Posts Tagged kindness

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.

Comments (2)

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.

Comments (2)

The End of the World?

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 23rd 2012.)

A couple of weeks ago this sermon was going to be very different.  I was going to begin by noting — with feigned amazement — that the world hadn’t ended.  The thirteenth b’ak’tun of the Mayan “long count” calendar had ended on December 20th and the fourteenth b’ak’tun had begun on December 21st, apparently without much in the way of cataclysm.  Rather, as Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies in Crystal River, Florida notes, to claim December 21st 2012 as doomsday is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.

I was going to continue by talking about our apparent fascination with the end of the world, and the popularity of predicting when it will take place.  One of the more publicized predictions in recent years was made by radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who predicted that Jesus would return to earth on May 21st 2011, with Judgment Day to follow after precisely five months of fire, brimstone and plagues had been visited on whoever hadn’t already been taken up bodily to heaven.  It’s easy for most of us to laugh about such things, though it’s sad that there were people so convinced of Camping’s prediction that they sold everything they owned in order to devote themselves and their families to being ready for the Rapture.

I was then going to talk about how the pseudo-Christian theology of the Rapture has become big business for some who have figured out how to make money out of it.  As Mary Luti, a minister in the United Church of Christ who now teaches at Andover Newton Theological School, criticized that business recently: “[T]here are the end-time movies.  And books.  And T-shirts.  And action figures.  Even a video game.  For only $39.95 and a little manual dexterity, you can join Christ’s well-armed angelic army on Judgment Day and mow down as many of God’s enemies as you can manage to locate through the thick smoke rising from the bodies of burning homosexuals and women who have had abortions.”  I’m taking Luti’s word for it that there is such a video game, by the way; I have no particular interest in finding out its name.

I was going to talk about how the Second Coming has been part of the culture of Christendom since the beginning of Christianity, though I remember from one of my seminary classes that, if you put Paul’s various books in most Biblical scholars’ best guess as to the order in which he (or his followers) wrote them, from his First Letter to the Thessalonians as the earliest to the letters to Timothy and Titus as the latest, you find that Paul goes from being wholly confident that Jesus will return any day now to instead advising his followers to be patient and to settle in for the long-haul.  So while faith in the Second Coming is a sincere — and not, I want to stress, a necessarily triumphalist —part of Christianity, and is, in fact, a valid part of the Christian practice of Advent, there’s a mutant strain of militant quasi-Christianity that has taken the idea way beyond anything reasonable, or, actually, anything Christian.  As the late and undeniably great homiletics professor and Disciples of Christ minister Fred Craddock once put it in one of his own moments of exasperation, “Maybe people are obsessed with the Second Coming because, deep down, they were really disappointed in the first one.”

I was going to talk about how the end of the world has caught on in secular circles, too.  After I’d mentioned this sermon to my grandmother-in-law when visiting her in Philadelphia at Thanksgiving, she sent me a clipping from the very next day’s newspaper about college classes being taught at Rutgers-Camden University, Temple and Penn State on such topics as “Media, Culture and the End of the World”.  Even the federal government found within our cultural obsession a clever opportunity to teach Americans about emergency preparedness, and my pre-sermon reading was going to be an article from Discover magazine about how “The Centers for Disease Control Has a Plan for the Zombie Apocalypse”.  You can check it out yourself: it’s on the CDC website, which offers a zombie blog, zombie posters and even a zombie graphic novel that, the CDC claims, “demonstrates the importance of being prepared in an entertaining way that people of all ages will enjoy”.  As United States Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Ali Khan explains, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will [also] be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.

And I was going to talk about how, while we’re so entranced with these various over-hyped scenarios for the end of the world — not to mention this absurdly self-inflicted calamity of the “fiscal cliff” that The Daily Show’s John Stewart dubbed “Cliffpocalypsemageddonacaust: Our Totally Solvable Budget Problem” — we’re completely failing to talk about very real disasters such as global climate change.  Some people, such as journalist Glenn Scherer and public commentator Bill Moyers, seem to blame that on the Christian right — “Why care about the Earth,” Scherer writes, for instance, “when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought [on] by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” — but it’s just as much about the ever-growing influence of special interest money in government as it is about the ability of the rest of us to distract ourselves with more manageable problems.

That, as I say, is what, up until ten days ago, I had in mind for this sermon.  That’s what I was planning to talk about before I heard the news about the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, before I heard about the literal massacre of twenty first-grade boys and girls as well as the six women who died protecting the children entrusted to their care.  After that, well, a whole sermon joking about the end of the world doesn’t seem so appropriate.

In the last week and a half, I’ve been trying, like most of you, to come to terms with what happened in Newtown.  It’s not a matter of trying to make sense of it, since I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of it.  That’s what “senseless” means.  There’s a natural desire to try to find out more about what happened, of course, something that the media is only too willing to feed, so it’s not surprising that some of what was said about the day’s events early on turned out, once actual facts were available, not to have been the case.  Still, in some ways I’ve actually developed a grudging respect for how some reporters have handled this.

I’m impressed with Anderson Cooper’s refusal to focus on the gunman, for instance, something that I believe he started doing in response to some of the pleas by the survivors and bereaved of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in July.  Instead, he’s been celebrating the lives of all those who died at Sandy Hook, whether six- or seven-year-olds or full grown adults, grieving for them, to be sure, but emphasizing the joy they experienced and brought to others during life, much as we UUs try to do when we hold memorial services.

And though I’ve often thought Piers Morgan to be a condescending ass — and, since I’m also British, I should know — I’m impressed with both the passion with which he’s challenged the facile claims of those who make and market guns and the compassion with which he’s spoken with the survivors of all too many shootings in recent years.  You can probably tell that Allison and I primarily watch CNN for news, at least when The Daily Show isn’t on, though we’ve done our best to remember the advice passed on by Joanne and others to turn off the television when the coverage starts to get too much.

But what to do with this mixture of sadness and rage that I know so many of us have been feeling?  How do we respond to something that is so awful that words fail us, that boggles the mind as to how anyone could ever commit such an atrocity?  How do we come to terms with the fact that this is just one example, albeit a particularly horrific one, of the violence that people do to one another on a daily basis in our society?  Well, I don’t have many good answers to those questions, but let me share with you a few things that are encouraging me right now.

A few weeks ago, I saw on Facebook a graphic that someone had made that included comments by Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, from his speech to this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly.  “And I would like to say,” he said, “that according to the Mayan calendar, the 21st of December marks the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood.  It is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism.  [It] marks the end of an anthropocentric life and the beginning of a biocentric life.  It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love.  […]  It is the end of sadness and the beginning of joy.  It is the end of division and the beginning of unity.”  Well, I don’t know if I believe that such things are going to happen all by themselves, any more than supernatural forces will bring about the end of the world, but to be fair it looks like President Morales did end this portion of his speech with an invitation to people everywhere to try to make this vision of a better, kinder, more joyful, more loving future a reality.

Then there are the words of the missing verse from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as it’s printed in our hymnal.  Yes, Edmund Sears actually wrote five verses, and for some reason his original verse four didn’t make it into Singing the Living Tradition.  Here’s that missing verse:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow:
look now!  For glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

Angels are a popular part of what might be called American folk culture, though perhaps they’re not as popular as zombies, and for all I know Sears didn’t literally mean that there’s a heavenly choir floating above the sky, but that doesn’t negate the importance of their good news: “Peace on Earth, to all good will.”  Again, that’s not something that I believe will happen all by itself, any more than I believe that those angels are just itching to come to Earth with swords aflame, ready to engage in a final battle with the armies of hell.

Rather, if we are prepared to believe that peace on Earth, that a turning from division and selfishness to joy and fellowship is possible, no matter how we might feel the crushing load of bad news, no matter how it seems that our efforts to overcome the status quo of entrenched power are painful and slow, then we might also be encouraged by Victoria Safford’s reminder that “we already possess all the gifts we need; we’ve already received our presents: ears to hear music, eyes to behold lights, hands to build true peace on Earth and to hold each other tight in love.

Now at some time you may have heard the question, “What would you do if you only had one day left to live?”  The intent, of course, is to find out what is most important to someone that that’s what they’d spend their time doing, rather than engaging in petty, meaningless things.  Perhaps a better question for our time, though, is the one that Joanne asked the children this morning: “What will we do with our ‘New World’?”  What if, rather than the world ending last week, we have, in effect, been given another chance?  What might we now do differently, to make the world better?  What could we do to help bring about peace on Earth and good will to and by all?

Well, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, there’s been a call to do more to help one another, not necessarily people in Newtown, Connecticut, but wherever we encounter each other.  One specific suggestion offered by Ann Curry of NBC News is to do twenty acts of kindness, in honor of the twenty children who were killed, while others have suggested twenty-six good deeds, to honor the adult victims, too.  Erin McHugh, whose book One Good Deed: 365 Days of Trying to Be Just a Little Bit Better was published earlier this year, offers some simple suggestions for what those acts of kindness might be: “a good deed is any situation where you can change someone’s life for the better, if only for a moment,” she writes.  “The simplest thing is to just give: a shoulder to lean on, time, sound advice, a helping hand, some pocket change — it doesn’t matter what,” she explains, “it just has to be from your heart.”  Perhaps more important than what to do, though, is her advice as to when to do it.  “Never, ever assume it’s too late,” McHugh says.  “When you find yourself hesitating about doing something — thinking ‘I missed my chance’ or ‘It won’t matter anymore’ — just plunge ahead.  A sincere good deed is timeless.”

Then there’s the inspiring story and work of Hannah Brencher.  Two years ago she was riding the subway in New York City, fresh out of college and feeling at a loss for what to do with her life, unable to come to grips with her place and purpose in this world, feeling alone in one of the most crowded places on Earth.  So she began writing letters — love letters, in fact — to the other people on the train, people she didn’t know but who seemed like they could do with the encouragement of knowing that someone, anyone, cared about them, even if anonymously.  Brencher started leaving her letters all over the city — on café tables, between books on library shelves, even slipped into people’s coat pockets — and as she blogged about what she was doing, she started receiving requests for her letters from all around the world.  In just nine months, she realized, she had written over four hundred love letters to people in need of reading them, and she found that they healed her, too.  “This journey has taught me so much in such a short amount of time,” Brencher explains.  “I’ve discovered that no matter how tough we act, we all still need a love letter from time to time.  That even in a world crammed tight into one-hundred-and-forty characters and constant status updates, there is still a great craving for the handwritten note.  But most of all,” she observes, “I learned with certainty that the world needs far more than just my own love letters.

Though the people of Newtown, Connecticut will soon have finished burying their dead, they will continue to face the task of healing their shattered community.  When the school year resumes next month, Sandy Hook Elementary will remain closed, the students going somewhere else for classes.  We can hope that the media will not forget them, that politicians will not forget them, that our nation has the courage to hold the hard conversations that we have been putting off — that we have been bullied into putting off — for far too long now.  But when the new year arrives, and the camera crews have left, and the people of Newtown try to adjust to what all too glibly is being called their “new normal”, I want them to know that we are thinking of them.

So I’m asking you, during the next few weeks, as we make our way through the holidays and into the new year, to write a note, a love letter to the people of Newtown.  It doesn’t need to be poetry.  It doesn’t need to be brilliantly eloquent or even more than a few sentences.  It just needs to be from your heart.  Seal it in an envelope and bring it here or give it to me sometime during the month of January, and I’ll send your notes to Newtown, to give them some encouragement as they face the future, as together we build a future in which such violence is merely a sad memory.

mailbox

Will you do that?  Will you write, by hand, a love letter, a unique note of thoughtfulness and encouragement, something from your heart to the people of Newtown?  Will you bring it here next month so that it can be sent with the other letters written by the people sitting around you?  Will you do that?

Thank you.  This is a beloved community.

Comments (5)

%d bloggers like this: