then, well, he sulks.

So now it’s God’s turn to teach Jonah a lesson.  First, a bush grows up, in just one day, right next to where Jonah is sitting and sulking, and it gives him some shade from the Sun.  Well, he likes that.  It’s hot out there, after all.  But then a worm eats away at the roots and just as quickly the bush dies.  Now Jonah is getting hot and sunburned and thirsty and faint.  Angry about the bush, Jonah again says it’d be better for him to die.

Finally God tries to put it all into perspective for him.  If Jonah was concerned with a mere bush, which he didn’t plant and he didn’t help to grow but he received its benefits anyway, why shouldn’t God be concerned about a whole city full of people and animals?  The people of Nineveh didn’t know good from bad — they even thought it would be a good idea to dress the animals in sackcloth, after all — but at least they were trying.

So maybe the story isn’t really about Nineveh.  Other Hebrew prophets certainly denounced the city’s wickedness and described its inevitable demise, something that did happen when the Assyrian Empire disintegrated.  Since that empire had previously destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, there was definitely no love lost there.  Rather, having Jonah go to hated Nineveh just makes all the more incredible the amazing success of one lone Hebrew in convincing them to change their ways so easily.

And moreover, given Jonah’s evident personality flaws when everyone else in the story — from the ship’s captain and the mariners, to the people and king and even the animals of Nineveh — ends up being saved from perishing, a number of rabbis and other religious commentators have identified the Book of Jonah as a form of satire, poking fun at someone who was a lousy prophet in spite of his success.  I mean, never mind that he saved more than a hundred and twenty thousand souls: Jonah ends up arguing with God about a plant.

So maybe the entire story is actually about getting Jonah to be a better person.  Perhaps the fact that he had such unbelievable success — not to mention being swallowed whole by a never-before-or-since known giant fish — means that it was actually a nightmare-ish dream that Jonah had, and maybe it helped him to realize that he shouldn’t be quite so self-righteous or judgmental toward others.

As Unitarian Universalists, of course, we are called to make courageous choices that lead to greater justice.  That’s because Unitarian Universalism is a prophetic faith, in that we are called to speak truth to power, to try to make the world a better place in everything we say and do.  But we have to be careful not to end up like Jonah, sitting in the Sun and sulking because our own self-righteous need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s a lot in our world, in our nation, in our state and in our town that needs our help to get right, but we are called to offer that help from a place of love, and to do so with compassion and kindness.

Now in about ninety minutes’ time, this is where our staging of the Book of Jonah — the drama that takes the place of this sermon in this morning’s second service — will come to an end.  That’s appropriate for a multigenerational service, telling a story that starts with a well-known tale before telling the rest of it that isn’t so well known, and then thinking about what it means and what lessons it has for us today, some two-and-a-half thousand years after it was written.  But as I prepared for these services this week, I realized that it wasn’t going to be enough for this sermon.  I realized that I couldn’t just leave it bundled up so neatly with a shiny bow on top. Real life isn’t like that.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in the last decade of a life filled with ceaseless struggling for freedom and justice, declared that

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

I’d love to be able to create or even play music that could do that.  Since I can’t, I appreciate it even more when people like B— and C— share their gifts of music with us.  But I also try to bring about some of the same effects using spoken words, even though they’ll always be, as far as I’m concerned, a poor substitute for “music, pure and strong”.  So I strive for sermons that are like Harper’s “songs for the people”, calling us to embrace a “more abundant life”, helping “hearts [to] relax their tension”, raising “anthems of love and duty”, and leading us into a vision of the future that “girdle[s] the world with peace.”  But I’ve realized that I can’t do that this morning unless I respond to something that is going on right now, something that is causing a number of people within this community considerable heartache and anguish, and that’s the possibility of a US attack on Syria.

Now I know you don’t come to church to get a debate about current affairs.  If that’s what you wanted on a Sunday morning, you’d stay home and watch television rather than come to services.  Or maybe you do that before you came here or after being here, but you’re not here for more of the same.  But I don’t want to talk about the politics of such foreign policy.  That’s not why I’m here either.  I’m here to be your minister, and the e-mails I’ve received and the posts I’ve seen on Facebook tell me that some sort of pastoral response to this situation is required.

So here’s my response.  I don’t want us — by which I mean both the United States as a nation and also all of us as individuals — to be like Jonah.  And I don’t mean the nice Jonah who ran away from what he thought was his responsibility, the brave Jonah who becomes a sort of role model to Sunday school children because, well, it can be hard to do the right thing sometimes.  No, that’s not why Jonah ran away.  He didn’t run away because he was afraid of trying.  He ran away because he wanted so badly to see Nineveh destroyed that he didn’t want to be any part of offering it any possibility of being saved.  Reading it in English it’s not clear, but the Book of Jonah actually uses the same Hebrew word to describe both the wickedness of Nineveh and the angry sulking of Jonah himself.

Now, Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, released on Friday a statement “urg[ing] the Obama administration to explore and then exhaust all peaceful diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the ongoing violence in Syria.”  Also on Friday, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee released a statement “call[ing] on the president and Congress to ensure that any American actions taken are designed to protect the rights and lives of the Syrian civilians above all other considerations and to conform with international humanitarian law.”  And Jim Wallis, one of the few outspoken liberal evangelical Christians, whose opinions and work with the Sojourners Community I respect even though I usually need to translated his theology into my own, notes that what is happening in Syria “is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response.  Doing nothing is not an option.  But [… our] first commitment must be to the most vulnerable and those in most jeopardy.  […]  The other task for people of faith and moral conscience is to work to reduce the conflict.

For myself, I have a hard time believing that the missile strikes that are being proposed will do much good, either in helping the Syrian people being currently brutalized by the Assad regime or in contributing to the long-term security of the United States.  My understanding is that there are still options available through the United Nations — including some ways to make Russia take responsibility for its actions in supporting Assad — and for that matter the United States could choose to join — or re-join, actually — the International Criminal Court.

Now I realize that not everyone who is part of or connected to the Fellowship sees the situation the same way.  Perhaps not all of you listening to me now agree with me either.  That’s okay.  I didn’t get up here this morning thinking that I could say a few words and — lo! — everyone’s hearts and minds would be magically changed.  It’s okay for us to disagree, and I preached about how to do just that a few weeks ago, after all.

What’s not okay — in this, or in any other matter of dispute — is for us to cast one another as Nineveh, to refuse to stay connected to one another for fear that we might actually help someone redeem themselves.  We wouldn’t want to end up like Jonah, sitting all alone and sulking because our need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s so much in our world, in our nation, in our relationships with one another that we can get right, but only if we locate ourselves in a place of love, reaching out to one another with compassion and kindness.

So may it be.

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To Create a Dynamic Community the Celebrates Life and Searches for Truths

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 17th 2013.)

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

Many of you know that before I went into ministry I had a career in science.  I trace this back to my childhood, when I first found a fascination with machinery.  Well, to be precise, it came from a children’s television show that was set in an antiques store and featured a cast of toys who came to life after hours.  The toy mice were typically the troublemakers in every episode, and in one they tricked the other toys into thinking they had a machine that made cookies.  The mice emptied small sacks of flour and sugar and other ingredients into one end of the machine, and a nice round cookie came rolling out of the other end.  It turned out that the mice were just taking the one cookie and bringing it around the back of the machine and sending it rolling out the front again, and soon enough the other toys figured out that it was all a trick.  But I liked cookies, at least the ones my mother baked, and I thought to myself that it must be possible to build a machine that really took flour and sugar and other ingredients and actually make cookies.  It was just a matter of figuring out how to build such a machine.

A couple of years later I was introduced to chemistry, and that seemed even better.  For one thing, I think I’d realized by then that you could simply buy cookies that were made by machines, and that took away of the challenge.  But chemistry!  You could take this little glass tube of something blue and heat it up over a flame and it would turn white.  And then, you could add a little water, and what had been this white ashy stuff would turn a brilliant blue again.  It was like magic!  The possibilities seemed endless for transforming substances into one another, for making things that would change color or burn with bright flames or give off strange smells.  I wanted to find out more, to find out what could be done in a chemistry laboratory.  When my parents gave me a chemistry set that Christmas, I asked about using a storage shed at the back of our garden to do experiments.  They agreed, perhaps wanting to encourage this budding interest of mine, perhaps thinking that at least I’d be outdoors.

Some time in high school, though, we were introduced to organic chemistry, and some of the attraction wore off.  We were expected to learn about these techniques for bringing about certain reactions, but the catalysts that were used and whether something actually worked or not, well, it all just seemed so random.  In the mean-time, I’d been learning about physics, about laws and forces and particles and space and time.  Chemistry, we’d been taught, was a consequence of physics, so physics was more fundamental, and it opened up whole new vistas of imagination.  I had started reading science fiction, too, and the mere chance it might be possible to travel faster than light, to explore other star systems, well, I wanted to find out everything I could about what really makes the Universe tick.

I think I took that about as far as I could.  In graduate school I worked with a professor who developed an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics, and though I helped him flesh out some of his ideas a little further, I was reaching the limits of what I was able to do with the mathematics.  It wasn’t much consolation that other professors working on the bleeding edge of physics were saying things like how five new fields of mathematics would have to be invented just to capture some of the concepts then being proposed.

After graduate school, I was fortunate to have research work that paid me enough to maintain a frugal lifestyle, but I was at something of a loss for a few years.  I did some teaching, which I enjoyed, but otherwise found myself back where I started, figuring out how to make machines that did particular things.  Not make cookies, I’m sad to say.  No, I was building microscopes that could look at biological processes in living cells.  The professors for whom I worked got their funding on the basis of the potential applications for diagnosing certain diseases, for understanding the mechanisms of such diseases, and perhaps even for therapeutic treatments in some cases.  So having been to the frontiers of our understanding of reality, so to speak, I now found myself drawn to finding ways to help people, even if only indirectly by figuring out new tools and techniques that others could use in their research of better diagnostics and treatments.

Though some have wondered how I moved from physics to ministry, I don’t see it as such a big leap when I look back at it.  Ministry is considered a helping profession, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to accompany someone as they try to figure out what’s going on in their lives, to help them find creative, compassionate ways to respond to the struggles that they face.  And when it comes to religion, to understanding what it means to be human and how we can be our best with one another, well, the challenges and the possibilities are even greater than they are in science.  Though my career, my vocation, my calling has changed, I’m still searching for the same truths.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life

July 19th will be one of the most important days of each year for the rest of my life.  It was the day last year on which my daughter was born, and so July 19th will always be for me, first and foremost, Olivia’s birthday.  I shall never forget her first cries as she was delivered; I held tight to Allison’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Someone took a picture of the three of us; I don’t remember who — it doesn’t really matter — but I’ll treasure that picture forever.  Many hours later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known before, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, we were finally able to sleep, filled with joy for this precious gift of a child in our lives.

Unfortunately July 20th woke us with decidedly unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened that might have caused them to not be okay.  Turning on the news, we learned that a man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounding dozens more.  And our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, not far from where we had lived in Aurora just a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies.  A couple of our friends had even planned to go to the movie showing where the shooting had happened, but thankfully decided in the end to go to a different movie theater.

It was hard to wrap our minds around both the great joy of Olivia’s birth and the great sorrow of so many pointless deaths in Aurora.  There was, of course, very little we could do about the latter, other than to reach out to our friends in Colorado, to say that we were thinking about them, that we were with them in their grief.  As for here in Newport News, we had a baby to look after, we had to get ready to go home, and we had to take the plunge into our new lives as parents.  Through it all we were reminded of what really matters in life, something that is both precious and all too brief.  We were filled with gratitude to the doctors and nurses who looked after both Allison and Olivia, to our parents for all of their love and support, and to the members of this congregation who helped us in so many ways both before and after Olivia was born.  And we found ourselves filled with hope, hope for Olivia’s future, hope for all of us, hope that even in the midst of tragic events we would always be able to find the courage to celebrate life.  For how do we truly respond to tragedies — from the man-made evil of the Boston Marathon bombing to the natural devastation of Typhoon Haiyan — if not from a place of celebrating life?

That’s a big part of what being here is all about, of course.  Joy and sorrow, reasons to celebrate and reasons to grieve, life gives them to us together.  Often we can’t do much about that, so it’s what we do with it that makes all the difference.  And it can be a really big difference.

Three years ago, for example, a few of us decided that we wanted to start observing Transgender Day of Remembrance here at the Fellowship.  I can say without reservation that it is one of the hardest things we do.  The main element in it is the reading of names, the names of people who were transgender or did not conform to gender stereotypes and who were killed by others out of fear and hatred.  Hearing what happened to each person, many of whom were not just violently killed but cruelly mutilated as well, your faith in humanity is called into question.  Reading aloud what happened… well, it’s hard to do that.  And yet we’re doing it again this afternoon, the third year we’ve observed Transgender Day of Remembrance, refusing to give in to the sorrow, to the shame of what some people are willing to do to others.  We do it, paradoxically, as a celebration of life, accepting the sorrow but standing resolutely against the fear and the hatred, lifting the small lights of faith that beckon us all onward into a world where all of us can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community

When I first went to seminary, I took courses part-time while I continued to work in my research job full-time.  I spent five years, in fact, doing a third of the coursework I’d ultimately complete, and at the end of that time, when I was about to move from Connecticut to Colorado in order to complete my studies, I gave a farewell sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, thanking them for their support and encouragement, describing some of what I’d learned, and sharing some of my hopes and plans.

Something I noted was that, in at least eight out of the ten courses I’d taken, I’d come to address the meaning of community, the importance of religious community, not just in courses on congregational studies but in courses on topics from environmental ethics to the letters of Paul to the Corinthians.  I’ve since realized, though, that this was more than just an academic interest to me.

When I was a child, about the time I started to get interested in science, I got my sister and the boy next door together to organize the other children on our street into our naïve idea of a gang.  Our base was the shed at the back of my parent’s garden that I was using as a chemistry laboratory, and perhaps a wise observer might have guessed I was destined for church work when our main activity was holding committee meetings.

A few years later my school bought its first computers, and a another student and I thought it’d be a good idea to learn more about how to use them, so we organized a computer club to teach ourselves what we thought we needed to know.  In high school I started a science society, to bring in local speakers to talk to us about topics that added a real-world dimension to what we were learning in classes.  Or, in the case of yours truly, to give a talk about time-travel.  At university I joined a host of student organizations on topics from physics and astronomy to music appreciation and learning to sing Russian folk songs.  Perhaps you can see something of a pattern emerging here.

Things changed when I came to the United States. I didn’t participate in many official clubs or societies in graduate school, but I found a fairly close-knit group of friends amongst the mathematicians, who for whatever reason were much more sociable than my fellow physicists.  And, thanks to my girlfriend at the time, I went up to New York a couple of times a week to sing in a large college choir.  It wasn’t until I was living in San Diego that I really found myself part of an organized community again.  At first that was with a group of students and university alumni who met for dinner each week to talk about science fiction and go to the movies.  And then it was when I organized the Pantheists of Southern California, bringing together for meals and talks and hikes a variety of people who saw divinity in the Universe and sacredness in Nature.  And when I moved back to the East Coast — and having finally heard about Unitarian Universalism after nearly a decade of living in this country, which was way too long not to have heard about Unitarian Universalism — one of the first things I did was join the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

So looking back, it’s really not surprising that in all those seminary courses, I found some way to bring the course material to bear on the subject of community.  I wanted to find out what community means; I wanted to find out what makes a community tick; I clearly wanted to be part of a community, no matter my age, occupation or place in the world.  I’m still figuring it out, of course.  Being here at the Fellowship for three-plus years has been eye-opening, that’s for sure.  And in a good way!  You may not realize what a gift it truly is to be immersed in such a great community as thrives here.  I know I’m blessed to be a part of it.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

In the last month I preached three sermons that all had the word “church” in their titles.  I’d intended for the first two to be a pair — though I hadn’t realized that it would lead to a bidding war at the auction over who would get to select a topic for one of my future sermons!  But the third sermon turned out to be a part three, so I’ve been referring to them, when people ask about being able to read them and share them with others, as the “church” trilogy.

In planning for this service, I realized I didn’t want to do what would essentially be part four of the “church” trilogy.  Yes, our mission is important, and it’s something that we all need to keep in mind as the true owner of this Fellowship.  Our “bottom line” as a congregation truly is, as Dan Hotchkiss asserts, the degree to which our mission is being achieved.  Yes, I want you all to read the UUFP Planning Committee’s report, and to re-read it if you’ve done it before.  It’s on the website, and the Planning Committee wants to know what you think, too, with a survey that is going out to everyone this week; please do take the time to respond.  And yes, how we achieve our mission and realize our vision and implement a strategic plan for doing both hinges critically on leadership and on leadership development and on the willingness of every member and friend of this beloved community to engage, at some level, with the life and ministry of this congregation.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t convince anyone of any of that by preaching a part four of the “church” trilogy.  If you think you might be convinced by reading those three sermons, great, I can tell you how you can do that, but this morning I thought I’d try a different approach.

So I told you about myself, about some of my own personal history when it comes to searching for truths in science and religion, when it comes to celebrating life in both joy and sadness, and when it comes to the pursuit of a dynamic community where I could belong.  But I know I’m not the only one with such narratives, with similar stories about growing up and finding friends and discovering what really matters in life.  And that is why we are here.  It’s why our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths is the true owner of this congregation, because it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are.

Let me finish with this request.  I want to hear your stories.  I want to hear your stories about your searching for truths and your celebrations of life and your need for a dynamic community where you belong.  So send me an e-mail.  Write me an old-fashioned letter.  Post something on your blog and give me the link.  Invite me for coffee at Starbucks or Aroma’s.  I want to hear your stories, and for that matter I want you to share them with one another, too.  Because our mission and everything that comes with it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are, so your stories matter.  And it’s in the telling of them that we’ll create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

So may it be.

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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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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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Knowledge, Access, Advocacy

(I delivered this part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 28th 2013.)

During the last few months I’ve shared services with representatives from some of our Share-the-Basket partners.  If you’ve been here more than a few times, you’ll have noticed that each and every Sunday, we share the Offering with one of a number of worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values.  The Fellowship has been doing this for a few years now — and, in the case of the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, doing it once a month for much longer — because we recognize that it is important to practice the abundance to which our faith makes claim, particularly once we recognize that how we use our money and other resources says a lot about who we really are.

Now I’m told that, whenever we’ve done a straw poll, at about this time of year, regarding our possible Share-the-Basket partners for next year, Planned Parenthood, if it is on the ballot, gets the highest number of votes.  A large number of you, in other words, believe that it is important for this congregation to support Planned Parenthood’s vision of “a society where all adults and teens have the ability to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives.”  And so this year, I’m pleased to remind you, one of our Share-the-Basket partners is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

A couple of other factors make this a timely partnership.

One is that, at last year’s General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, the delegates from the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” to be the new issue for study and action by UU congregations over a four-year period.  Stepping up to challenge the “racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on women’s power” as well as supporting “the right to have children, [the right] to not have children, and [the right] to parent children in safe and healthy environments”, this is only the most recent stage of our association’s “fifty-year history of reproductive rights advocacy of which [Unitarian Universalists] should be very proud.”  The first resolution by Unitarian Universalists was passed fifty years ago, in fact, at the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago; it called for the legalization of abortion, ten years before Roe vs. Wade made that a reality.  That made Unitarian Universalism the first religion to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice; since then there have been at least two-dozen association-wide resolutions and social justice statements on the topics of abortion, women’s rights and sexuality education.  This is a history of presenting a strong progressive religious voice — our Unitarian Universalist voice — of which we should definitely be proud.

Another factor is that Virginia is the target of too many jokes on late-night television when it comes to our Commonwealth’s nineteenth century sense of sexual morality.  Actually, the nineteenth century might be giving Richmond too much credit; perhaps fourteenth century would be more appropriate.  In any case, I’ve only been living here for three years, so I don’t know how long Jon Stewart, David Letterman and the rest have been laughing at us, but good grief!  Whether it’s requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds as part of abortion “counseling” or reinstating Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, it’s all too easy to make fun of us.  Never mind that, when it came to a challenge to the sodomy law in 1975, the court justified it by quoting Leviticus, the fact that Governor Bob McDonnell excused his support of the ultrasound bill by saying that he didn’t understand what “trans-vaginal” means is the best argument in favor of comprehensive sex education that I’ve ever heard.  It’s a shame we can’t require every elected representative to have taken the same “Our Whole Lives” curriculum that we teach to our middle-schoolers.

Now in introducing the Adult Religious Education curriculum that was created in support of the “Reproductive Justice” study/action issue, the authors explain that the current debates about all of these issues — including, incredibly, the availability of contraception — “is not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as it is a conflict of values about life, sexuality and religious freedom.”  (And I shouldn’t need to note that religious freedom does not mean the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to oppress their own employees or those they serve.)  As promoted in particular by coalitions of women of color such as SisterSong, Reproductive Justice is a framework that promotes individual rights in many intersecting areas, including reproductive choice, the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and immigration justice.  These are all areas in which Unitarian Universalists have developed progressive positions based on our religious understandings of life, sexuality and freedom.

Talk, of course, is cheap.  It’s doing something with our beliefs and opinions that makes a difference.  All of the time spent at General Assembly debating and passing resolutions and statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness is worthless unless we actually act upon them afterward.  And since it’s congregational delegates who do all that debating and passing of resolutions, it’s the responsibility of congregations to put them into action.  So, on the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade back in January, Lauren F—, Tret F—, Tom H— and I went up to Richmond to take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in support of reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortions, and in opposition to the persistent efforts to chip away at those rights.

I realize, of course, that taking part in such a demonstration — even had it it been at a warmer time of year — isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  Moreover, there are limits to what we, as a single congregation, can reasonably expect to achieve.  This is work we must do in coalition, and we’re doing just that in at least a couple of ways.

For example, the Gathering of the Tidewater Cluster that took place in Williamsburg last month marked the first step toward creating a Unitarian Universalist network for legislative advocacy in Virginia, something that is being facilitated by our own Mason M—.  This is something that’s been talked about since before I got here, and I’m so glad that it’s now getting off the ground.  I encourage you to talk with Mason to learn more about it.

And, of course, we’re working with Planned Parenthood as one of our Share-the-Basket partners.  You’ll hear more about their work in a moment from two of their people who are here today, but before I introduce them, I just want to frame the value of our support of their work in terms of the three words that provide the title of this sermon — knowledge, access, advocacy — words come from the mission of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia itself.

First, knowledge.  If all people have the “right to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives”, they need to be empowered by receiving the knowledge they need to make those choices.  And so, much as we teach “Our Whole Lives” to our middle-schoolers, Planned Parenthood “provides comprehensive, age appropriate sex education to schools and organizations around Hampton Roads.”

Second, access.  It’s no good having rights in theory if you can’t exercise those rights in practice.  And so, to support people in making informed and responsible choices about their own lives, Planned Parenthood provides access to “high-quality, affordable reproductive health and family planning services”, with facilities located on the Peninsula and southside.

Third, advocacy.  In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of efforts to suppress and prevent both knowledge of our own sexuality and access to services including abortion and contraception, not just in Virginia but nationwide.  And so, Planned Parenthood leads the way in calling for responsible public policy that supports “the rights of all women and men to make their own choices about their [own] reproductive health, to have access to comprehensive sex education and and to have access to affordable reproductive health services.”

I’m very pleased, then, that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Kim Barbarji and Dan Rice from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.  Kim is the interim program director in the education department at Planned Parenthood.  In that role, she manages the education department and oversees their Newport News public school program.  Before coming to Planned Parenthood, Kim was the Deputy Director of Avalon, a Center for Women and Children which serves victims of domestic abuse in Williamsburg.  And Dan is lead educator at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, teaching their program in the Health I classes at all six Newport News public high schools.  Dan is a gifted sexual health educator, who has written and taught a wide variety of health curricula for Rutgers University.

[Kim and Dan speak.]

Thank you, Kim and Dan, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them following this morning’s services, when our Social Justice Committee will facilitate an informal question-and-answer discussion with them.  Our partnership with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia is a critical part of our work for Reproductive Justice, part of our larger commitment to grow the Beloved Community that is fundamental to both Unitarian Universalist theology and identity.  When it comes to knowledge, access, advocacy and all of the ways we do this, may we be courageous in living our shared aspirations.

So may it be.

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Sky and Water, Land and Spirit

(I delivered this sermon for Earth Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 21st 2013.)Born with a Bang

Children’s Story: Born with a Bang: the Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story by Jennifer Morgan

Reading: from Song by Philemon Sturges

A few weeks ago I talked about someone I’d met through an organization called the Institute on Religion in an Age of SciencePhilemon had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the scientific creation story of the Universe, the Earth and Life as we know it.  As a successful children’s author, he’d accepted the challenge to write not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and to write it not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.

The working title of the book was Song, a metaphor for the creative processes of the cosmos itself.  This reading tells the portion of the story where an ancestral supernova created the heavy elements that would later form our solar system, our planet and ourselves.

Quite long ago, yet not so far
from here, there was a giant star.
Tiamat’s the perfect name
for that great sphere of searing flame.
Her balance-dancing did not last.
She ‘xploded with a thund’rous blast.
That roaring fiery furnace forged
new elements.  They were disgorged
into surrounding space, and then
were gracefully gathered back again.

Her stardust gyred and slowly spun;
soon gravity’s great work was done.
Though Tiamat was sorely riven,
her godlike gift of gold was given.

A mellow star was born — our Sun.
Of his [eight] planets there was one
that balance-danced ‘twixt heat and cold,
and there Song’s singing could unfold.

Air-wrapped Earth was bathed in water.
The circling Moon, Her clinging daughter,
stirred amniotic air and sea.
Soon gyring eddies came to be.

As Earth basked in the warming Sun,
Song’s birthing song was softly sung:

Gently turn, slowly spin,
my warmth transforms what errs within.
What once was simple now shall be
imbued with new complexity.

Then, in a still mysterious way,
near a vent, on crystal clay,
or on the edge of tidal sea,
emerged a new complexity.
Two mirrored molecules entwined.
Our Mother, Life, was born.
(And now, perhaps, Her daughter — Mind.)

Anthem: “Above the Moon, Earth Rises

Sermon: “Sky and Water, Land and Spirit”

When I was seven years I started at a new school.  At the back of the room where I had all of my classes other than art and music, there was a tall bookcase, crammed with books suitable for seven-year-olds.  The teacher told us that we were to choose one of the books, to read it as class-time allowed, and, when we were done with it, to select another and repeat.  All of the other children picked books like The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and The Hobbit.  I picked a book about the solar system.  And when I’d finished reading that one, I picked a book about atoms.

My teacher patiently explained to me that those weren’t really the books that she wanted me to read.  Eventually she succeeded in getting me to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — and I owe her my thanks for my enjoyment of reading ever since — but I have to admit that my interest in the science books wasn’t because of the science, at least at first, but because of the pictures in the books — gorgeous photographs of planets and galaxies, beautiful illustrations of particles too small to see — and they captured my imagination.  It was an incredible feeling to try to wrap my mind around the immensities of space and time, so far beyond anything I’d experienced in my barely begun life, or to think about how everything that I believed to be solid — books, chairs, my own body — was made up of these miniscule bits of matter that were actually mostly empty space.

And I guess there’s an important lesson for all of us, whether we’re teachers or not.  If you want to get somebody to do something, particularly if it involves thinking in a new way, and not just to do it but really to commit to doing it, you’ve got to capture their imagination.  Because after reading those books on planets and atoms, I was hooked.  I’d had an interest in mechanical devices and machinery, thanks to a few children’s television programs I’d seen as well as some of the toys my parents had given me, but now I didn’t just want to build the machines myself: I wanted to figure out how they worked.  I wanted to figure out how everything worked, how we could be part of the same Universe, from atoms up through planets and with us living our lives there in the middle.

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas
Click for more details.

Humanity’s understanding of the Universe has come a long way in my life-time, of course.  Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just a couple of years before I was born.  This picture was taken by Apollo 8 only a little before that, on Christmas Eve 1968, to be precise.  It has inspired a generation of would-be astronauts, as well as the words by preacher and poet Thomas Troeger that the choir sang a few minutes ago, and gave its name to the Fellowship’s Earth-centered spirituality group, EarthRising.  Then there’s the cosmic microwave background — the low level hum of energy that fills all space — that had been discovered earlier in the 1960s, a phenomenon that, as we have studied it, has revolutionized our knowledge about the Big Bang and the evolution of the Universe.

Fifty years later, we know more precisely than ever that the Universe is a little less than fourteen billion years old.  Much as we might be tempted to ask what happened before the Universe was created, that’s not a very meaningful question because time itself didn’t exist before then either.  There was no “before” before.  The metaphor that cosmologist Stephen Hawking gives is that asking what happened before time began is like asking what’s north of the north pole.

One idea about how the Universe was created is that there was an unstable fluctuation in what is known as the quantum vacuum.  To try to explain that, let me simply say that in quantum mechanics, what we might think of as nothingness is actually boiling with activity, with energy appearing and disappearing far too quickly for us to notice.  Only, 13.8 billion years ago, some of that energy didn’t disappear and instead blew up.  As described in this morning’s children’s story, the early Universe expanded and cooled down enough for some of that energy to turn into particles.  They were created with their anti-matter equivalents, which annihilated each other back into energy, but as the particle physicists who work at Jefferson Labs can tell us, there’s a very slight imbalance built into the laws of physics and so there was just a little matter left over.  That slight excess of matter, of course, is what everything that exists today — you, me, this building, this planet — is made from.

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe
Click for more details.

After a few hundred thousand years, the Universe was cool enough for atoms to form, mostly hydrogen with some helium.  Now this is a picture of the cosmic microwave background, a map of the whole sky that was completed just last year after nine years of gathering data.  It shows very slight irregularities in the distribution of energy in the very early Universe, as a result of which there were places where, even under the very weak pull of gravity between hydrogen atoms, those atoms could be gathered together and eventually form galaxies.

NASA: Pillars of Creation

NASA: Pillars of Creation
Click for more details.

In places where enough hydrogen could collect, of course, gravity squeezed the hydrogen atoms together until nuclear fusion took place, and stars were born.  This is a process that continues even today, in places such as the Eagle Nebula.  This picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; to give you an idea of the scale here, the column on the left is six or seven light years in length.  The Eagle Nebula, by the way, is about seven thousand light years away from us, which means that, given the finite speed of light, we’re actually seeing the nebula as it was seven thousand years ago in the past.

Now only a decade or two ago there was an idea that in our part of the galaxy there was once a very large star, much bigger than our Sun.  In the children’s story, this was called the Mother Star, while others have called it Tiamat, which in Babylonian mythology is the name of the primordial goddess who gives birth to the other gods.  The idea was that this star exploded and, as a supernova, produced carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron and other heavy elements that were scattered across space.  Given another billion years or so, enough of those elements, along with plenty of the original hydrogen that was still around, had condensed to form our solar system, with the Sun shining at its center.  More recently, astrophysicists have concluded that at least twenty such ancestral stars exploded, contributing the elements that made our solar system, so Tiamat was not a single star but a community of stars.

At the same time that we’ve been making these discoveries, astronomers have also discovered planets around other stars — and some of those other planets are about the same size as the Earth or are orbiting their star at just the right distance for liquid water to exist, which is generally believed to be one of the pre-conditions for life to emerge.  Those solar systems were similarly formed from the elements resulting from ancestral supernovas, so perhaps our solar system isn’t that unique, though we cannot say as yet whether any of those other planets have anything we’d recognize as life on them or not.

In any case, our planet, life as we know it and everything that makes us up was produced by dying stars.  As astronomer Carl Sagan and others have since put it, “We are made of star stuff.”  We all come from the same raw materials.  And we are alive today because, billions of years ago, those stars died.

Of course, once the Earth had formed and the bombardment of comets and other space debris had eased off, the story switches from cosmological evolution to biological evolution.  That’s a topic for a future sermon, but I want to note that it’s in biology that the principle of interdependence is particularly obvious.  After all, the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat are all parts of a vast system of cycles that, powered by sunlight and otherwise left to themselves, support life on this planet just as they have for millions of years.  Everything that makes us what we are was once somewhere else in and on the Earth, even as, billions of years before that, it came from a supernova.

Now there’s apparently a Serbian proverb that captures these ideas and suggests what we might do with them:  “Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble for you are made of stars.”  Actually I suspect that the Serbian word translated “earth” here more literally means “soil”, since I’ve seen another translation that says: “Be humble for you are made of dung.”  And there’s little that’s more humble than that.

Yes, we should all be uplifted to know that we are made of stars, but we need a good dose of humility, too.  It’s all too easy to look at the progression from energy to matter to life to consciousness, even to claim (and not metaphorically) that stars died so that we might live, and then to conclude that, well, the point of the whole thing was obviously to produce conscious beings as a way for the Universe to be aware of itself.  There’s even something called the Anthropic Principle that claims that the Universe must be the way it is in order for there to be intelligent life that is able to see that the Universe is the way it is.  But when we’re talking about conscious beings, of course, we know we’re really talking about human beings.  After all, wouldn’t we like to think that the whole point of the Big Bang and everything that happened in the fourteen billion years since was to produce us as the pinnacle not only of biological evolution but of cosmological evolution, too?  That seems awfully arrogant to me.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to be arrogant, to be conceited, to be unquestioningly sure of ourselves, than it is to be humble.  Humility takes courage.  Humility requires that we question ourselves, that we think about things beyond ourselves, that we think of ourselves not in the spotlight at the center of the cosmic stage but as part of an interdependent web where our true value comes from our relationships and not from our fantasies about self-reliance.  It takes courage to hear the scientific creation story of the Universe and embrace its implications for how we are to live on this Earth, how we are to treat one another, and how we are to treat the special planet that supports such diversity of life, not just ours.

For example, Carl Sagan pleaded with NASA during the 1980s to have the first Voyager spacecraft take a particular picture.  Voyager had swung past Saturn up and out of the plane of the solar system, and Sagan wanted it to glance homeward one last time.  It almost didn’t happen — a few project personnel claimed it wasn’t “science” and the project’s technicians were being laid off — but an administrator intervened just in time and so Voyager 1 took its photograph of the Earth — from a distance of more than four billion miles.

NASA: Pale Blue Dot

NASA: Pale Blue Dot
Click for more details.

You may have seen that photo.  Here it is, in fact.  Against an almost black background, a beam of sunlight, reflected off the spacecraft, slants across the picture.  As if suspended in the light, like a tiny bit of blue dust, is our planet.

Describing the photograph, Sagan wrote the following.

“That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Sagan continued.  “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

And Sagan concluded with this.  “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

We are all called to embrace this cosmic perspective, and to do so joyfully.  Our Earth, this pale blue dot that is our blue boat home, is small, but it is special and so very precious.  It is unique, so far as we know, and so are we.  For we are made of earth and should be humble, but along with the Earth we are also made of the noble stars.  Rather than being at odds with one another, though, the humility and the nobility go hand-in-hand, asking us not to look down on our world and one another in superiority but calling us instead to look up to creation in wonder.

The living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism 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.  For the fact of our interdependence is manifest in the Unitarian assertion that “We are all in this together.”  And our faith in a better future — in the only way that salvation can really work, which is in this life — is expressed by the Universalist assertion that “Together we shall be well.”  The scientific creation story of the Universe affirms that there is a unity that makes us one, but it is up to us, all of us, working together, to ensure that the future is hospitable to humanity.

We are called to honor the Earth and to honor one another, to care for our blue boat home and to nurture the irreplaceable spark of divinity within each of us.  May we strive to answer that call, now and always.

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Freedom from Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded his 1941 State of the Union address by describing four universal freedoms that, as the right of all people, justified American involvement in the Second World War.  When it came to the fourth freedom, “freedom from fear”, Roosevelt said more than he did for the first three freedoms — “freedom of speech and expression”, “freedom of worship” and “freedom from want” — making the case for U.S. military intervention in Europe as a means to the goal of “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

This is a dream that still awaits realization.  Universalizing Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms beyond the challenges of his time, though, freedom from fear continues to be the most critical of the Four Freedoms, something that we would do well to demand in our own time.  Enshrining freedom of speech and freedom of worship in the Constitution does little good if people are afraid to enjoy those freedoms.  Even freedom from want isn’t possible if people are afraid to grasp the opportunities and securities that are their rights as basic expectations of democracy.

That’s a point that has been part of the good news of Unitarian Universalism for a long time.  There are, for instance, a hundred or more references to freedom in our primary hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  There are even whole sections of both hymns and readings under the title of “freedom”!  There are many references to fear in that hymnal, too, but most of them are about overcoming fear, whether that’s through truth or love or service or fellowship.  And in the newer book, one of my favorite new hymns, Jason Shelton’s “The Fire of Commitment”, calls us “into faith set free from fear.”

In this, we Unitarian Universalists really are living the counter-culturalism we claim.  In some of my sermons I criticize the commercial media that, if it’s not trying to sucker us into buying stuff we don’t need, seems to thrive on making us afraid.  Actually those functions go hand-in-hand.  It’s almost laughable how often some so-called “news” segment on television concludes with an outrageous statement such as “Something in your kitchen could be killing you right now!”  Apparently the assumption is that you’ll sit through as many commercials as can be fit in before it is finally revealed that you probably shouldn’t drink dish soap.

Part of the Unitarian Universalist message of freedom, however, is that we don’t need to live in fear.  We don’t need to live in fear of hell or in fear of orthodoxy.  We don’t need to live in fear of the world around us or in fear of our own bodies.  We don’t need to live in fear of being judged for being ourselves or for having questions.  We don’t need to live in fear of not being perfect when perfection is an impossibility.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that the opposite of freedom isn’t captivity or imprisonment or regulation; no, the opposite of freedom is fear.  So to speak of “freedom from fear” is to be redundant.  To speak of “freedom of speech” also includes not being afraid to speak.  To speak of “freedom of religion” also includes not being afraid to think about and ask questions about religion.  To speak of “freedom from want” also includes not being afraid to demand that one of the priorities of the wealthiest nation on Earth be that everyone have access to the basic necessities of life.

As we go about our lives in a world that strives toward peace, liberty and justice like a seedling strives for the Sun, let us cultivate a faith that rises above fear, seeking the wisdom of our heritage and values, seeking the courage to free ourselves from the fear that closes doors, and resolving to offer the world a hope so keen that our souls may hear and our hearts may see.

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