Posts Tagged family

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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Finding Our Purpose

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 30th 2012.)

Kwanzaa was created, in the words of its creator, Dr. Karenga, as “an expression of the recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s.”  Celebrated as an African-American cultural holiday between December 26th and January 1st, it fits nicely with the other seasonal holidays that occur at this time of year, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations have a kinara with candles that they light just as they do an Advent wreath or a Hanukkah menorah or a miniature Yule log.

There is, of course, much more to Kwanzaa than lighting candles, just as is the case for those other holidays.  A table is to be set with a beautiful piece of African cloth, on which is placed a straw mat and the kinara as well as a bowl of fruits and vegetables, particularly those that are native to Africa.  Also on the mat are one ear of corn for each child in the family, a unity cup used to pour libation to the family’s ancestors, and other African art and books and heritage symbols, including gifts for the children.  There are ritual greetings and responses, and a big feast is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa which coincides with New Year’s Eve.  The seventh and final day, on New Year’s Day, is devoted to meditating on where we have come from and where we are going; it is, in Dr. Karenga’s words, a time for courageously asking the questions:  “Who am I?”  “Am I really who I say I am?”  “Am I all I ought to be?”

Now as Kwanzaa approaches its fiftieth anniversary, just about everybody in the United States has heard about the holiday.  If nothing else, the US Postal Service has been issuing Kwanzaa-themed stamps for fifteen years now.  There are, however, a number of myths about the holiday.  One of these I heard, not long after coming to the US, is that Kwanzaa was invented out of whole cloth, without any real historical basis or validity as a holiday.  Well, such a claim is obviously intended to question the legitimacy of this celebration of African-American culture, and it’s a claim that we as UUs ought to regard with suspicion, given that the same sort of thing is said about Unitarian Universalism, which technically came into existence in the 1960s, too.  Just as our faith has roots going back hundreds of years, however, Kwanzaa has roots in African traditions, particularly harvest celebrations known in ancient, classical and modern African cultures.

Three other myths about Kwanzaa are addressed by actress and producer Masequa Myers, in a series of videos she created on the traditions and customs of Kwanzaa.  The first myth is that Kwanzaa was created to replace Christmas.  This may have come out of the idea that Euro-American culture goes hand-in-hand with Christianity, which is unfortunately a common assumption even today, as shown by the unfounded arguments over President Obama’s religion and nationality.  Still, Dr. Karenga has clarified that Kwanzaa was not intended to be an alternative to Christmas, much less a replacement for it, and many Christian African-Americans celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas and, for that matter, New Year’s, too.

Myers’ second myth is related to this, namely that Kwanzaa is a religious holiday.  She responds to this one quite simply: “No, it is not.”  Though it has some of its roots in the religion of Yoruba, which provides some of Kwanzaa’s ethical positions, it is a non-religious holiday.  Or perhaps inter-faith would be a better word: Myers remembers with fondness a Kwanzaa celebration in Phoenix that was well attended by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Jews, because it’s a cultural holiday that cuts across all religions.

The third myth Myers addresses, then, is, the obvious one: that you have to be of African descent to celebrate Kwanzaa.  Well, looking at the annual messages that Dr. Karenga sends out, it is clearly a holiday lifting up African culture and traditions, particularly as it is remembered, reflected upon and recommitted to by African-Americans.  Myers makes the point, though, that not everyone who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day is Irish, not everyone who celebrates Cinco de Mayo is Mexican, not everyone who celebrates Chinese New Year is Chinese.  Myers concludes by noting that “Kwanzaa is based on seven principles that anyone from any walk of life, any race, ethnicity or religion can benefit from.”

Now, we can question what it means to celebrate these holidays, particularly in terms of being authentic and respectful as opposed to what little most of us actually know about them.  Drinking green beer doesn’t mean you’re actually observing the Feast Day of Saint Patrick any more than commemorating the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5th May 1862 is merely about having dinner at Taco Bell.  And, as I said, Kwanzaa is about much more than lighting black and red and green candles.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, for instance, are at one level, as Masequa Myers says, broad enough that anyone can benefit from studying them.  Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are universal values of communitarian ethics that parallel our own UU Seven Principles, for instance, as well as the Humanist Manifesto.  At another level, however, Dr. Karenga makes clear that each of Kwanzaa’s principles has a specific rôle in “building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community.”  When it comes to his description of the fifth principle, Nia or purpose, for instance, which is “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness”, Dr. Karenga’s use of “our community” and “our people” is clearly in reference to “the world African community” and “people of African descent”.

Now I know that studies of mitochondrial DNA that trace the maternal ancestry of modern humans show that we are all descendents of a single woman who lived, most likely in East Africa, around two-hundred-thousand years ago.  There were other women who were alive at the time, of course, but Mitochondrial Eve, as she has been nick-named, is the most recent ancestor from whom all humans living today are descended.  There was, similarly, a Y-chromosomal Adam, who probably also lived in Africa, though — in a blow to anyone who was itching to claim the Garden of Eden story was literally true — he was alive tens of thousands of years after Mitochondrial Eve was alive.  In any case, if you go back far enough in our family trees, we are all, in that sense, of African descent.

That, of course, is not at all relevant to the celebration of Kwanzaa, and to claim that we are all equally and identically entitled to the holiday is to cruelly discount many hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, exploitation and oppression committed against Africans and African-Americans by Europeans and Euro-Americans.  Since most of us here are in the latter ethnic group rather than the former, we cannot participate in Kwanzaa’s call to Nia in the way that it is intended for members of the world African community.  We can be allies, though, and make sure that we have our own sense of purpose than includes regard for the value of cultural diversity even as we strive to remember that we are all part of one larger human family.

And purpose, I think, is one of the critical aspects of our lives as individuals and as communities that gets taken for granted, or forgotten, or left behind.  It’s very easy, when struggling to keep up with our ever-growing “to do” lists, to forget why we even have those lists.  The phrase “rat race” has been part of our vernacular for at least fifty or sixty years, describing in particular the life of working for other people in stressful jobs to get enough money to buy things that we’re too stressed out to enjoy.  But that’s not living, and it’s the opposite of having a purpose, having a goal to achieve something meaningful.

Our society’s apparent sense of purposelessness may, in fact, be part of our fascination with the end of the world, whether that’s a religiously ordained judgment day or a zombie apocalypse, as I mentioned last week.  After all, if you believe the Rapture is coming, you now have a very clear purpose: to be ready for it and to make absolutely sure that you’re amongst the elect who will be taken up to heaven.  Or, if you prefer the idea of a plague of the living dead, your purpose is to stay alive while taking out as many zombies as possible; the advantage there is that you can quantify how well you’re achieving your purpose by keeping score, just like in a video game.

Now another part of our fascination with the end of the world, I believe, comes from our ability to try to make sense of the world by looking for patterns.  In fact, we’ve become so good at that, thanks to our evolutionary history, that we insist on looking for patterns, for order, when there is only randomness, whether that’s natural or the consequences of illness or selfishness or bloodymindedness.  Even if no order, no rhyme nor reason is apparent for given events in life, we convince ourselves that that’s just because we can’t see it, and so we come up with conspiracy theories.  And if we don’t seem to have much control over what’s going on, we tell one another, then surely the government or a secret society or space aliens or some supernatural power must actually be running the show.  The end of the world as a satisfying conclusion to that reality is one consequence of such thinking, but so is the idea that we need someone else or something else outside ourselves to tell us what our own purpose in life must be.

For as long as there have been beings with sufficient self-awareness to realize, first, that they exist and, second, that someday they won’t, they have been asking themselves questions such as, “What is the purpose of life?”  I’ve long thought that that’s not a very helpful question, and that if it has an answer, it’s something like “Our purpose in life is to figure out our purpose in life.”  I like that answer because it’s very deep while at the same time being very unhelpful.  I think we need to ask ourselves questions that might be more useful, questions such as: “Who are we?”  “Where do we come from?”  “What are we?”  “Are we really who we say we are?”  “Are we our best selves?”  We do need a sense of our own purpose as individuals, but we also need to figure that out for ourselves, based on who we think we are and who we want to be.

It’s a little easier to articulate purpose when it comes to free associations, communities that people intentionally create together.  After all, there must have been a reason for those people to come together in the first place.  Congregations are such free associations, and though we, here at the Fellowship, tend to lift up our congregational mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — most often, we also have a stated purpose, though it’s quite a bit more involved.  Here it is:

“The purpose of this Fellowship is to encourage religious tolerance and to support individual spiritual growth, further[ing] individual freedom, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relationships, brotherhood and sisterhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to the cause of a peaceful world community.  Relying upon reason and compassion as our guide, and giving freedom to our method, we seek to grow in understanding of ourselves and of our world, to promote and serve the Universal human family.”

Obviously there’s a lot in there to unpack.  Congregations are multi-faceted communities and as such can be involved in a lot of different things at the same time.  You might also have been wondering about some of the wording, particularly the phrase “discipleship to advancing truth”.  As it turns out, that language was contributed by A. Powell Davies, minister to All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington DC, as part of the effort to reform and reinvigorate the American Unitarian Association in the 1940s, and he proposed five principles that were common within Unitarianism at the time.

The first was “individual freedom of belief”, which has long been a hallmark of our faith.  It goes back at least as far as the 1568 Edict of Torda which was a decree of religious freedom issued by King John Sigismund Zapolya of Transylvania that, in part, legitimized Unitarianism in that country.  Then there’s that “discipleship to advancing truth”, which combines not only the idea that “revelation is not sealed” but also the idea that, as people of faith, we should continually update our own religious views based on the best understandings of the world around us and within us.  Davies’ third principle was “the democratic process in human relations”, recognizing that people should be free to determine their own fate, both in society and in congregations.  The fourth was “universal brotherhood [and sisterhood], undivided by nation, race or creed”, recognizing that we are all one human family, and the fifth, which follows directly from that, was “allegiance to the cause of a united world community.”

For me, this is where the rubber hits the road.  What we believe and how we arrive at those beliefs are all well and good, but it’s what we do with them that really matters.  Even how we govern ourselves and make decisions together is, while a reflection of our beliefs about the inherent worth of the individual, a means to another end, though I would note that our UU affirmation of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” means that we should fully support Kwanzaa’s second principle of Kujichagulia, the value of self-determination that those of African descent may “define [them]selves, name [them]selves, create for [them]selves and speak for [them]selves.”

The rubber hits the road when we affirm universal brotherhood and sisterhood, for we are all children of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromasomal Adam.  And yet, the fact that we are all part of one larger human family does not erase our differences, any more than I am the same person as my sister.  We have all come to our places in the world by different paths, not just as individuals but also as the groups that we call cultures, and we need to respect not only the different roots that feed those cultures but also the different branches that will flourish if only we nurture them.  A united, peaceful world community, then, will not be like a single cup that holds us all within its bowl; rather, it will be like a tree, growing in many directions and all of us as leaves growing from it.

The New Year seems like a good time to think about purpose.  It’s a good time to remember how we got to where we are now, to thank the people who made it possible for us to be here.  It’s a good time to reflect on our lives, to be thankful for our blessings, to evaluate how we are facing our challenges.  And it’s a good time to recommit to a brighter future, to declare our intent to bring good into the world.  As we light our candles to mark the promise of lengthening days and the turning of the year, let us remember, reflect upon and recommit to all that is good and beautiful.

So may it be.

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Multigenerational Worship

What did the mystic say to the hot dog vendor?
“Make me one with everything!”

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I attended church services of one sort or another.  As a young child I remember going to Sunday School — though I don’t remember much beyond crusty modeling clay and singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” a lot — but from time to time I also sat in services with my father.  During the week, at the schools I attended from kindergarten through high school, we’d begin each day with “assembly”, which was in large part a religious service that included hymns, Bible readings and prayers.  I was in every school choir and we would often sing anthems, too.  Morning assembly at my high school also included a sermon, usually by the school’s chaplains or sometimes guest speakers or even students; that’s where I was first in the pulpit, giving sermons on such topics as Albert Einstein and the Chernobyl disaster.

At some point, before reaching adolescence, I realized that many of theological specifics that were presented in those school assemblies simply didn’t mean a lot to me.  Lessons about treating other people with respect, sharing our gifts with one another, doing what we can to make the world a better place: sure, those made sense, and hearing them probably helped me to be a better person, too.  But there’s something about saying the Lord’s Prayer five times a week, ten months a year — and in “King James” English, no less — that soon emptied it of significance.

Nonetheless, I generally looked forward to morning assembly.  For one thing, I enjoyed singing, particularly, once my voice broke, singing hymn tunes in harmony with other voices.  Looking back, I’m also glad that it was part of my daily routine.  I was something of an unruly child and didn’t always treat other people nicely, so it was good for me to learn the self-discipline of sitting still and paying attention.  (That certainly came in handy during the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis when I found myself on screen for much of the Service of the Living Tradition, right behind the minister giving the sermon!)  It taught me the importance of what I would now describe in terms of the Third Principle — acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth — even, or perhaps especially, when another’s worldview didn’t align with my own.

For these reasons and more, I believe it’s important for children to experience worship with adults, to understand not just what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in theory, but in practice as well.  The first ten or fifteen minutes of our services are not just time to rush through so we adults can get to the “more important” parts, but offer real opportunities to show our living tradition to our children: sharing the significance of lighting the chalice, discovering what it means to raise voices together in song, and hearing a short story that celebrates life and our search for truths no matter our age.

Intentionally multigenerational services go one step further, from family-oriented rituals such as the Water Communion to services based around an extended story that is told or enacted by a variety of voices.  As was the case last year, my congregation is planning some of these story-based services, but we recognize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.  So, though we’ve recently extended the capabilities of our sound system and are working on making it more hearing-aid-friendly, and will take into account issues of visibility, only the second (11am) service will feature actors, while the first service (9:30am) will follow the traditional format with a sermon.  On such Sundays there will be no Religious Education classes: adults are then free to choose which service to attend, while children can stay with their parents so that families as a whole can participate in services together.

Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, I look forward to seeing you on Sunday!

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