Posts Tagged truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So may it be.

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Harry Potter and the 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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Freedom from Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Jigsaw Puzzles of Our Souls

It’s no accident that my congregation’s mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — refers to “truths” in the plural.  Unitarian Universalists generally recognize that there are few things we can claim as being absolutely true in any completely objective sense, and so we embrace “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a valuable part of our religious endeavor.

Of course, we human beings like to be right.  We like to think we have the truth, that we can even refer to “truth” in the singular — or, worse, capitalize it.  We like to believe that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of convincing people, and if they won’t be convinced it’s only because they’re stupid and we just need to talk at them more loudly.  Oh, we know on an intellectual level that it’s possible to be wrong, but we’d much rather be right, even over the most apparently inconsequential things, and if needs be we’ll defend our rightness with words or fists… or bullets… or bombs.

There’s apparently no greater need to be right than when it comes to understanding the world around us.  Given my former life as a research scientist, though, I know that while a good discovery confirms something we thought was right, the better discovery is actually one where we realize we were wrong about something.  After all, experiments that failed to follow Newton’s ideas about absolute space and time led Einstein to his theories of relativity, while a couple of apparently minor problems in optics and thermodynamics led to quantum mechanics.  As Isaac Asimov put it:  “The most important phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

Now it’s not for nothing that most religions lift up humility as a virtue; at one time in ancient Greek society, hubris was considered the greatest crime someone could commit.  Journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that “the capacity to [be wrong] is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw,” she writes, “it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Of course, I’m not advocating willful ignorance or suggesting we avoid courage when it comes to our convictions.  But it seems to me that refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, to stick to our guns come hell or high water, to willfully deny the evidence that we’re wrong is to be no better than a child with his fingers in his ears chanting that he can’t hear.  In doing so we forget that it’s only when we’re wrong that we have a chance to become right, to seek out those small-‘t’ truths than can help us find wholeness and wisdom.

Maybe we can think of such truths as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — actually, as the pieces of lots of different puzzles, at least one for every human soul on the planet.  You never know where you might find one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your own soul, or who might have found it and kept it in their heart until the day they can pass it on to you — and on that day your own soul grows a little more into its own wholeness.

After all, we can learn a lot about ourselves from other people.  Versions of the Golden Rule are found throughout the world’s religious traditions, but here’s one from the ancient wisdom of Shinto that goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity:  “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”  What if we were truly able to see and hear ourselves reflected in the hearts of others?  Would we be so righteous about our rightness?  Or would we be open to seeing the holes in the jigsaw puzzles of our own souls and be more willing to seek out the missing pieces?  Wouldn’t we see ourselves as part of something so much larger?  Perhaps then we’d be ready to lift our hearts above the constraints of our own truths and be free.

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An Eclectic Approach to Scripture

Given the Unitarian Universalist commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” we have a suitably broad sense of what constitutes “scripture”.  In fact, you probably won’t hear the word itself too often, except in generic terms that include such texts as the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius.  We are open to finding truth and meaning, after all, not just in the scriptures of the world’s religious traditions, but also in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and the poems of Mary Oliver, in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction.  A Unitarian Universalist library, for that matter, is as likely to include Starhawk as Meister Eckhart, The Humanist Manifesto as The Feminist Ethic of Risk.  The word “eclectic” would be an understatement!

This diversity of wisdom and inspiration, of course, is reflected in the sermons you’ll hear on Sunday mornings in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Freedom of the pulpit is one of our basic values, allowing — indeed, encouraging — preaching that expresses personal and religious views and commitments without fear or favor.  That freedom extends, of course, to the choice of topic and readings, message and music, all of which are intended to work together to produce a Sunday service that is relevant, informative and uplifting.  But given such a wealth of possibilities, where does the preacher start in selecting each sermon’s topic?

Traditions that draw upon a single source of scripture often follow a “lectionary” or similar multi-year schedule of readings; sermons or homilies are then based on those readings, allowing the tradition’s stories to be told and retold and reinforcing the sense of community through shared identity.  For similar purposes, Unitarian Universalist congregations are increasingly turning to monthly themes to guide the planning and writing of sermons.  There is no specific list of readings through which to work — after all, how many years would be enough to get through everything at the UUA Bookstore, let alone the world’s literature? — but three or four services on a related topic allow us to engage in that free and responsible search for truth and meaning with a month-long conversation about some aspect of what it means to be human in a religious community.

Such monthly themes are often connected in an arc that takes some particular theological path during each church year.  As we travel together the paths of our lives, such themes can help us to co-create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, drawing upon every text, poem and song that offers us meaning and insight.

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